Tuesday, 1 December 2009

There are plenty of examples of writers who’ve produced great stuff by imposing restrictions on themselves. Beckett wrote in French to stop himself giving in to his facility with English. The French classical dramatists interpreted the ‘rules’ of Aristotle very tightly and had to write in Alexandrines and stick to the 3 unities. But their constraints were easy to cope with compared with the things the members of a group called Oulipo do. I’d vaguely heard about them before but they were featured in a recent BBC podcast and I was amazed to hear the sort of difficulties they create to make the writing process even trickier.

The name comes from a French expression meaning ‘workshop for potential literature’. (It could only be French, couldn’t it?) The group’s been going for fifty years and you can only join if you’re invited to. If you ask to become a member, that guarantees that you never will. Mind you, when you hear the sort of constraints they impose on themselves, you probably decide a visit to the supermarket or a few hours spent staring at a wall would be a better way to spend your time.

I’d heard of Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which doesn’t have the letter ‘e’ in it. What I didn’t know was that it had been translated into English by Gilbert Adair (again with no ‘e’s). He then used all those ‘e’s that he’d ‘saved’ to write a novella called Les Revenentes which uses ‘e’ but no other vowels. A Canadian poet, Christian Bök, was interviewed on the programme and he’d written a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters. Michel Thaler wrote a novel with no verbs in it. And so it goes on. One poet, whose name I’ve forgotten, wrote a book of ten sonnets whose pages were cut in such a way that you can create any 14-line sequence you like out of them. To see what he meant, imagine those kids’ books which have a head, body and legs on 3 separate segments of the page so that you can create different combinations by matching the different heads, bodies and feet. The mathematical permutations when you have 10 poems of 14 lines each are such that it’s effectively a book you can never finish reading.

The theory is that this triggers ideas, inspiration, and forces you to ‘think outside the box’ (apologies for such a gross cliché). But, apart from it being an entertaining sort of game to play for one’s own amusement or a way of saying to the world ‘Look how clever I am’, it’s hard to warm to the idea. I think imposing restrictions is valuable. I used to get students to remove all the adjectives and adverbs from a piece to show them how it affects the narrative tone and pace and, indeed, changes meanings, but these arbitrary and very severe restrictions seem to work against full creativity. You may produce something which obeys all the rules but I can’t help but think that, in doing so, you must surely have had to discard insights and images that would have added to the message you were conveying. It’s form taking precedence over meaning , and the two shouldn’t (and can’t, in my book) be separated.

The one exception I’ve found to that in my own experience is the Fibonacci poem. I’m not a poet and I’m not sure I understand much of the contemporary poetry I read but there’s a beauty and mysterious naturalness about ‘Fibs’, as their devotees call them, which is very beguiling. They’re based on the Fibonacci sequence (which is the thing behind the arrangement of sunflower seeds, the whirl on a snail’s shell, etc.) The sequence of numbers is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Each number is the sum of the previous two. The poems consist of a first and second line with one syllable each, the third then has two, the fourth three and so on. A silly example would be:

Exist in my feet.
They are too far from my ego.


My ego’s safe inside my skull
Far from treading feet.
Held in my

You can write as many lines as you like and even reverse the sequence, which creates interesting shapes on the page too. Mind you, as the final example shows, it can draw you into pretentiousness. I wrote this to try to exploit those shapes. It’s even called Natural Cycle. (Remember, I said I’m NOT a poet.)

Traffic congests and
Planes and trains and automobiles
And all the cacophonic crush of city living
Build to the midday madness, the clamour for success.
The energy drives down the sun
Until the evening

Stirs itself,
And through the darkness
Songs and screams and cries for mercy
And all the lust and hate and buried barbarism
Herald the bleak survival of visceral defeat.
Oblivion crawls through the blood,
The passions falter,
And the sun

I’m certainly not exposing these efforts to suggest any talent on my part but rather to encourage you to have a go. Not necessarily with a view to publication, or even for others to read, but to see and feel how having to work to strict rules can also be liberating.

But, to finish, another example of an Oulipo-type product. One of their techniques is called n+7. It involves replacing each noun in a text by the noun which comes 7 places after it in the dictionary. The programme had one about the Creation which ended with God saying ‘Let there be limit’, which I rather liked. So I’ve just recast perhaps the most famous opening novel sentence as follows: It is a tube universally acknowledged, that a single mandala in possession of a good founder, must be in want of a wildebeest.


  1. This stuff is way too clever for me on tuesday afternoon in the office. :)) But fascinating, as always.

  2. Not at all, Scary. Transport yourself away by trying a Fib poem. They're fun. Get everyone in the office to drop what they're doing and try, too. (Can you guess that it's a long time since I had to do any real work?)

  3. Bill! You certainly ARE a poet. That's beautiful. Another good hunk picture, lol. I'll have to give that a try.

    BTW how's your team doing the last couple of weeks. Mine showed their stuff last night. Are they good or what? The Saints. Of course.

  4. Jings you are an intelligent fella - and I would venture, someone with the touch of a poet about them. I really liked your poems - the style as an interesting impact on the words as you read them. Let's have a sonnet by Saturday?

  5. Scary stuff. I like the Fibonacci poems, and odd styles are fun in small doses, but a whole novel without the letter e?

  6. Thanks all.

    Martie, your taste in hunks is ... interesting. As for my team, the way they're playing this season, I'd be grateful if we confined our discussions to hunks, poems, even shopping - anything but soccer. But I'm glad the Saints are doing well.

    Michael, I'm flattered that someone with your pedigree should award me the 'touch of a poet' tag. But be careful what you wish for. I have written sonnets in the past and have got a cheerily bleak one that might be a good antidote to Xmas.

    Sheila, the thing I didn't say about the novel without an 'e' is that, in French, when you say 'without an e' - 'sans e' - it sounds exactly the same as 'sans eux', which means, 'without them' and 'them' can mean anything or anyone. I think I'll stick to being trivial and refusing to take things seriously.

  7. Lennon & McCartney used to set themselves deliberate challenges like this too. Blackbird was written to prove you can have decent guitar music that only needs two fingers on your left hand.

  8. I've read lots about the Beatles but that's a new one. Thanks Gary.

    And you'll know, too, that the great Django Reinhart played all his solos using just two fingers - not from choice, of course, but because the other two were partly paralysed after a fire. Ever tried playing like him? It sounds as if he uses twelve fingers, not just two.