Friday, September 6, 2013

Mathematical structure and Multiple choice

     A sonnet repeats the iambic rhythm of the heart beat (da-DUM, da-DUM, . . .) with a line length corresponding to a typical breath (5 heartbeats); it thus seems easy to internalize the numerical structure that guides such a poem. 
     A decision tree offers a very different choice of mathematical structure for a poem -- displaying for a reader different choices among stanzas.  Originally proposed to the OULIPO by founder Francois Le Lionnais, and referred to as a multiple-choice narrative, such a structure allows readers of a poem to choose among subsequent events. Instead of reading the poem vertically, we may jump about, choosing the sequence we want to read.
     Harry Mathews is an Oulipian poet who has been playing creative games with poetry for many years.  (Samples of his work are included in posts for 5 August 2010 and 7 April 2012.)  The members of Oulipo  not only develop ideas for "potential" literature but also provide examples of poetry that is as much fun to write as it is to read.
     I learned of the Multiple-choice narrative in the Oulipo Compendium where it is told that Francois Le Lionnais presented the schematic plan of a detective novel in which, early on, the reader would be asked: do you prefer a mystery story (go to page x), a novel of suspense (go to page y), a sado-erotic continuation (go to page z)?"  Here, by Mathews, is such a narrative:

Multiple Choice     by  Harry Mathews

John comes to the city and meets
Marian, a very affectionate girl.
She loves him, and he her;
But he finds that Marian has a changeable streak,
So he leaves her.  Do you think that he should never look
At another woman?  Or do you think he should look
At some other woman?  In the first case, proceed
To 7, if you're an optimist; to 8, if you're
A pessimist.  In the second case, proceed to 2.

John meets Marianne, who is tenderness itself;
But sometimes she is put off by him:  so John
Leaves her.  Should he (a) forget about love?
Or should he (b) remember love at least once?
If their opinion concurs with (a), optimists
Go on to 7, pessimists to 8.  If
Their opinion concurs with (b), to 3.

So John meets Marie-Anne, a beauty.
But she 'makes him insecure.'  Again he leaves.
After this experience he may feel that beauty
And disappointment go hand in hand; or he may feel
That this case is peculiar and try again.
If he rejects all beauty, choose 7 (or 8).
If he decides to move on, then choose 4.

John meets Mary Anne, a brilliant girl.
Then Marry Anne loses touch with reality.
At least with his reality, John is driven to
Distraction, so much so that he loses his mind
-- Or is it merely that he's extremely upset and goes away?
If he loses his mind, advance to 6.
If he doesn't loose his mind, there's another choice
To make:  does he meet another woman or doesn't he?
If he doesn't and the consequences are dire, 8.
If he doesn't and the consequences aren't dire, 7.
If he does (i.e., meet someone else), 5.

John meets Mary Ann.  His previous encouters
Could hardly have led him to expect such a person,
And yet they alone have prepared him to appreciate her,
For she is constant, tender, beautiful, and wise.
John loves her and lives with her in absolute devotion.
Everything is in its place: earth becomes earth,
And the prophetic heavens swivel in their grooves.
If this state of affairs suits your desires,
See 11.  If you prefer another, see 6.

Then the universe comes crashing down, and clinkers
Of star blaze block his path, and his thoughts
Zip up to those vacated holes and blossom
Crazily.  John can't stand this situation.
Once more he leaves the woman he loves.
Do you feel that this step will bring him peace?
Move to 7.  Or do you feel that John
Is doomed?  In that case, move to 8.

He goes off and lives alone.
He has learned that for him, happiness means solitude.
If you have chosen this alternative, his story is at an end.
-- But what about the woman?  Should she suffer
From this turn of events?  Pass on to 9.
Or should she live out her life, whether alone or not,
Indifferent to this loss?  Then consult 10.

John goes off alone and dies in misery.
If you have chosen this alternative, his story is at an end.
-- But what about the woman?  Should she suffer
From this turn of events?  Pass on to 9.
Should she live in just or unjust indifference?
If such is your preference, pass to 10.

She feels as though some part of her body has been severed.
If you have chosen this alternative, you have reached the end.

She lives in just or unjust indifference.
If you have chosen this alternative, you have reached the end.

(A suggestion has been made by a lady in the audience:
How about moving from 5 to 8?
What if, when everything is hunky-dory,
John leaves anyway?  The lady points out
That he does so much leaving he probably enjoys it:
And what about his character?  What about the way
He behaves with women?
                                           I can only say
That I find these remarks perplexing and irrelevant.
These remarks have to do with a quite different problem.
These remarks make it impossible to proceed with the story.
Although they are typical of the bitchy-mindedness
That produced the situation we are attempting to narrate.
May I suggest to the lady that instead of being so clever
If she thought a little more about her lover's problems
Someone who shall be nameless might sleep a little better--

Now I'm digressing.  In conclusion, 11:)

John and Mary Ann, Mary Ann and John
Lived and died in each other's arms.

"Multiple Choice" is found on my shelf in Mathew's collection, A Mid-Season Sky:  Poems 1954-1991 (Carcanet Press, 1992).  Here is a decision tree that shows the flow of the poem.  

      / \ 
    7    *
        / \                
       8   2
          /  \
         *    3
        /\   / \
       7 8  *   4
           /\  / \
          7 8  6  *
                 /  \
                *    5
               / \   / \
               8 7  6  11
                  7 8 

Missing from the tree is the additional information that stanzas 7 and 8 each lead to choices of 9 or 10; each of 9, 10, and 11 is terminal. 


  1. I am a fan of Harry Mathews wordy and entertaining poetry, but had never seen this one. Thanks for posting it, Sarah