Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Frost + 7 = Fruit

One Oulipian technique -- and in all honesty, I've always thought, one of the silliest -- is "n+7" which is defined by the Oulipo Compendium as follows:

Choose a text and a dictionary. Identify the nouns in the text and replace each one by counting seven nouns beyond it in the dictionary...
With classical poetry, meter and rhyme can be ignored or respected. In the latter case, one selects the first noun to satisfy the prosodic requirements of the original starting with the seventh noun listed in the chosen dictionary. The search for a suitable replacement may extend over several successive letters...

While some oulipians have denied that this is an aleatory technique, I think they are basically wrong. (I should explain that Oulipo is generally opposed to -- or at least, conducted in a different spirit than -- chance-based artistic movements.) While other Oulipian techniques involve trying to come up with the best artistic product given certain constraints (avoiding certain letters or whatever), the n+7 technique is essentially mechanical: once a text and a dictionary has been chosen, one applies it and sees what chance (in the form of the conjunction of the text & dictionary) produces.

The argument that n+7 is not chance based is that it is determined, i.e. that a certain, repeatable result will be obtained every time the same text is submitted to the n+7 method with the same dictionary. But this strikes me as, essentially, irrelevant. What makes n+7 an essentially aleatory technique is that the choices made are not (largely) artistic: the original text might be an artistic choice (although even here the chooser is acting more as an editor than an author), and to a lesser extent the dictionary might be too, but the artistic results are not chosen: they arise from chance conjunction. The fact that this chance conjunction is repeatable is irrelevant. (Sorting a list alphabetically is, in essence, random, despite its repeatability, because things' names have (generally) nothing to do with whatever purposes one sorts them for.) One might exercise artistic choice by picking one result to keep and others to discard -- but then this is true of all aleatory techniques.

So to my mind, n+7 is an aleatory technique, or at the very least operates under the same aesthetics as aleatory approaches. (Its pleasures and limitations are basically those produced by (other) aleatory techniques.) I suppose this is why I find it silly, compared to other oulipian techniques, as I am not a big fan of aleatory approaches to composition.

But it does share this with other oulipian techniques: it's tempting, even seductive. And so, a few days after receiving the new Compendium, I found myself trying an n+7 or two.

I discarded a few -- or, rather, failed to finish a few that after one or two substitutions seemed like they would be uninteresting. I found that using smaller dictionaries produces better results, as the words are more likely to be common ones (which then go in strange places) than simply obscure words, which are basically less fun. Similarly, using poetry rather than prose adds an additional level of weeding -- obscure words (e.g. long technical terms) tend not fit with the meter/rhyme scheme, while simpler ones do. (This isn't absolute, of course, but it's more true than not.)

So I found myself, finally, taking a famous Robert Frost poem and applying the N+7 technique to it. The dictionary I used was the English half of (an old edition of) Ultralingua's English-French dictionary. When it came to rhymes, I resorted to an online rhyming dictionary, taking the first meter-appropriate noun that appeared after the original; I was simply too lazy to actually count all the way through the dictionary for given one-syllable rhymes (which would have taken an enormous amount of time), and this seemed a reasonable substitute for it. Finally, I did the variation where, with repeated words, one does an additional +7 at each occurrence, rather than having the same substitute word stand in for every appearance of the word in the original.

Here's what I got:

Whose wools are these I think I know.
His howl is in the vineyard though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his works fill up with woe

My little hose must think it queer
To stop without a fasces near
Between the worm and frozen rake
The darkest evidence of the beer.

He gives his harvest bench a snake
To ask if there is some fruitcake.
The only other sow's the veep
Of easy wine and downy hake.

The wounds are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have properties to keep,
And milks to go before I sleep,
And mimes to go before I sleep.
(It's quite arguable that, even if I pick different substitutes the various appearances of 'woods', I ought to let the last two lines remain identical. If you feel that's better, the substitution is easy. I've put in the extra line because (if I'd given the two identical lines reading) the reverse is hardly true.)

If you're wondering why we got "fruitcake" from "mistake" -- cycling through the alphabet to Z and then back up to F -- the answer is that practically every two-syllable noun rhyming with "take" has its emphasis on the first syllable (e.g. namesake, newsbreak, pancake), while "mistake" has its emphasis on the second. "Fruitcake", to my ear, sounds about evenly emphasized -- so in it went. It's marginal, but there isn't really a better choice (not in the rhyming dictionary I used, anyway.)

The whole thing is, basically, nonsense -- the usual result of the n+7 technique. But some of it is interesting nonsense (as cunningly-produced nonsense often is). I like quite a few phrases in it (I can say this without boasting since, given my argument that it is essentially an aleatory technique, I don't think that the results are to my credit in any way). I think a few of the phrases are actually nice:

"His howl is in the vineyard though"
"To watch his works fill up with woe"
"The darkest evidence of the beer"
"The wounds are lovely, dark and deep"
"But I have properties to keep"

When I went through this at first, I got "But I have propensities to keep" for the antepenultimate line, which is nice in its own way; but of course it didn't scan, as I saw upon rereading it. And I like the new version too.

And given our current Torture Promoter, I think that

Thee only other sow's the veep
Of easy wine and downy hake.

-- is a nice bit of snark, although not a terribly accurate one (the president, not the veep, is probably better described as "of easy wine". (A hake, btw, is a type of fish; and while I'm at it, a fasces is a Roman symbol of rulership (its the root of "fascism".)) Actually, once the Veep is the subject, several of the other phrases -- "To watch his works fill up with woe" not to mention "The wounds are lovely, dark and deep,/But I have properties to keep" -- take on an appropriate resonance too.

But in sum, while the result produced some nice -- and nicely odd -- images, it certainly isn't a good poem.

Actually, the aesthetics of n+7 is essentially the same as that of mad-libs, which I (and I suspect many of you) used to do as a kid. The difference is that mad-libs are candidly meant as games, while oulipo is, as that middle "li" indicates, supposed to aim at literature. There's no question that some oulipian techniques have been successful in this. But on n+7, I'm still a skeptic -- at least as anything longer than phrases go: that good phrases have been produced is not a question (e.g. Harry Mathews' "I wandered lonely as a crowd..."); -- but it's also not, in the end, very impressive.

But. I said above that n+7 was like other oulipian techniques in being tempting. I fear it might also be like others in being addictive. (I was stuck on lipograms for weeks.) So perhaps I'll be doing more of them, after all. Compulsion rarely channels itself naturally along aesthetic lines; and good games are quite compelling...

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