Oulipo and Constraints in Creativity

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.

Igor Stravinsky

You know how I’ve been getting off on how restrictions in writing actually help you create more freely?

Sometimes you stumble across something that is so so so perfectly right for a thought you recently had…this article is one of those times: Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules.

Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. For Queneau, “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery”… “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

By example, from the Oulipo website: “Among the many peculiar procedures developed by Oulipo is the S+7 method, where each substantive or noun in a given text, such as a poem, is systematically replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary. The results are far more provocative than might be expected.”

Finding this stuff was SO thrilling to me because it mirrors ideas that I’ve had, and of course I am most interested in myself. The question of “Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader” is fascinating. I do usually say if a piece I’ve posted is a slow writing exercise or similar, but I think that’s less because I believe the reader deserves to know and more because I had to compromise – I need people to be aware I was not acting entirely of my own volition. And that’s pretty contradictory, isn’t it? I love the strict framework because it sets me free, but I must have people know I was restricted. It’s like a kid drawing some pictures. Like, big woop y’know? But if that kid is dying or blind or was raised by wolves…that’s special.

I was reading about corpus linguistics just this morning; that is to say, the study of language through the VAST banks of material we have at our fingertips these days. Now I realise that I have been using the corpus approach to create poetry: the random strings of phrases generated by hellopoetry.com. 100% human creation, collated and stored in a completely dehumanising fashion, then rejigged by a human to be read by humans. And then fed back into the machine ad infinitum.

UGH, so much joy to be had in this world of words.


Algorithmic love letter, Strachey 1954

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