Quintessentially, Oulipian practice is the generation of literature by the application of sets of rules. These rules are referred to as constraints, restrictions or restrictive forms. “These expressions denote the strict and clearly definable rule, method, procedure or structure that generates every work that can be properly called Oulipian”[1].  I have produced, here, a collection of poetry using Oulipian constraints (for the first three poems) and structure (for the last one hundred million, million). In the first of the three poems I was keen to explore the idea that constraint and meaning should complement each other. I felt that some constraints have random and meaningless outcomes. While I can appreciate the surrealist element of meaningless outcomes, I felt that if I was going to use Oulipian techniques to develop my craft as a writer I would like to have a tighter, more crafted, outcome. I was also interested to see when the potential of constraint became (in my eyes) a poem rather than a mathematical or constrained collection of words. My first exploration with linked constraint and meaning was a lipogram in U and I. The intention was to write about a relationship which had ended, which meant that ‘you and I’ would no longer exist. The result is the following poem, Zoetrope (published in Stance).










There’s not one place we went

that now welcomes me alone.

Each space rejects my memory

of loss and shows less care

than anyone else dares reveal,

as My Other fades beyond

what was once the sky.

We posed for photos here.

Who knows where they are now.

A gentle breeze swells the hope

that we can be once more.

Salt, seaweed and blasted sand.

Sharp tears attack the eyes and

the man, the dejected reject man,

flees the scene to go home

alone and feast on spleen.


TV Package food falls short

of stop gap love. No comfort

food here. Only stewed regret.

The remote control has never felt

so remote as now. And show

on show, on show, the same.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

My head – a zoetrope of all we had,

as we stepped

from chance to chance


the end.



Exploring what is left with the omission of U and I led me to the following observations.  Most importantly for the combination of constraint and meaning, it prevented me from using the pronouns I, his, him and their. The pronouns you and us were also beyond use with the omission of the letter U.  The omission of the letter I also prevented me from using any dynamic verbs. This slowed the pace of the content and made the poem more of an observational lament. The primary verb is was rescued in the first line only by the use of the apostrophe to change it to its contracted form. The omission of the two vowels has the countervailing effect of emphasising the phonological impact of the remaining vowels. Analysing the poem at this level, its phonological mood is very fitting to the meaning of the whole piece. This unexpected by-product of the constraint plays on the A and Argh sounds in the words “blasted sand”, “sharp” and “attack” in the middle of the poem. The most frequent vowels are O and E. The O gives a sense of woe. The stressed E gives the sense of strain, whereas the unstressed E represents a despondent lack of drive and effort. Internal rhyme makes an early appearance “place”/“space” as the spelling patterns prove safe to repeat within the constraint. The repetition of safe phrases is acknowledged in the meta-poetic line “Repeat. Repeat. Repeat”. While the line is referring to the banality of repeated television programmes it is also referring to repetition of safe phrases within the poem. Overcoming the constraint led me to do a fair amount of linguistic wriggling. I used a thesaurus to find “falls short” instead of the word fails as I wanted to keep the alliteration in the line. I overcame the constraint in a more exciting and original way with the word “zoetrope”. I was trying to get the idea of flickering images and had to rely on my own mental acrobatics to do this as there is no thesaurus for imagery as such. It was really important for me to play around with Oulipian constraints but retain meaning. I feel that if the constraint results in a loss of meaning then it has defeated poetry and creativity. To combine the meaning of the poem with the constraint was exciting for me and I was pleased with the result. I also recognised a moment in which the poem became real to me. In When We Cease to Be it was at the line “we posed for photos here”. This line gave me a strong image of the imagined characters in the poem and made it in that sense more real.


Realising the poem, or the moment at which the poem takes over from the constraint was what (in discussion with my fellow poet Matt Kroll) was phrased as the creative bloom. To explain it further I would like to use the analogy of a flower bud. The narrow stem and the tight bud represents the constraint and the moment at which the flower blooms form the bud is the creative bloom when the poetic beauty is realised. The following poem has the tight constraint of including all five vowels in order in the first line, the first four vowels in the second, the first three vowels in the third, the first two vowels in the fourth, only A in the fifth line, no vowel in the sixth and then building up and receding the vowels from there. This constraint is one that could be continued for some time although I chose to stop when I felt the poem had ended. The realisation, creative bloom, or point at which this became a poem rather than just a constraint came with the introduction of “Kate” in line four. This imagined real person, who then goes on to speak, forms for me a concrete perceived meaning. This suits my personal style of poetry as I often write with some sort of narrative, character’s voice or message. The poem then went on to become quite erotic with its “pouting”, “snogging” and “caressing”. It is possible to add a reading of the structure from long to short lines as being heavy breathing that could be associated with the eroticism of the poem. This was not the intention when setting out with the constraint and is a meaning that is recognised afterwards. The creative bloom from this constraint went further than the poem itself. The shape of the poem led me consider how this poem could be presented in a 3D visual way and from there I have sought to present a collection of Oulipian poetry in an art gallery.




