Monday, January 3, 2011

New poems from old -- by permutation

     One of the founding members of the Oulipo, Jean Lescure (1912-2005), devised categories of permutations of selected words of a poem to form a new poem; three of these rearrangements are illustrated below using the opening stanza of "Mathematics or the Gift of Tongues" by Anna Hempstead Branch (1875-1937). Here is the original stanza from Branch's poem:  

     This is the Word whose breaking heart
     With fire restores the speech of men.
     It falls upon all troubled thought
     In snow-white flakes of love and pain.

     Branch's complete poem is found in Imagination's Other Place: Poems of Science and Mathematics   (Ed Helen Plotz, Crowell, 1955). Lescure's methods are described in Oulipo Compendium (Ed, Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, Atlas Press, 2005). One of Lescure's permutational methods involves exchanging the 1st and 2nd nouns, the 3rd and 4th nouns, and so on. Here is the result:

     This is the Heart whose breaking word
     With speech restores the fire of thought.
     It falls upon all troubled men
     In snow-white love of flakes and pain.

     A second Lescurean permutation exchanges the 1st and 3rd nouns, the 2nd and 4th, the 5th and 7th, and so on.  (The final word "pain" (the 9th noun) might be exchanged with one from the next stanza.)

     This is the Speech whose breaking fire
     With heart restores the word of love.
     It falls upon all troubled flakes
     In snow-white thoughts of men and pain.

     A Rousellian permutation exchages the 1st noun with the last, the 2nd with the next-to-last, and so on:

     This is the Pain whose breaking love
     With flakes restores the thought of men.
     It falls upon all troubled speech
     In snow-white fire of heart and word.

     A lover of traditional poetry may grow impatient with these word games. Although some of the lines obtained by permutation are as good as any in the original poem, others are clumsy and in need of editing. The magic of Oulipian processes is that they offer lines that would not have come to us by ordinary thought.
     Prior blog postings (in 2010) that have involved Oulipian rules include December 15November 17, August 23, August 5, and March 25.

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