Posts Tagged ‘oulipo’

from my book kindle, Parameters


‘London sundays’

Snatches of summer in afternoon parks

are probably now as good as it gets.

Meeting beneath the clock that never works

then sloping off homewards as the sun sets


like boredom, wears on like a bad winter,

and which spreads through rooms like sunlight and dust.


First of all we are alerted by the tenses used here: it is ongoing event: we have the memory and its commentary; we have an easy use of language that is part colloquialism, part advertising parody (as good as it gets), (smells as good as coffee). We also have the reference to Benzedrine usage: maybe what we are to read here is ‘street’ i.e. a current demotic that indicates no-nonsense concerns, concrete imagery, and sometimes ornate language.

So, Love is… and what he gives us is nothing like the glorified magazine experience, but something a bit more down to earth, something, as he says not crazy, but something more comfortable without losing its magical ability: and which spreads through rooms….

The rhyme scheme is particularly interesting, rhyming ababcdcd; but all a’s and c’s are consonantal rhymes, whereas b’s and d’s are assonantal. This gives a good flow to the piece, the rhythm not held to pause and pivot on any particular word or sound. The last stanza’s c-rhyme, ‘rumour-winter’ just about links on the r.  As an English writer, compared with a Scots’ writer’s pronunciation, Welton’s ‘r’ is light; the feeling of euphony is increased by this suggestion of rhyme. Rhythmically both rhyming words click together nicely, their ‘feminine’ endings suggestive of similar degrees of certain moods.

We get the regular rhyme scheme, the regular rhythm, and a de rigueur yet non-insistent iambic pentameter.

We must also note the lower case of sundays in the title. Already this alerts us to a something not strictly regular. The lowercase opens up the week to allow in expansiveness.

– Poetry’s ‘street cred’ is a tricky affair: in Simon Armitage it is mostly in the truncated rhythms; in Paul Farley more choice of subject matter. Glyn Maxwell’s ‘street’ has elements in common, like any contemporary writer hoping to make the scene, with music styles: there are the methedrine-tight rhythms and micro-beats of his middle period. He sets up semantic expectations, what used to be called ‘subverting the cliché’, and then twists further.

“The two things I am most concerned with in my writing are…” writes Welton, “: making music out of the sounds of words, and exploring the meeting-points of tradition and experiment.”

When we come to the long ‘Book of Matthew’ poem itself, things get rather complicated. It is a series of variations on a basic structure; thirty-nine variations in fact, of six ‘classes’, divided unequally into ‘sections’, and into ‘divisions’ within sections.

Class one: Abstract relations

Section 1: Existence

The wind around the orange-tree

brings on the smell

of nutskins mixed with whisky

mixed with lemons or rain,

and carries through

the grasses where the flowers

in the sun redden a little





Section two: Relation

The wind around the orange-tree

brings on a smell

of caramel and kedgeree

or rubber or gum,

and carries through

the orchards where the flowers

in the sun gladden a little




: the language, parts of speech, producing stranger and stranger modes and sensual descriptions as the sections play out.


I am reminded by this enterprise of Inger Christensen’s Watersteps, which takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

One other common element to these two enterprises, besides strict mathematical gaming; a likeness for a continental weather setting, American, and/or greater-European; is a great value put upon sound, a euphonious quality to the poems.

Christensen has often been connected with the French Oulipo group. Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound.

And as I have demonstrated, both use a similar Oulipo approach. So, what do we have to positively connect Welton with Oulipo? We have this:

Dec 2008

‘A poetry event reflecting on the beauty and usefulness of mathematics, featuring Paul Fornel, French poet and member of the Oulipo Movement dedicated to the creation of Mathematical Poetry, Ross Sutherland, a specialist in computer-generated poetry, and Matthew Welton, whose poetry is admired for its structure and form.’

Ross Sutherland, member of Aisle 16, has recorded for Radio 1 a remarkable feat of a poem which uses only words consisting of the ‘o’ vowel, throughout the piece. If this reminds you of the George Perec novel, A Void (English title: and do not miss the pun), which in French completely avoids using the letter ’e’ in all words, then you’re on the right track. This usage also has particular meaning within the novel.

