The full name of the Oulipo, a Parisian collective of writers and mathematicians that I joined in 2009, translates to “workshop for potential literature.” Of the many potential interpretations of that quarry, I’ve always preferred the one whereby any bit of language has the potential to be or become literature—regardless of how it was originally intended—and the workshop exists to forge, refine, and share tools to harness that potential. (For instance: see how many times you can use the word “potential” in one paragraph before it starts to seem objectionable. My record is five.) To my delight and my unceasing distraction, eminently eligible bits of language are everywhere around us, and I find a special thrill in teasing out the literary potential of those that are found, not fabricated for the occasion: spam email subjects, movie credits, inattentively translated assembly instructions. Oulipian forms are generative devices, of course, but they’re also ways of looking, selecting, and transforming. Here I’ve attempted to use one such form in both ways.
The récapitul is a fixed poetic form created by Jacques Jouet in 2010. Its fully fledged form is a little long for our purposes,* so we’ll use its truncated version, the petit récapitul portatif:
1. The poem consists of 10 lines total, in a 3-3-3-1 stanza distribution.
2. Each line is 9 syllables long. No meter is required.
3. The lines do not rhyme.
4. After each three-line stanza comes a list, in parentheses, of three words taken from one of each of the lines in the preceding stanza.
5. The poem is dated and addressed to a specific person (someone you know or someone you don’t).
Here’s how we’ll use it:
6. This link will direct you to a Wikipedia article in English, chosen at random. (You can also click on the fifth link down on the lefthand toolbar of any article.)
7. The first line in your poem will correspond to the first random article you see, the second to the second, and so on for all ten lines.
7a. You may replace up to two of your random articles with either a new random article or an article one click away from the original.
8. You may interpret “correspond to” however you choose. You can quote the article, paraphrase it, comment on it, take impressionistic inspiration from it, or what have you.
9. You may open ten random articles at once and plan out the content of your PRP, though still observing the order in which you opened them; you may also complete each line of the poem before allowing yourself to open the next article.
10. If you so choose, hyperlink each line—or the list word taken from it—to the corresponding article.
* But I recommend it highly to adepts looking to get their hands a little dirtier. It’s 6-6-6-6-6-6-1, with six words in each inter-stanza list, and lines are a consistent length of at least 13 syllables. The example here is in French, but it’ll give you the gist.
April 5, 2016, New York
for Philip Ording
The picture of the picture-winged fly,
stoutly built, often foveolate,
awaits its big-screen adaptation.
No justice, no peace, insists the fly,
his appetite and rancor matched but
by his bloody-minded stubbornness.
A dollar mirror, a larval void,
some cats who just wanted to play and
inadvertently melted Jack Dann.
On drab wings the moth flies from the light.
Daniel Levin Becker is literary editor of The Believer and the youngest member of the Oulipo. His first book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, was published in 2012.