Thursday, March 25, 2010

Queneau and the Oulipo

Raymond Queneau was one of the leaders of a group of ten--primarily writers and mathematicians, primarily French--who founded a group, "Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle" ("Workshop of Potential Literature"), that eventually became known as the Oulipo. Queneau described potential literature as "the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit."

Queneau (1903-1976) was also a novelist, perhaps best-known for Zazie dans le metro, also made into a film, and Exercises in Style. His poetry often involves puns and other linguistic devices that challenge translation. The French title of the following poem is "Cygnes"--and "cygne" (which is "swan") is a homophone for "signe" (which is "sign"). Here is a translation of "Cygnes" by Daniela Hurezanu and Stephen Kessler (from EYESEAS, Black Widow Press, 2008).

An early example created by Queneau was Cent Mille Milliards de poéms (one hundred thousand billion poems)--a collection of sonnets designed so that each first line may be read with any of the second lines which may be read with any of the third lines, and so on. The Internet offers samples of Queneau's masterpiece (English translation by Stanley Chapman).


When One made love with Zero
Spheres embraced the torus
Prime numbers stepped forward
Their hands reaching for fresh sycamore
And simple fractions mortally wounded
Lay down in the torrent of mute decimals

When B made love with A
Paragraphs embraced blushing
Commas stepped forward
Stretching their necks over the iron bridges
And the alphabet mortally wounded
Collapsed in the arms of a mute question mark


  1. I sent this to your email and got a message that my IP address has been blocked. Huh?

    Hi, JoAnne.
    Thanks for sharing this. I did try to leave a comment but ended up in a big tangle of password recovery, etc.

    I'll try again. I like these innovative ways of generating poems.
    I've been doing the daily poem again since Feb. 20 with good results.
    And just heard that one of my daily poems from November won first prize in the BrainStorm contest. (250 dollars!)
    with publication.

    I'm keepin' at it.
    Your book is on my Wish List at, but I'm too far behind to buy anymore these days. I'm also doing fabric art and reading.....

    Best, Joan

  2. Hi Joanne,

    Thank you! I do enjoy your articles.

    Can you post the original French version?

    Still waiting for reprints from the Intelligencer.

    Sally Lipsey

  3. For readers who'd like a copy of the original French for Queneau's CYGNES, please e-mail me your request and I'll send a scan of the text.