Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New poems from old -- by substitution

Poet Lee Ann Brown was the featured poet at the November, 2010 Conference on Constrained Poetry at UNC Ashville; this conference celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of Oulipo.  In a poetry sampler archived from the Boston Review, we find "Pledge" (see below) and other samples of Brown's work.  Recordings are available at Penn Sound

     from  Pledge    by Lee Ann Brown

     I pledge allergy to the flail
     of the United States of Amigo.
     And to the reputation for which it stands,
     one national park, under godmother, indivisible,
     with lice and kabob for allegiance.

     I pledge allegory to the flagellant
     of the United Statistic of Ammunition.
     And to the reproduction for which it stands,
     one naughtiness, under good, indivisible,
     with lick and juvenile for anatomy.

     I pledge allelomorph to the flagelliform
     of the United State-of-the-Art of American English.
     And to the repudiation for which it stands,
     one nationalism, under go-getter, indivisible,
     with library science and juvenile court for Alleluia.

In "Pledge," Brown uses variations of a popular Oulipian rule known as N+7 (in French, S+7) for creating new text from old. Many readers will recognize that she follows the pattern of the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag -- but replaces the original nouns by other nouns.  A precise use of the rule involves a dictionary and replacing it with the 7th noun occuring after the starting noun. However, instead of 7, one might use any non-zero integer.  Complications arise if we seek to avoid alternative forms of the starting word or to adhere to rhymes--and such contingencies lead to frequent breaking of whatever numerical rule is chosen.  One of the more well-known results of the N+7 rule is "The Soap Mandible" -- obtained from Wallace Stevens' poem "The Snow Man." The complete altered text is found at the Poetry Foundation website; here are the original first stanza and its altered version:

     from The Snow Man       by Wallace Stevens

     One must have a mind of winter
     To regard the frost and the boughs
     Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

     from The Soap Mandible    an N+7 alteration of "The Snow Man"

     One must have a miniature of wisdom
     To regard the fruit and the boulders
     Of the pinions crusted with soap;

Oulipian constraints have been featured earlier in postings on November 17, August 23August 5, and March 25; square poems have been featured in numerous postings--the most recent include November 14, 15, 19, 24, and 28.

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