Since its inception in Paris in 1960, the OuLiPo — ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature — has continually expanded our sense of what writing can do. It’s produced, among many other marvels, a detective novel without the letter e (and a sequel of sorts without a, i, o, u, or y); an epic poem structured by the Parisian métro system; a story in the form of a tarot reading; a poetry book in the form of a game of go; and a suite of sonnets that would take almost 200 million years to read completely.
Here, we gladly present some excerpts — along with the corresponding explanations — of some pieces found in our newest release , All That Is Evident Is Suspect, edited by Daniel Levin Becker and Ian Monk.
A Sinologist, Michèle Métail brought to the Oulipo a perspective on eastern poetic traditions along with other formal innovations such as the watermark, which, like the oscillatory poem, surrounds an often absent word or concept with a penumbra of semantic associations.
The constraint applied in these “Fifty Oscillatory Poems” is inspired by the practice of “parallelism” in far-Eastern poetry, which compels lines to respond to one another in echo, term by term. Oppositions and complementarities are rarely semantic, but more often symbolic. In attempting to adopt a less subjective stance, I have chosen to work with antonyms and synonyms, difficult though these notions are to define. For instance, some dictionaries suggest metropolis or city as an antonym for desert; I think of the desert as defined by its absence of vegetation rather than its absence of buildings, so I prefer notions such as forest or copse. Moreover, most words do not have antonyms, particularly those that belong to the domain of concrete things. Finally, I have voluntarily avoided classical oppositions like good/bad or black/white, and never used the same word twice.
Each poem is a quatrain in which each line is a group:
adjective + noun or past participle + noun
to the exclusion of all other words (verbs, pronouns, etc.). Each poem obeys the structure:
A1: antonym of noun S: synonym of noun A2: antonym of noun
A1 and A2 are synonyms; S is an antonym of A1 and A2.
It is interesting to note that the juxtaposition of an adjective will sometimes reinforce the opposition of synonym and antonym, and sometimes, conversely, destroy it.