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Oulipo: A New Kind of Poetry

After getting back from a grad school session, I wanted to share a new type of poetry I just learned about with you. It’s called Oulipo poetry, sometimes styled as OuLiPo because it stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), according to The Poetry Foundation. During my session, I had the chance to practice some of the exercises and learn about some of Oulipo’s history, but I think what struck me the most was the fact that it was created by both (get this) poets AND mathematicians. (Ha! I tell myself, We do exist). So here’s a brief history on Oulipo poetry and some exercises to practice in case you want to try your hand at it.

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What Is Oulipo Poetry?

Oulipo focuses on both restraint and potential. It was started in 1960 by Raymond Queneau, a French poet, and François Le Lionnais, a French mathematician. Unlike surrealism and the Dada movement, Oulipo doesn’t focus on things like the subconscious or other free-ranging creativity that appears at random. They preferred setting restrictions on your writing in a way that allows you to still unleash your creativity. So the main purpose of Oulipo exercises is to voluntarily write and push the limits of your own creativity while working within limits you set yourself. Below are some of the exercises Oulipo poets and mathematicians use.

Some Exercises

n + 7

For this exercise, take all the nouns in a poem you’ve written (or an existing poem) and replaced them by looking up that noun in a dictionary, skipping down seven definitions, and replacing the noun with what you found. You can also try n+ 15, n+ 1, etc. Find out more here.

Snowball Technique

Each line in a poem starts off with one word or syllable then grows or shrinks by one word or one syllable. I was able to find a great example here!

Lipogram

If you’ve ever heard of the novel Gadsby, you’ve heard of the lipogram. If you haven’t, it’s a novel that famously doesn’t use the letter e. A lipogram eliminates a vowel or a consonant in a poem, just like Gadsby does, allowing for the potential characteristic of Oulipo poetry to shine through. If anything this only proves that Oulipo techniques don’t just have to belong to poetry.

Some Poets

Jacques Roubaud – a mathematician, poet, and author of more than twenty books, is best known in the Oulipo group for the sonnet form he created based on a mathematical structure. You can find out more here

A. F Harrold – a poet, children’s book author, and performer, you can find his works on his website, and also check out his video on Oulipo poetry here

Oskar Pastior – You can find one of his poems (it’s in French, but it looks like a sestina) here through JSTOR

Feel free to try these out for yourself. Happy writing!


Want to know more? My portfolio is now COMPLETE, and you can find it here! You can find me in Ariel Chart, The Cedarville Review, Nailpolish Stories, Bluepepper, 50 Word Stories, The Aurora Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Drabble, Anti-heroin Chic, Art of Autism, Your Daily Poem, Sanctuary Magazine, Six Sentences, Paragraph Planet, A Story in 100 Words, and Sledgehammer Lit. You can now also find my FREE microchap at Origami Poems Project, which I am also offering here.

I am also a writer for Coffee House Writers! You can find my work under “Emma Foster” on their website.

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