And then, without

All the wild songs

That we sing,





And let

All the grins

fade into

Framed dim pouts?”

And we will snog,






At her


Snatch, etching ‘oh’.

Arched thin hot grunts

As we still lock.

Kate blinks

at the




Last, her

Name whirls

And we kiss gods

As her lips form cups.



The acrobatics needed to complete the above poem could only come from within. This is not a constraint where the alternatives could be found in a dictionary or thesaurus. The reason for this is because the poem requires phrases and not words. I found that these phrases came to me quite quickly during the writing of the poem. Whereas the first poem relied on wriggling around with a thesaurus to overcome the constraint, the second was an example of the mental acrobatics that are often required in Oulipian work. This “acrobatic quality”[2] comes from the ability to think in phrases. Practising one Oulipian constraint repeatedly results in it become normal to language choice. A conversation with Paul Fournell about George Perec’s writing of La Disparition confirmed what was written by Glibert Adair, that Perec “managed to formulate a language which did perfectly well”[3] within the constraint and that this language, when practised become normal to him. I was keen to explore this idea further and, as Perec’s lipogram in E is widely regarded as a difficult constraint as E is the most commonly used vowel, it was a challenge I wanted to take up. Furthermore, I was impressed with Perec’s combination of meaning and constraint in La Disparition (translated as The Void). The missing E is representative of Perec’s missing parents, who were killed in the Holocaust. Setting out to combine meaning and constraint (albeit in a more frivolous way) and seeing how my acrobatic use of phrases could be allowed to develop, I set out to write the following lipogram in E.


The Lost E’s

God, this whizz is strong.

I don’t usually do it but

Suzy only bought six pills.

Got a stash bag down my pants.

Pills by your bollocks.

That’s my motto.

I can’t wait.

I can’t wait.

I can’t wait to go in.

It sounds bangin’ upstairs.



with a four-four bass kick.

This DJ’s Fat, man.

No, not a fat man.

Fat, man.

You ain’t down with it.

I want to go in.

I want to go in.

Too many mash-ups.

Got a fag?

B & H?

B & H, no ta. I’ll hang on

And buy fags upstairs,

Marlboro lights.

What? Nah.

I’m Old-School pal;

Fantasia, Vision.

DJ SS, Rat Pack.

Old school:


Good old pills:

Disco biscuits,

Rhubarb and custards

You know?

Total loss of control,


with a touch of hallucination;

Musical orgasm

To a rhythm that grabs you

And won’t put you down till dawn.

Happy days, Happy days!

Do you know of Shulgin?

Had his own lab in California;

Lord of MDMA.

Amazing books.


Formula upon formula

Of magic party potions

But my brain don’t work that way.

I ain’t got no qualifications,

Just passion for music

and a gluttony for drugs.

All drugs: Pot, whizz, acid, sniff, pills

I don’t touch drink though.

Wouldn’t touch it.


Ministry of Sound is shit;

A tart’s club

Always was.

Club UK Wandsworth, that was top notch.

Filthy mash up!

Look out. Plan for a pat down.

That gorilla’s for you.

I want a frisk from that lady.

Oi, oi!

Last final look,

You must always stash your pills

by your bollocks.

That’s my motto.

Hang on.

Wait a tick.

Oh fuck.

I don’t know what to do.

No stash bag down my pants

I lost all of our fucking




Yielding to my own criticism on the above poem, I acknowledge that is has considerable flaws. Its combination of meaning and constraint is too crass. The overall image or narrative scene in which the character’s voice operates is not very clear (partly due to the effect of the lipogram excluding the words queue, line and rave). The allusions used in the poem are too specific. Many people would not empathise with the character or understand what he is talking about if they had not spent many hours in the early 1990s queuing up for raves, worrying about getting searched for ecstasy tablets. On a more objective level, there are elements of language which rely on ellipsis which isn’t entirely natural to the speech patterns you would expect (e.g. “I lost all our fucking/pills” would more naturally be I’ve lost all of our fucking pills). On a more positive note, the pace and repetition of the monologue as well as the one sided, over-opinionated ranting is quite fitting to a character who is supposed to be under the influence of amphetamines. I did find that the acrobatic nature of phrases tumbling out became apparent in my practice while writing this poem over the space of three days. Phrases and extended sections came in rushes. This supports the idea that immersing yourself into the constraint can have the effect of making you think and make spontaneous lexical and phrasal choices.