Oulipo is all about constraint:

Oulipo, the “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle” or “Workshop for Potential Literature,” was co-founded in Paris the early 1960’s by mathematician and writer Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Oulipian writers impose constraints that must be satisfied to complete a text, constraints ranging across all levels of composition, from elements of plot or structure down to rules regarding letters. Oulipo thus pushes a structuralist conception of language to a level of mathematical precision; technique becomes technical when language itself becomes a field of investigation, a  complex system made up of a finite number of components. The informing idea behind this work is that constraints engender creativity: textual constraints challenge and thereby free the imagination of the writer, and force a linguistic system and/or literary genre out of its habitual mode of functioning…

One of the many listed Oulipo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story.

You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved.

Oulipo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One Oulipo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Other successful texts include:

Queneau’s Cent Mille Millard de Poemes, a sonnet where there are 10 possible choices for each of the 14 lines, thus comprising 1014 potential poems….

Another possible equivalent experiment to ‘The Book of Matthew’ is Douglas Hofstadter’s book, La Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997), which takes us through multiple translations of a single sixteenth century French poem, with greatly diverse results. How Oulipo is Hofstadter?

Another experiment in constraint used by Oulipo members is that of…


‘the S+7 method, where each substantive or noun in a given text, such as a poem, is systematically replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary.’

We enter the field of hermeneutics here, I think; and code-making.

Welton has said in interview:

As a reader and a writer I am always looking for stuff I haven’t come across before….

And, more importantly:

I’m far less interested in a prescriptive idea of teaching how to write – teaching dialogue or genre or form. I’m more interested that they come to terms with the relationship between their working processes and themselves.”


From this I think it is safe to assume we will not find Welton a paid-up member of Oulipo either.

So, how Oulipo is Glyn Maxwell, with his constraint in avoiding the regular placing of the main verb and definite article, in the poems of Out of the Rain, (1994)? We may also consider Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches (1993) where the constraint is one of time: the time it takes for a match to burn down is the time it takes to read the poem.

I think we have established now that many writers dabble with Oulipo techniques sometimes without knowing, and without becoming bona fide members.

Welton’s own playfulness brings in a deliberately skewed take-off of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market:

Vodka she likes. Whisky also. And plums. And limes

And lemon-peel. Fried fruit. Dry beans. Deep soup. Warm


                        from ‘This is Delicious to Say’.


There are also distinct echoes of Wallace Stevens.

The gorgeousness of colour and sensual delight has a Modernist painterly feel; there is a Patrick Caulfield quality: almost like reading a John Stammers book cover. Having mentioned Stammers, let it be said both writers share a similar aesthetic of fine rhetorical flow, and where rhythmic, euphonic values, seem to take priority.

Overall this book has a disorienting effect, its sets up phrases, descriptions, and delivers something else; something slidey, shiny, scintillating.


As we work through the ‘Book of Matthew’ piece, we get finer and finer distinctions of smells, or of smell-possibilities. This emphasis on smell, as well as the clear colour palette, adds up to the bright modernist painterly feel previously mentioned.

But do we? Is it not rather a purely textual piece: the smell distinctions as listings; the possibilities of smells as multiplying phonemes? Does this account for the giddiness we feel on reading the book as a whole? A rootlessness of meaning. The significance is intact in the tight structure; this gives us a sense of equivalents that are more textual than semantic.

What does the ‘Book of Matthew’ tell us about our lives, our world, our here-and-now? Need it tell us anything? All meaning is implicit in the act of using language, of evaluating appearance; in the phenomenology of our lives in the world.

Does it earn our trust? Do we go with it as a true record? What are its underlying discoveries/apprehensions? Trust, true-record, underlying discoveries: at what point did the commentator think these became relevant, a way in? The answer is, Afterwards, after reading. There is the poem, and there is the afterwards: there is the anticipation when approaching the poem, and there is the buzzing traffic of the mind afterwards.

For some writers, Ron Silliman perhaps, it is maybe their intention to meld anticipation, and the traffic, into the moment of the poem so there is only the poem: see Silliman’s Alphabet.

Maxwell in Time’s Fool (2002), has gone on to attempting the verse-novel (another nod to Browning perhaps?), and Sugar Mile (2005), a narrative for voices.

Christensen’s Butterfly Valley: Requiem  (2003): a series of fifteen conventional sonnets front further wonderful experiments in form.

And Welton?

… I will be publishing a new book with Landfill.

His recent book is We Need Coffee But, with Carcanet.

He has also published a number of chapbooks.

