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OuLiPo: Word Games and Creative Writing

Dreamlike surrealist art

L'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), abbreviated OuLiPo, was born in 1960 by writer Raymond Queneau and mathematician François le Lionnet. This movement sought to bring structure to literature, more so than was available in the 

Surrealist and Romantic styles that dominated the era.


Raymond Queneau was a part of the surrealist movement until 1932, following a disagreement with surrealist leader André Breton. This left Queneau looking for direction and structure. He found that with Français le Lionnet, among others, and founded OuLiPo.


OuLiPo strives to provide structure via contraintes, (constraints). These can be on the use of language, time, or space. 

This drives writers to focus on writing as a process, not as a means to an end — a 'could', rather than a 'should.' The work produced by these constraints is complete, but suggests at what else might be created with the same constraints.

OuLiPo has published many constraints generated by members over the years. Some are more complex than others, and many play with form. 

A boule de neige style poem, anonymous

Boule de neige (snowball) is a constraint which generates poems. The first line must have one letter, the second line has two letters, the third line has three letters, and the pattern continues until the poem is finished (or the poet loses track of how many letters they need in the next line). 


Échelle (ladder) also generates poems by linking words. A poet starts with two words (preferably with opposite meanings), each having the same number of letters. Starting with one word, one letter is changed at a time, until the word becomes the second word. 








Each of these constraints may be added to as time goes on and more oulipiens experiment with the technique and find new potentials. These are called extensions. An extension to the échelle constraint is the palindrome, which plays with a reversal of letters in the same ladder shape:












Queneau used 99 such constraints in his book 'Excercises de Style ' (Exercises in Style). This book features a very short story about a fight on a bus, written 99 different ways through 99 different constraints. The objective of the book (and the constraint named for it) is to take a rather boring short story and make it interesting by telling it in a variety of ways. 

OuLiPo Today

To this day, OuLiPo members meet monthly for food, wine, and to enjoy literature and creativity through structure. Even those who aren't official members enjoy using constraints to find inspiration in their work, or as a starting point for new projects, or simply to explore creative writing in a new light.

Written by Jasmine Grace, University Intern

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