The Group That Freed Themselves by Inventing Rules

Anna Aslanyan at the TLS:

Should humanity lie back and be satisfied to watch new thoughts make ancient verses?” What compelled François Le Lionnais to ask this question was a conversation he had with Raymond Queneau in 1960. A writer interested in mathematics, Queneau told his friend, a chemist interested in art, about a book he was working on, a sequence of ten sonnets such that any line in any of them could replace the corresponding line in any other. To experiment with this and other literary forms, the pair founded “a sort of secret society”, initially a group of eight, which began meeting monthly in Paris. “That which certain writers have introduced with talent (even with genius) in their work … the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo) intends to do systematically and scientifically, if need be through recourse to machines that process information”, Le Lionnais wrote in what was to form the group’s first manifesto. Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes – amounting to a hundred thousand billion rhymed, grammatically correct combinations – was published in 1961, the first book to be billed as Oulipian.

more here.