Mathematical Poetry?

Published on the York University Blog on Feb. 11, 2009

     I never thought that I would use the word poetry and math in the same breath, but I went to a lecture last week on a type of mathematical poetry. I thought that I’d left formulas behind in high school but they’ve shown up again in the Avant-Garde Oulipo writing. This type of poetry is based on certain rules or constraints that are meant to free the writer from using typical clichés, phrases or words in their writing.

     The famous Oulipo formula is N+7 whereby you take the major nouns in a piece and go forward seven words in the dictionary to find your new word. This method changes the title of Wallace Steven’s “The Snowman” to “The Soap Mandible” which has crazy stanzas like:

For the lithographer, who listens in the soap,
And, now himself, beholds
Now that is not thermal and the now that is

     Listens in the soap? The now that is not thermal? These new combinations of words are supposed to inspire new ideas and to help the writer to escape from the control that language has over them. It’s a way of outwitting our tendencies to fall into the trap of reusing predictable language.

     Other tricks of Oulipo(Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) include removing certain letters from a written piece. An author wrote a complete novel without using the letter “e”. That’s quite an accomplishment. It was a detective novel where the investigator was trying to remember a letter that he no longer used anymore. Whenever a character was about to use the letter “e” he was killed. When Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” loses its e letters it’s simply called, “Black Bird.” Maybe it loses a bit in the translation.

     A new writer Christian Bok has chosen to only use one vowel in each of his chapters. The book is called Eunoia and it’s supposedly the best selling book of Canadian poetry ever. (Sorry Atwood and Ondaatje) Bok noticed that words using certain vowels take on certain characters. Do letters and words have their own character? There have been experiments where words with negative meanings have been laid upon crystals which later develop in odd formations while positive words cause the crystals to develop normally.

     There is also Oulipo art where letters or numbers are represented by colours. Someone in the class pointed out that the tiles in Downsview subway station are representative of the numbers in Pi. And I just thought that they were a mish mash of unappealing blue squares. I also think that Coldplay’s album cover for X+Y could be seen as an Oulipo form of artwork although it’s explained as representing the Baudot code that was used for telegraph communications. The code spells X+Y on the cover. The poetry of hidden codes and constraints is amusing but I’m not sure if I will put it beside my book of Dickinson poems on my shelf. I’ll keep an open mind though.

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