Thesis Title: Hybrid Forms: The Function of Mathematics in Oulipian Poetry
My research examines the effects of mathematical constraint on form, structure and imagery in works of Oulipian poetry that are governed by a conceptual form of constraint. The Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle [Workshop of Potential Literature]), founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, are a group of mainly French writers and mathematicians who create literary works using rigorous formal constraints. Jacques Roubaud argues that ‘a text written according to a constraint must speak of this constraint. A text written according to a mathematisable constraint must contain the consequences of the mathematical theory it illustrates.’ Taking Roubaud's comments into consideration, my thesis will compare and contrast a number of works that fall into this category in order to assess the extent to which a text can represent its own mathematical structure.
Given the 'transportability of constraint-based creativity', as Jan Baetens and Jean-Jacques Poucel put it, Oulipian poetry encompasses not only that which has been written under constraint by members of the Oulipo, but also work produced by writers outside of the group who have adhered to its principles. The representation of mathematics in both subsets of Oulipian poetry will therefore be evaluated in my thesis. In regard to the poetic output of members of the Oulipo, my analysis will focus primarily on the poetry of Jacques Roubaud and Raymond Queneau. While recent publications such as Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s The End of Oulipo?: An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (2013) have questioned whether Oulipian methods of literary composition have run their course in terms of innovation, my thesis will reconsider the technical inventiveness present in Oulipian poetry following 'the group’s staggeringly successful run through the 1960s and 1970s.' This in itself requires an assessment of whether more innovative mathematical constraints have been created by the Oulipo or by those outside it since the group's early period, which I intend to achieve by aligning Roubaud and Queneau with poets like Inger Christensen, whose poem alphabet (1981)bears mathematical and linguistic constraints that are similar to those present in the work of the Oulipo.
The creative element of my thesis is a collection of poetry governed by a strict mathematical constraint of my own devising.