Oulipo French Math/Literature Group Technique Comments and Suggestions

Researching about the French math and literature group OULIPO (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle) and of their investigations regarding the relationships between mathematics and poetry or mathematics and works of literature truly opened my mind as to the creative ways you can experiment with existing works of writing in various fields through a set of constraints and parameters, and derive from these paradigms new works that convey either nonsensical messages, or highly original and profound concepts. I personally love the idea of basing off a work of literature or poetry off of one of the constrained writing techniques mentioned on Wikipedia and poets.org. I particularly like the lipogram technique used by OULIPO members as it forces an author or writer to think outside of the box under strict parameters– the parameters themselves, in this case, being the omitting of certain letters or entire words from a work. It reminds me of lipogrammatic ideas for novel concepts that I had years ago of writing an entire novel without the word “the” (the hypothetical novel was supposed to convey ambiguity due to the only other articles being used to distinguish something being “an” and “a”, without nothing being able to distinguish itself from other things), and another novel without the words “I” or “you”, removing the self entirely from the novel work as a whole. I also personally like the univocal technique used by OULIPO writers as it conveys harmony, peace, and order, in the scenario that every word in a poem and book has the same vowel letter-sound, making the words in books or poems that adapt this restraint sound hypnotic or mesmerizing, or vocally repetitive. I have several variations of the techniques used by OULIPO that I think would produce some truly interesting results, two of them having already been mentioned above. Below is a complete list of several other constraints writers can make use of or experiment with, even if in theory the total amount of constraints one author can impose on his or her works is virtually limitless (or at least finite in proportion to the vocabulary and lexicographical span of the writer’s primary language– English being the one with the theoretical highest number of constraints to the high variety of words, concepts, letters, or other linguistic devices one can either omit or alter from the language, including words and elements from other languages or ancient Latin/Greek/Celtic dialects).

Here’s the list of my own “Oulipian writing constraints”:

  • Omit or refrain from using the word “the” in a poem, novel, or any other work of literature (“The” is one of the most common words in the English language).
  • Omit the words “I” and “you” from a poem, novel, or any work of literature (I and you are also extremely common words in the English language).
  • An entire novel or work of literature without adverbs, or without pronouns (i.e. names of people, places, and events).
  • “Reincarnation” constraint: Every chapter of a novel or book must either refer back to itself (metafiction) at its conclusion or have the main character or ideas from the chapter directly before it make a return in some way, shape, or form.
  • “Perfect rectangle” constraint: Every sentence or phrase in the novel or poem must end approximately the same distance from the edge of the page as the preceding sentence or sentences. Basically, the space between each sentence end or break in the work, and the border of the page must be uniform.


Mary had a small lamb

with snow-white wool

Rather than:

Mary had a little lamb

with fleece as white as snow

(notice the unevenness between the first and second sentence?)

  • “An Alliteration for Every Line”: Every line in the poem in question must an alliteration of some sort. Every line in the poem must have words that start with the same letter, alternating with a different letter every single line. No two lines can have the same starting letters as any other. To exemplify, one line in the poem could have words that start with C, while the next line could have words that start with M. The above conditions imply that, at least in the English language, a poem of this nature can be at most 26 lines long– one line dedicated to one letter in the English alphabet. Spanish speakers and people who speak other languages might have a little more leeway, seeing as the Spanish alphabet contains 28 letters rather than 26 (because of LL and N, as in the word manana), making Spanish poems slightly longer than English ones.
  • Poem “Matrix”: Individual words in the lines of a poem should be written in the form of numerical matrix. Each word should be placed within this grid or matrix in such a way that coherent sentences can be formed horizontally, vertically, and if you want, even diagonally. Words can also be placed to form sentences forwards and backwards.
  • “Vertical’ Poem: Relates to the above constraint in that the poem written must form sentences both horizontally and vertically between individual lines. However, this constraint also differs from the one above in that each line must have the exact same number of words as all the other lines in the poem. The poem must also have the exact same number of lines as it does words per line. For example, if a poem of this nature has six words per line then the poem itself must also be six lines long in order to form a 6 x 6 “grid” of horizontal and vertical sentences.
  • Nomenclature Lipogram/Story of your Name: This constraint is unique in itself in that it challenges writers and poets to create works of literature using only words that start with the letters present in their names, or works that use these letters only, or works that omit the letters of their names entirely. For the sake of feasibility, whichever of your three names (assuming you have a first, middle, and last name) has the least number of letters should be taken into consideration when omitting. However, whichever of your names has the MOST letters in it should be considered when crafting a poem or story out of these letters. If the poet or author happens to have more than one middle name, or one extremely long first or last name, either the shortest of these should be used for the lipogram versions of this constraint, or the longest of these should be used for the stories and poems incorporating only the letters of the writer’s name. Nicknames should also be taken into consideration in case the author happens to fall into none of the situations above– their nicknames would be used for their works.
  • Lipogram of a Lipogram: The poem or story cannot use the letters l, i, p, o, g, r, a, or m, or have words that contain these letters.
  • Fibonacci Poem: The poem is modeled after the Fibonacci sequence, with the first line of the poem being only one word, the second being one word, the third being two words, the fourth line being 3 words, the fifth line being five words, the sixth line being eight words, the fourth line being thirteen words, and so and so forth. This can also be done with stanzas (first stanza is one line, second stanza has one line, third stanza has two lines, etc).
  • Irrational Number Poem: Relating somewhat to the Fibonacci poem, this constraint challenges writers and authors to compose poems whose structures are based entirely off of irrational numbers like pi (3.14). Every line in the poem must have the same number of words as the single digits of an irrational number. For pi, the first line of the poem should have three words, the second line only one word, the third line four words, and so on ad infinitum. This implies that poems under these constraints can theoretically last forever. If a zero happens to appear in the irrational number sequence, the poem will break and start a new stanza. To exemplify, phi  (1.61803) will break off and start a new stanza after the fourth line of the poem which will have eight words, and continue a new stanza with three words as the “fifth line” of the poem– zero doesn’t count as a “line” per se).

I hope the Oulipian constraints above can contribute to our making of interesting pieces of literature based on mathematical principles or parameters set.

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