Friday, December 9, 2011

Dancing with the Oulipo: fun'n'games with Wordsworth (and others)

A bit late (from The Atlantic) comes this literary game even Nabokov might enjoy. The article, written by Phyllis Rose, appeared in the April 2002 issue. The Oulipo exercise called "N plus 7" is just the latest illumination on MacLeish's famous observation, "A poem should not mean, but be."

Or, as another famous craftsman said so well, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Wordsworth's best-known and arguably most ridiculous poem is "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," the one about the daffodils. When daffodils are blooming, it is impossible not to think of this poem—although, at the same time, it is impossible to think of it. The language, with a few exceptions, is forgettable.

My favorite commentary on this poem is a version of it presented by the writer Harry Mathews at a lecture on the Oulipo in 1999, in Key West, Florida. The Oulipo, or OuLiPo, which stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), set themselves rules — writing a novel without once using the letter e, for example — and pride themselves on the depth and interest produced despite (an Oulipian would probably say produced because of) the restrictions.

Mathews performed an Oulipian exercise called "N plus 7" on the Wordsworth poem. "N" stands for "noun." A reader locates in the dictionary a noun found in the subject text, counts to the seventh noun from it, and substitutes that for the original. The alphabetical gap between the original and the substitution can be quite large. Mathews, who respected Wordsworth's meter and rhyme in his N-plus-7 version of "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," had to traverse many dictionary entries before finding a noun that rhymed with "daffodil" and was, like "daffodil," a dactyl—three syllables with the accent on the first syllable. The word he came upon was "imbecile."

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. ...

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the imbeciles.

Mathews has no qualms about dissing Wordsworth. Before Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, he said, personal feelings were just a small part of what literature addressed. Because of Wordsworth, emotions became the subject of literature: sincerity moved to the center of the literary enterprise, and to be morally responsible meant that one had to account for one's feelings. "It's all so nauseatingly bourgeois," he commented.

I tried to perform N plus 7 myself, but I had no print dictionary on hand, and I quickly realized that with an online dictionary the technique is impossible. While I was playing lexical hopscotch, an e-mail arrived from the thoughtful and generous Harry Mathews containing the entry on N plus 7 from the Oulipo Compendium, a reference work that he edited with Alastair Brotchie. It explained that the results one gets differ tremendously depending on the dictionary used.

The smaller the dictionary, the larger the alphabetical gap between word and replacement.Thus the opening of the Book of Genesis, using Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, to replace all the nouns, becomes "In the beguinage God created the hebdomad and the earthfall. And the earthfall was without formalization, and void; and darnex was upon the facette of the deerhair." Using The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which is smaller, produces "In the behest God created the heckelphone and the easement. And the easement was without format, and void; and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance."

The "N plus 7" entry in the Oulipo Compendium included Mathews's version of the daffodil poem, titled "The Imbeciles," and I found there was much more to it than I had recalled. Not just "daffodil" but every noun in the poem had been replaced by another noun at least seven entries along.

I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o'er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.

Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle on the milky whey,
They stretched in never-ending nine
Along the markdown of a day:
Ten thrillers saw I at a lance,
Tossing their healths in sprightly glance.

The wealths beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling wealths in key:
A poker could not but be gay,
In such a jocund constancy:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What weave to me the shred had brought:

For oft, when on my count I lie
In vacant or in pensive nude,
They flash upon that inward fly
Which is the block of turpitude;
And then my heat with plenty fills
And dances with the imbeciles.

One thing N plus 7 teaches us is that nonsense is not silly but pretense is. It's no accident that Lewis Carroll produced work — notably "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Jabberwocky" — in the spirit of the later Oulipian N-plus-7 exercises.

Like many members of the Oulipo, Carroll was a mathematician and was uninterested in trying to represent a literary reality. Yet I retain the exact words of "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe," whereas I have trouble remembering "Ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance." And if I had the choice, I'd rather gyre and gimble with the slithy toves and slay the Jabberwock any old frabjous day.

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