A review of Oulipo Compendium by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, editors

Consider for a moment, though, how it (or any other constraint, for that matter) works. It places a restriction on the expressions and phrases that can be used in a poem, and it determines to some extent what the poet is able to say. It makes the process of writing both more difficult – by short circuiting habitual modes of self expression – and, paradoxical as it may seem, easier: certain decisions have already been made for the writer.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Oulipo Compendium
Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, editors
Revised and Updated Edition
Atlas Press, November 2005
Paperback: 336 pages, Nov 2005, ISBN: 1900565188

Oulipo Compendium (like the punk rock band that has Pete Shelley as its front man, the book’s title has no definite article), originally published in 1998 and now revised and updated, is a comprehensive guide to the Oulipo (the Ouvroir de litterature potentielle or “Workshop for Potential Literature”) and its subsidiary groups. Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the Oulipo includes among its members such significant writers as Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Julio Cortazar, Jacques Roubaud and Harry Mathews. And it is no coincidence that these are all writers who (not unlike Queneau himself) take a decidedly ludic approach to literary creation.

The Compendium is set out rather like an encyclopedia: there are a number of sections and their entries are arranged alphabetically. The main section is devoted to the Oulipo itself, with other sections being concerned with the group’s various offshoots. The Oulipopo (a group concerned with crime fiction) has a section devoted to it, as has the Oupeinpo (a group of artists). A final section includes diverse other groups that take as their creative province graphic novels, architecture and music, etc.

The Oulipo section of the book includes entries on the group’s members and its precursory creators or “anticipatory plagiarists” (such as Lewis Carroll and Raymond Roussel), key Oulipian works (La disparition or A Void, Perec’s novel written without using the letter “e”, being perhaps the most famous of these) and topics of key importance to the group (e.g. entries on the graphic representation of text and animal languages). The minutes of some Oulipo meetings are included too. And, perhaps of greatest interest, there are substantial discussions of the constraints (or restrictive procedures) and mathematical artifacts that the Oulipo have made use of or have devised. These discussions are at the heart of the book and are, for me, the best thing in it; each constraint is clearly defined, with at least one example of it being given.
One such constraint, touched on in passing above, is the lipogram: a piece of writing that intentionally excludes a particular letter of the alphabet. It is, according to Georges Perec, “the oldest systematic artifice of western literature”. Another constraint, and one that especially appealed to me (I come from a nation of dog lovers), is called “Poems for Dogs” and it involves writing a poem “that incorporates a dog’s name in such a way that it remains hidden from the human eye but audible to the canine ear.” Perhaps an extended explanation may make clear the Oulipo’s whole approach to literary creation; and why one might want to write using constraints.

Imagine that you are sat on a park bench, with your dog at your feet. A stranger approaches you and asks, “Where are the shops?” or some such nonsense. Since you are polite and a veritable prince among men, you wave in some general direction and say, “They’re over there.” And curiously you notice that your dog has sat up and is all ears. Later, you realise that your dog had heard her own name (your dog is called Rover, by the way) when you spoke the words “are over” to the stranger; this was the reason for her sudden and unexpected interest.

Not many of us would see the germ of a method in an experience such as this, but the poet François Caradec did. This constraint (or restrictive procedure) of his own devising does more than extend considerably the potential audience for modern poetry. The ideal goal here would be to read a poem expressing love and adoration to your dog in such a way that, when the dog responds to its spoken name, naive observers will believe that the animal is touched and moved by your deeply felt sentiment. (This constraint can also, incidentally, be extended to prose. So one might write an eulogy to Manchester United’s treble-winning side, hiding within the text the surnames of all the players that were in the squad during that glorious season.)

Like many of the constraints on literary creation included in Oulipo Compendium, the idea behind “Poems for Dogs” has a certain playful charm but also a seeming craziness. Consider for a moment, though, how it (or any other constraint, for that matter) works. It places a restriction on the expressions and phrases that can be used in a poem, and it determines to some extent what the poet is able to say. It makes the process of writing both more difficult – by short circuiting habitual modes of self expression – and, paradoxical as it may seem, easier: certain decisions have already been made for the writer. A constraint confronts the writer with a puzzle to solve, not a blank page, and this can be strangely comforting. Finally, a constraint almost forces the writer to be creative, to seek out new means of self expression. Think here of all the cliches that Perec was able to exclude by obeying this simple rule: the letter “e” cannot be used.

As well as co-editing Oulipo Compendium, Harry Mathews has written a couple of essays, both available online at the time of writing, that serve as good introductions to the Oulipo: In Quest of the Oulipo and Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese. Another book on the Oulipo, Warren Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, includes some material not included here (e.g. Perec’s “History of the Lipogram”) and is worth exploring too. But if you want only the one book, Oulipo Compendium is definitely the one to get, the best and most complete guide available.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at < a href = “mailto:pkane853@yahoo.co.uk”>pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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