Inger Christensen’s book-length poem Alphabet was published in Denmark 1981; it was an instant hit. It was published by Bloodaxe Books in England in 2000, translated by Susanna Nied.
Susanna Nied’s prize-winning translations of the works of Christensen have been duly recognised as the best in their field.
Christensen has long had a large and loyal German readership; they put her forward for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Inger Christensen died in 2009.

Excerpts from Alphabet have become the main source of large displays of public art in Denmark.

There are many more types of poetic expression than the personal lyric. The lyric has become predominant at the present time because of political and ideological factors: we look to the self as the source and sole repository of values; we value personal experience as the only trustable source of knowledge of the world.

The idea and ideal of community has been tugged from beneath us; likewise the ideal of a sense of futurity, of progress, to be replaced by an all-encompassing political climate where our lives seem wholly regulated by bodies of authority. Lecturer Peter Middleton quotes Julia Kristeva to effect here: “… capitalism has isolated us, in ‘islands of discourse’.” (i.e. from John Donne’s “No man (one) is an island” to the Thatcherite statement that there is no such thing as society. We may hate it as it is, but we do have to deal with it).
And who knows how to deal with David’s Cameron’s Big Society notion, at one point broken – a toy? a piece of machinery? – at another, the country as a private business in need of saving (- from everyone else?).

Christensen mostly used the playful, highly mathematical writing experiments of the French experimental OuLiPo group.
Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound. OuLiPo was a movement originally based around the writer Raymond Queneau, and incorporated George Perec (Life: A User’s Manual, and A Void, a novel that, when written in French only used words that do not contain the letter ‘e’). Queneau was a mathematician, and so the group tended to use highly complex mathematical structures for their writing.

One of the many listed OuLiPo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story. You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved. OuLiPo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One OuLiPo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Christensen’s Watersteps (2001) takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things sequence of four lots of twelve poems, each of twelve lines in length, also points to a possible OuLiPo construction. Why twelve? Is twelve an expression of completion? We have to ask these things, because they have an intended significance.
Most recently we now have poems created upon use of the mathematical concept of pi called Pilish – or “piems” – where the number of letters of successive words is determined by pi.

The Fibonacci mathematical system was ideal for OuLiPo purposes. The Fibonacci sequence runs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. The implications of this system, first devised by a Cardinal soon to be Pope, are astounding, both for mathematics, and physics.

In Alphabet the repeated phrase of paragraph 1:
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
mirrors the first two numbers of Fibonacci – 1 and 1. The system begins with 1 repeated, and so here the phrase is
similarly repeated. It is also a numerical device of implication; where 1 is a prime number; it is also the main focus of a network of negative and positive numerical sequences, of decimals and fractions: 1 is never 1, it is the consequence of its positioning, and it is that that is evoked here. The reiteration of the clause emphases 1’s position in the matrix of math. As in the Fibonacci sequence we do not begin with 1 but with 0, in effect on the blank page preceding.

We are also required to read here that apricot stones carry a poisonous pit. As we begin with the beginning: A, and a new myth of creation, we are also required to read here that within the first creation is the means of its end. Or maybe not so equivalent: maybe, just that a degree of toxicity is necessary for life. And also, that, like the mark of Cain, is a part of creation from the very beginning.

By combining number with alphabet, Christensen is taking us back to the earliest use of languages, Sumerian, Attic Greek, but with a more modern twist.

With paragraph 2 we have:
bracken exists; and blackberries,blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen.

Already on a linguistic level we have an incantatory pattern forming. On the chemical level we now have bromine and hydrogen. Bromine, like hydrogen, is potentially lethal. As, indeed, are the seeds of bracken. This new pastoral suggestion now allows us a reading that suggests an early, a volatile, Precambrian period in our scientific creation myth. We now have three levels of reading: of the text, of chemistry, and botany. If we accept the time scale, four levels: botany, chemistry, textual, and time.

As a reviewer notes: “The useless abundance of bracken, succulent berries — and corrosive bromide: the unbalanced mix all around us. Hydrogen seems, here, almost safe, but the “bomb” suffix is not long in coming.”
Alphabet was written during the 1970s, a period that lived under and reacted to, above all else, the possibility of immanent nuclear war, the hydrogen bomb.

With 3/C we get:
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

The levels expand: arboriculture, botany, chemistry, entomology, physiology: from basic classifications, to subclassifications. We move from Platonic forms, through Aristotelian classification, to our modern forms of knowledge. And zeroing in from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the external world to the brain’s inner world, as source and site of knowledge, intelligence: self consciousness as the self’s consciousness.