Undertaking a larger Oulipian project seemed like a natural progression after the early experimentation with vowels and lipograms. Having first heard of Oulipo from the poet Ross Sutherland in the preamble for his poem Two Moon For Mongs, my first idea was to write a univocalic. I set out collecting words for a univocalic in A. In collecting 2,787 words by reading the Collins Concise Dictionary, page by page, I got a taste for the obsessive side of Oulipian love of language and I began to realise in my imagination characters and events by turning over univocalic phrases. I was put off the project for the following reasons. Firstly, due to practicalities I had to take a break between the collecting of words and the writing of the poem. This meant that the immersion into the univocalic language was interrupted. Secondly, I was not as impressed with Christian Bok’s Eunoia as I thought I might be. It seemed to me that Bok stretched good writing and poetry, and the surrealist and silly nature of some Oulipian constraints was too apparent. Thirdly, Sutherland’s Too Moons For Mongs, for all its wit and acrobatic skill, is a short poem. When I completed my own full univocalic, Madam La La’s (published in Stance), I realised why but I was still seeking something bigger. I found Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes immensely exciting as it toyed with some theoretical ideas that I was playing around with during the MA. I will explain these and the process of writing my own collection of 100,000,000,000,000 poems later.


Indeterminate perception making

amongst decay you hold fast to your line

with shaking hands your blunt fingers raking

through twisted time where the oil lamp can shine

moonbeams of knowing light his subtlety

from psyche to eros nothing is won

the long twinge of loves sharp arrow only

when caught in that knowing all else we shun

in defeat I am but left to crumple

with nauseous dreams of infanticide

only visions of a life more simple

can light the casket in which we reside

for all my tight wrought wrongs I can’t bemoan

a life that clearly I have made my own



Outside myself I’m left alone to sing

while damsels lightly lit to where I shine

unfolding from beneath a phoenix wing

yours and yours alone this gross wanton sign

scuppered deep I sink tongue tied to your knee

and weeping to your thigh I seek tension

when seeking seeking leaves naught else to see

of something else you forgot to mention

that which could yet make us respectable

not just a spectacle of wanton pride

with all that is base and detestable

put out once more with nowhere left to hide

but heed the cock’rel after seeds are sown

lest you callously cut what you have grown



Perhaps meaning comes in starts mutating

through a sordid grubby finger’d pipeline

to skyline the winsome nymph is aching

for words drip honeyed pools for Wittgenstein

thirsty mute readers drink insatiably

a heady cocktail when all thats saids done

as if the mirror could just crack with glee

the sunlight that signals I have begun

falling kisses just compound the puzzle

with every hope and heaving heart applied

a dagger that raps at the sepulchral

echoes last love to the blood must abide

I am still here and although I’m still prone

to the land taking all you’ve overthrown



Against this darkness that I am writing

outwitting impermanence to define

contours of a painted doll retiring

from the next stale nest of mortal design

age speaks with autumnal solemnity

above dulcet dove grey boned derision

knocking my heart against eternity

knowing cessation beyond all reason

herons in empty pools will all now tell

the tale of the days recidivous pride

of every blind and lame and humble

diamond house builder with no inside

just protection from todays toy cyclone

so let rainbows follow a drab grey tone



Sweet poison into ears welcome laughing

as we escape from here just to enshrine

our wilful dismissal of our passing

wanton destruction deep unto the brine

dark truth against all odds and pleasantry

and all consuming loneliness hard won

dreams retake precedence invasively

reality from distant verge undone

to return to source as far as able

doors fall open nothing is beatified

just the same trap upon which to stumble

stones clanking down the empty wells inside

ad memoriam as all dust is blown

through deep cupped hands against a gramophone



Devour this now as my feast offering

While great iron chains and black ropes confine

you to darkness of butter lamps blowing

in the wind you can have all that is mine

near the abode of ev’ry deity

ears cupp’d to hands for ev’ry morsel won

and superimposed shadows mockingly

chant hand in hand the bridal procession

continues to the red coloured castle

beyond mountains of elements reside

gold vajra in hand you stall or idle

where in time will the white faced monkey hide

born as an anti god we stand alone

with oscillating consciousness to own



Forget how sweet the bowl of night can sing

to unborn tomorrows towards sunshine

amongst saints and sages all are sinning

with the same seven ringed cup of wine

I kiss the cold lips of longevity

this naked knot of human flesh fiction

upon fiction the rest is lies to me

alchemists at the tavern door beckon

to wilderness paradise unbuckle

winter garments from step to step to side

sans wine sans singer and sans end but hell

the moving finger writes upon the tide

the music from dark distant drums will drone

as we live now under great saturns throne



Go yoke and handcuff what youre expecting

while you are the mirror to the divine

with lotus of countless petals hiding

amidst a truth that barely you make mine

in the shadow of the citadel plea

writhing in the truth craving attention

between the river and the sky the sea

