In the words of Raymond Queneau, Oulipo’s cofounder, Oulipians are "Rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape." Even if you’ve never heard of Oulipo, if you’ve written something beside e-mails, then you probably know what this metaphor means. You have an idea in your head, you start putting it down on the page, and as you go along you realize that it simply keeps getting muddier, to the point that you forget what you thought you wanted to say in the first place. Every word that you jot down brings to mind an onslaught of other words and ideas that lead you further and further away from your original intention. If you allow yourself to go wherever these associations take you, then you are practicing what the Surrealists referred to as "automatic writing". If you think that you’d be cheating by considering the results as a poem, for instance, because the writing wasn’t thought out or transformative enough, then you’d be closer to the spirit of the Oulipo.
The connection between the two literary movements is not arbitrary; Queneau had been a Surrealist but defected from its ranks in the 1930s after a rift with André Breton. The motto of the movement he founded with mathematician Francois Le Lionnais in Paris in 1960—which would eventually be called the Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle (hence the acronym OuLiPo)—was "the only literature is voluntary writing." They were responding to the limitations of what they considered "eructative" or "shriek" writing, which, in their opinion, lacked literary merit, and of "experimental" writing that was conducted without scientific rigor.
The concerns of the original members of the Oulipo were, at least, two-fold: on the one hand they wanted to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making. The paramount example of this type of text is Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes, which contains ten sonnets whose lines can be detached and permutated in one hundred thousand billion ways (10 to the 14th power). Astoundingly, Queneau ensured that no possible combination of lines would break the rhyme scheme and that any given resulting sonnet would be grammatically correct. He estimated that no single person would be able to read all the potentially possible sonnets and even devised a reading machine that would facilitate one’s handling of the piece.
Oulipians also wanted to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities. As Queneau wrote in the 1963 essay "Potential Literature," their objective was, "To propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity." The more popular procedures involve following numerical, alphabetical, graphic, and prosodic constraints, which can always be combined and recombined to generate an infinite array of new forms. Thanks to the Oulipo, poets with writers’ block can explore lipograms, perverbs, antonymic translations, homophonic translations, spoonerisms, centos, heterograms, pangrams, and a myriad of other forms instead of agonizing over the blank page. They can even treat preexisting texts by subjecting them to operations, such as the ubiquitous N+7, which consists of replacing each noun in a text with the seventh following it in a given dictionary.
If it’s true that a lot of these procedures were not coined by Oulipians and some even hark back to Antiquity, the Oulipo must be given credit for rescuing them from literary oblivion and adding more forms to the tradition. A book like the Oulipo Compendium, published in 1998, has made language play seem accessible to anyone willing to try their hand at the different forms and procedures it features, or at inventing new ones. Predictably, this rather hands-on approach to writing is exactly what many writers dislike about the Oulipo. In this age of MFAs, Oulipians could seem like the "anticipatory plagiarists"—their term for forerunners—of creative writing exercises that tend to generate monotonous work with a limited post-workshop lifespan. Yet other more esoteric approaches to writing might have equal, if not worse, fates.
Where can poetry go when the language of emotions has been taken over by the media and the corporate world, and a catchy phrase like "Your life is waiting" can appear on a TV commercial for antidepressants? Whatever its detractors might think, the Oulipo’s radical formalism has promoted literature with quite a few much-needed qualities: first off, its constraints tend to keep psychobabble out of the picture. It tends to be humorous and less concerned with what is said than with how it is said. Besides, its composition raises relevant questions about formal issues, literary conventions, and the value of artifice. Is there anything intrinsically meaningful about, say, the sonnet? As with any other artificial literary structure, the sonnet was merely one among many until the form's endurance and popularity invested it with its current aura. A different approach to the writing process and a search for fresh forms that might have more resonance for us today can only enrich the current landscape, as two of the best poetry books in recent years already have, using Oulipian constraints: Sleeping with the Dictionary, by Harryette Mullen, and Christian Bök’s Eunoia (the title is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels and means "beautiful thinking").
To this reader, the best works of art result from the happy marriage between the will towards form and that other elusive component, call it the intangible, the ecstatic, depth, or meaning itself. Blame it on my Catholic upbringing or on a Baroque sensibility: the more difficult the task, the better it feels to achieve it. Or put differently, the more intricate the labyrinth, the happier the rat who escapes from it.
Note: You can read François Le Lionnais First and Second Manifesto, as well as other key essays by Oulipians including Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec, in Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, translated and edited by Warren F. Motte (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998). The most complete handbook on Oulipian forms and procedures in English is the Oulipo Compendium, compiled by Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie (Atlas Press, 1998).