Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New poems from old by substitution

     Just as we get new numbers by substitution of new inputs into old formulas -- such as x² or sinx -- we may get new poems from old ones into which we substitute new words. For example, take a poem and, for each of the nouns in the poem, substitute for it the noun that occurs 7 positions later in a given dictionary. This N+7 rule is one of the inventions of the French group of writers and mathematicians known as the Oulipo.  (For more information, see postings from 25 March 201023 August 201015 November 2010 and 3 January 2011.) 
     Let's consider an example:  To apply N+7 to the word "star" in "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," I open my Webster's New World Dictionary to "star" and begin to count.  The first listing after "star " is "star apple"; because it is a word pair, I may want to skip this entry -- but am I then making a new rule?  The 7th listing after "star" is "stardom" -- and I resist it, asking:  is it suitably poetic to substitute a two-syllable word for one?  Additionally, since "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" is a rhyming poem, I wonder whether I should keep looking after the 7th word until I find one that rhymes with "star."  And so on.  I need to make some arbitrary rules about how I will count the dictionary's words.
     Fortunately, the Spoonbill website (at http://www.spoonbill.org/)  offers an N+7 generator that allows us to bypass thoughtful questions. At the site you may offer the generator a few lines of poetry and it will offer a variety of substitution outcomes using its dictionaries that consist of nouns alone. I pasted into the generator Edwin Markham's four line poem, "Outwitted."  Here are some of the results; amid the silliness, several thought-provoking images emerge.  (Indeed, one of the values of Oulipian procedures is their generation of ideas and phrases that your brain or mine are not likely to develop on our own.)

N+0  (the original Markham lines)
He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
He drew a circuit that shut me out --
Heretic, rebellion, a thinking to flout.
But Lover and I had the withdrawal to win:
We drew a circuit that took him in!
He drew a circulation that shut me out --
Heretic, receipt, a thought to flout.
But Loyalty and I had the witness to win:
We drew a circulation that took him in!
He drew a circumstance that shut me out --
Heretic, receiver, a thousand to flout.
But Luck and I had the wolf to win:
We drew a circumstance that took him in!
He drew a citizen that shut me out --
Heretic, reception, a thread to flout.
But Lump and I had the woman to win:
We drew a citizen that took him in!
He drew a city that shut me out --
Heretic, recession, a threat to flout.
But Lunch and I had the wonder to win:
We drew a city that took him in!
He drew a claim that shut me out --
Heretic, recipe, a threshold to flout.
But Lung and I had the wood to win:
We drew a claim that took him in!
He drew a clarity that shut me out --
Heretic, recipient, a throat to flout.
But Luxury and I had the woodland to win:
We drew a clarity that took him in!
He drew a clash that shut me out --
Heretic, recognition, a throne to flout.
But Machine and I had the wool to win:
We drew a clash that took him in!
.  .      The generator continued through N+15. 

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