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Oulipo stands for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature". It is a loose gathering of French-speaking writers and mathematicians, and seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members include novelist Georges Perec and poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud.

The group defines the term 'littérature potentielle' as (rough translation): "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy".

Constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Georges Perec's "story-making machine" which he used in the construction of La Vie mode d'emploi. As well as established techniques, such as lipograms (Perec's novel La Disparition) and palindromes, the group devises new techniques, often based on mathematical problems such as the Knight's Tour of the chess-board and permutations.

Oulipian works

Some examples of Oulipian writing:

Roubaud's La Belle Hortense, a whimsical detective story, in which six princes, all brothers, are suspects. All six appear in turn, in a different sequence each time. One of the six breaks the pattern: this is a clue that he is the culprit.

Queneau's Exercices de Style, in which he tells the same simple story ninety-nine times, each in a different style.

His Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) is inspired by children's picture books in which each page is cut into horizontal strips which can be turned independently, allowing different pictures (usually of people) to be combined in many ways. Queneau applies this technique to poetry: the book contains 10 sonnets, each on a page. Each page is split into 14 strips, one for each line. The author estimates in the introductory explanation that it would take approximately 200 million years to read all possible combinations.


Some Oulipian constraints:

The "S + 7" method: replace every noun in a text with the word that falls 7 places ahead of it in the dictionary. Thus "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago..." (from Moby Dick) becomes "Call me islander. Some yeggs ago...".

The prisoner's constraint consists of writing a text using no letters with legs (ie b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, y are banned).

Snowball: a poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.


Oulipo members in 2002. Note that oulipo members are still considered members after their deaths.

Noël Arnaud, Marcel Bénabou, Jacques Bens, Claude Berge, André Blavier, Paul Braffort, Italo Calvino, François Caradec, Bernard Cerquiglini, Ross Chambers, Stanley Chapman, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Duchateau, Luc Etienne, Paul Fournel, Anne Garetta, Michelle Grangaud, Jacques Jouet, Latis, François Le Lionnais, Hervé Le Tellier, Jean Lescure, Harry Mathews, Michèle Métail, Ian Monk, Oskar Pastior, Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Jean Queval, Pierre Rosenstiehl, Jacques Roubaud, Olivier Salon, Albert-Marie Schmidt.

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