Viscusi and Queneau: The Combinatorics of Poetry

Reviewing Daniel Levin Becker‘s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (‘Anticipatory Plagiarism‘, London Review of Books, 6 December 2012) allows Paul Grimstad to take a tour through the wild and wacky world of experimental literature by way of some of the usual suspects. Most notably, Georges Perec and Oulipo (‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’; ‘workshop of potential literature’) The latter, ‘the group devoted…to inventing, analysing and sometimes applying constraints for the making of literature’ was founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau; Becker is the newest member of their now-fifty three year old collective.

It  is Queneau’s work that most interests me today. Grimstad points out that:

Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes is a set of ten sonnets, such that latent in the design are 10^14–or one hundred thousand billion–potential poems. Queneau said that if read a sonnet every minute in eight-hour shifts every working day it would take a million centuries to finish the book.

Queneau’s work finds resonance in Robert Viscusi‘s epic poem, Ellis Island, which is ‘about’ immigration, America, places in the mind and in the heart. (I have blogged about Viscusi’s work on this blog before, especially his ‘novel’ Astoria.) It exists in two forms: a stable text and a dynamic, generated, evanescent one. The former is divided into fifty-two books each containing twelve sonnets of fourteen lines each. That makes for a total of six hundred and twenty-four sonnets; from this ‘raw material’ new sonnets are generated by picking a book, a sonnet, and a line fourteen times. The result is a new sonnet, which ‘goes away’ once a new sonnet is generated. The number of possible combinations, 624^14 sonnets, is staggeringly large. (Viscusi acknowledges his explicit debt to Queneau in his introduction to the book’s two forms.)

The following is a random sonnet I generated for this post. The numerals in the left column indicate book, sonnet, and line numbers that identify the source of each line in the stable text.

38 4 1 you see soon a great narrative paisley spermatomorph on the face of the silk tie
7 3 2 lights came up in the theater
46 7 12 we need to make a great nation we said to one another
12 8 6 when the sea is death he says polish your shoes
17 6 8 play with their musical gifts when you can and expect a visitor
36 5 9 the audience enjoys it because wife and husband both end happily
21 2 3 on the way home it fell on the sidewalk and broke leaving a stain
22 5 1 each of these persons has another side as you have
19 1 6 each such routine constitutes a remaining wall of your prison
49 6 10 thus taught beato roberto and this i have in my own life repeated in brooklyn
29 7 11 i was lying on the ground trying to remember times i used to be happy among beans
45 9 7 flies to new york returns five days later finds his daughter speaking italian
6 1 3 each one endowed with an epic willpower
50 7 1 one of the main things about freedom is it’s hard to enjoy without money

The potential for serendipitous discovery of a ‘new’ poem is immense’ more to the point, for a moment, we become poets ourselves.

Note: By a lovely coincidence, George Perec wrote a novel called Ellis Island.

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