oulipian contraints

The N + 7 constraint, invented by Jean Lescure, consists in replacing every noun (proper nouns excluded) in a given text with the seventh following noun in a dictionary of your choice.[1] It is usually performed on pre-existing works, often famous ones—a Shakespearean soliloquy or a paragraph of Proust’s—in which case it serves as a fine example of “analytical Oulipism,” i.e., a constraint used not to structure a new work, but better to understand the structure of an old one. In the case above, I generated a text myself, on which I performed the N + 7 operation using the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition. If all of this seems a bit much—i.e., tiresome or ridiculous—we should consider more run-of-the-mill Oulipian constraints.

Among such forms, the sonnet lies perhaps closest to the collective Oulipian heart. The sonnet’s structure—fourteen lines, with various regional particulars of meter and rhyme in French, in English, and in Italian—is almost aggressively arbitrary, and so its central place in the histories of several national literatures puts the lie to the notion that working with constraints is an amiable diversion from the real project of literature. In fact, the Oulipo owes its birth to a series of sonnets—100,000,000,000,000 of them, to be precise: Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliard de poèmes consists of ten sonnets, all identical in rhyme scheme and grammatical structure, such that each first line may be replaced by any other first line in the series, each second by any second, and so on.

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