Following the Fibonacci/alphabetical systems through the book we arrive at N, with six hundred and ten lines. Mathematically ‘n’ can be any number.

So far in the poem sequence, we have moved from basic forms to gradually emerge into a world of killing, the hydrogen bomb, pain. It must be remembered that mathematics is the vehicle of proof for the sciences. And the sciences, as amply illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance work on armaments, capable of application to many and varied fields of human activity both peaceful and not.

With 5-E (eight lines) we also get, delightfully (I am sure I don’t need to point out here that in the Danish the predominant consonant is E, which also ushers in a dominant alliterating pattern):

early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms, junipers, soreness, loneliness
eider ducks; spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future.

With 13-M and 14-N we arrive at actual times, with dates:
morning June twentieth……..evening June
sixteenth….morning June twenty-sixth.

To get here we travel through excerpts from lives, suggestions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and:

in mid-November, a season
when all human dreams are the same,
a uniform, blotted out history
like that of a sun-dried stone

a couple of mute parents stand there,
a dog, and some children run around,
an arrival they try to imagine
as water that’s raised to my mouth

I lay sleeping inside my hotel room;
:from ‘12/L’

These are the stories we have inside ourselves we cannot always make sense of, but continue to pick over in our isolated moments.

‘13/M’ begins with:

metal, the ore in the mountains, exists
and then explores the hidden or covered things:
darkness in mine shafts, milk not let down
from mothers’ breasts, an ingrown dread where

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
the cells’ oldest, fondest collusion

consider this market, consider this import
and export of fathers, half bullies
half tortured soldiers, consider…..


layered light, as if behind
layers in a fresco the snow
on the mountains, its shapes……..

13 also replicates the Fibonacci numbering in stanza lengths. We have five, eight, then thirteen line stanzas, and then followed by new sets. The interweaving of themes and items from earlier sections tie-in here; we once again come across bromine, but applied differently, and apricot trees: their applications multiply and evoke moments from a life, from an ideal of living. The fabric grows wonderfully rich and rewarding, full of complex patternings.

Where the lyric concentrates images, their reverberations, networks of associations, within as small a compass as possible, Christensen, especially in her earlier work It – of which Alphabet is in some ways an admitted response – schematises rather than concentrates. Structurally it is very strictly arranged into three sections whose line count is, in the original, very tightly controlled: each line of Prologos has sixty-six characters in the original; Prologos has eight sections.

The body of the book, Logos, consists of three sections: Stage, Action, Text each of which has eight sub-sections: symmetries/ transitivities/ continuities/ connectivities/ variabilities/ extensions/ integrities/ universalities.

These subsections “attempt to analyse and categorise the words that language’s use to show relationship… as applying to the network of relationships… writing builds up as it goes along “ ( Ann Carson, from Introduction). All this in no way lessens the effectiveness of expression, but allows the playout of implications to be fully explicit. The intent of It is to be a ‘philosophical and political exploration of the nature of language, perception, and reality.’

If there is a reference in this work to The Book of the It, a precursor to Freudian psychoanalytical explorations, by George Groddeck, I suspect it has been subsumed and overridden early on.

It must be noted that the Fibonacci system deals also with the proof of the Golden Mean.
Christensen exhibited a growing concern with ecological matters, as evident in her Butterfly Valley: Requiem. This sequence is a series of conventional sonnets, the last line acting as the opening line of the following sonnet in traditional style. The last sonnet of the sequence, sonnet fifteen, consists of all opening/closing lines. This sequence perhaps represents her approach to that Golden Mean.

Charles Lock and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, in their Guardian obituary notice, noted of Butterfly Valley: Requiem ‘the division of… 14 lines having been recognised in the Renaissance as akin to “the golden ratio”.

Can we read Christensen’s major works as working towards this great ideal, this universal; of the possibility of the concept of ultimate meaning in all the apparent randomness of the world?

Are the images Christensen uses purely random? And do we mean by that ‘mathematically random’? Is it random in the way that creation appears to be random? Is there such a thing as random? All these questions are implied by the system she uses. She requires a response from the reader: for her writing is part of a two-way process.

We may have lost all sense of security, safety; Inger Christensen here posits the possibility of a higher sense of stability, of a grand working towards/unravelling of, a nontheistic scheme of things of which we are all a part of; in effect, where we are perhaps the instruments of the process.