Saturday, April 23, 2005

Oulipo Poems: S+7

Oulipo stands for “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle/Potential Literature Workshop.” Among the many interesting procedures developed by the Oulipo school is the “S+7” method, where each noun in a given text, such as a poem, is replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary. Here is an example of such a poem:

The extract, from Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

The transformed version, using S + 7:

To see a Worm in a Grampus of Sandblast
And a Hebe in a Wild Flu
Hold inflow in the palsy of your hangar
And Ethos in an housefly.

And here is a version of s+7, by Harryette Mullen, from her book Sleeping With The Dictionary. She has taken Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130, and replaced the key words with phrases from, I dunno . . . perhaps, the ads section from a newspaper or telephone book? The resulting poem, I think, makes some interesting commentary on contemporary notions of race, beauty and consumerism; as well as being kinda funny.

Dim Lady

My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey's Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I'm aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don't know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who's hyped beyond belief.

Exercise: Choose an existing poem that interests you, and a standard dictionary (or other word text). Transform the poem using S+7, replacing every noun with the noun seven places below it in the dictionary.


megs said...

Thank you for this. I need this exercise more than you know!

The Sublibrarian said...

There are nice examples w/ Genesis and Wordsworth here.

As an aside, S+7 is more interesting with a smaller dictionary (those little, cheap pocket ones are especially good). That way you get farther from the original word. Inexpensive foreign language dictionaries (say, English-French) also work well because of their incompleteness.

loveandsalt said...

I love this exercise--give it to my students all the time. They're always incredibly dubious (rational Ivy League over achievers) and then amazed. Sublibrarian is right about using a little get more space, rather than versions of the same words.
Do you know the wonderful S+7 riff on Maya Angelou Bob Perelman reprints in his book? Damn, I can't remember the authors, of the name of Perelman's book. And I refuse to get up from my bed and laptop to check it out. But I will later. It is so damn, achingly funny.

Peter said...

Cynthia: if you get the name of the book, let me know . . . it sounds quite fun.

Peter said...

The Oulipo Genesis N+7 is a total hoot! This is an example of when it really works.

Emily Lloyd said...

I did this one once with "They Feed They Lion" and ended up with "They Federalize They Lips." SUCH a great exercise. Thanks.

aimee said...

awesome! i totally forgot about this form and love it. Q:if it is not totally obvious what the original poem is, how does one cite it, do i even need to?

thanks for jogging my memory of this fun exercise!

Peter said...

Emily: I'd love to see your "They Federalize, They Lisp." What a hoot.
I think "noun-heavy" poems do best with this exercise.

Aimee: I dunno; if it is not obvious what the original poem is, I think a note in the back of the book is enough (if it appears in a book or journal) or an asterisked note at the bottom of the poem, if anything.

Raelene said...

I introduced N+7 to our book club as a little writing exercise. My contribution was "The 12 Deaf-adders of Chrysanthemum". As you can imagine, the repetition in the original - The 12 Days of Christmas - made for some hilarious changes, and lots of laughter.