before the owls day blind eyes after sun

so find yourself here and amicable

to the subtle ways too subtly implied

by seeds beneath the snow and uncouple

logic before the tyrant youre untied

from this coupled couplet you can atone

and now use this as your new stepping stone



Happiness in empty gestures dancing

round graves in the place of mist crystalline

figures of bleak empty jesters dancing

with knaves attending my warm whims with wine

kronos is a petulant deity

and elysian fields are overrun

grim grey vultures at the ceremony

peck and scratch forgetting the barren sun

furies mock sisyphus in his struggle

while in meadows of erebus you hide

unknown unto me as you unmuzzle

cerberus to cries of anguish inside

all that is left is for me to atone

then cheat charons boat with wise words outgrown



Just as I will surely start becoming

justice with line by line by luscious line

sink deep into a brave new world churning

words against a meaning that isn’t mine

I’m drunk time and again as you drink me

until your very own moist web is spun

dew a painted lace of your own dawn free

the neural networks of moods unwritten

it is done so shall I remain humble

or basking in vile vainglorious pride

I will pass it to you to reshuffle

time to move on again push this aside

to new horizons this is a milestone

from me to you and all thats unbeknown


Keeping within the sonnet structure is a form of constraint which works on two levels in this process. The first level is the traditional level of metre, the use of fourteen lines and an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme. The second more complex level on which the sonnet works here is that, to make a collection of ten sonnets that can cooperate to create the 100,000,000,000,000 sonnets, they must share rhymes. This in turn creates a constraint beyond the original sonnet form as the rhyme of the first sonnet written dictates rhyme throughout. Each rhyme will appear twenty times across the whole piece. This is the binding element of the collection. To make this constraint easier it was necessary to select rhymes that occur more frequently. I did this before writing the sonnets so as not to back myself into a corner with the constraint. I looked through the Collins Rhyming Dictionary to select rhymes that occurred more frequently.

Leaving interpretation open is an important part of the lexical and figurative choices made in the process. To do this I have looked to the work of French Symbolist poets such as Mallarme, Rimbaud, Gourmont and Claudel. By choosing a more open semantic field that can be found in Symbolist poetry I have “sought a controlled ambiguity which would give the initiative to the words themselves”[4]. I will make no effort to explain the meaning or significance of any of the figurative or symbolic lexical choices that I have made as “to explain in prose the mechanisms of the ineffable and to admit that it partakes of the same arbitrary (and self-deluding) quality as other poetic subjects is to demystify it and thus to cancel the virtual transcendence effected through the negation of the familiar”[5]. Ultimately the lexical choice that leaves an ambiguity for interpretation creates “a sign that as such demands deciphering, an interpretation by whoever is exposed to it or is struck by it and who wishes to understand and savour its mystery”[6]. This creates a flexibility of interpretation.

Zonation of syntactic correlatives also allows the open interpretation of the collection. The use of punctuation to demarcate sentences and the arrangement of sentences in a definite order create the conditions for a concrete meaning. “The world presented by literary texts is constructed out of what Ingarden called intentionale Satzkorrelate (intentional sentence correlatives)”[7]. Sentences “only take on their real meaningfulness through the interaction of their correlatives”[8]. In keeping with Queneau, and differing from my usual style of sonnet writing, I have omitted all punctuation. The reader must create their own syntax. This allows the reader further flexibility of interpretation and allows open correlation of meaning between lines by making the sentence correlative indeterminate and therefore intentionally unintentional.

Xenogamous, or cross fertilized networks of constructions beyond the normal determined manifold of correlated sentences means that the potential for meaning is opened up. “The total meaning content of a sentence undergoes various and sometimes very essential modifications only because the given sentence appears in a certain place in a determinately arranged manifold of sentences.” [9] The potential is created by the indeterminate arrangement of manifolds. A symbolic lexical choice in one line in one particular permutation of manifold of the collection may have a different interpretation when it is arranged in a different manifold of sentences. “From such a complex of sentences one can create at one’s discretion a great number of other manifolds of sentences by rearranging their parts”[10]. Therefore “one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way”[11]. This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, while the complete text could be read in 190,258,751 years[12], no two readers may necessarily get the same meaning from it. Secondly, because the act of rearranging and reading the manifolds of sentences goes beyond the original act of writing, the collection contains 99,999,999,999,990 sonnets that are not written by the author. Therefore the very act of writing creates the conditions for the deconstruction of the author. I, as the writer of the collection, can claim no authority over the perception or construction of any of the sonnets other than the ten that I actually did write (even then, I cannot claim a definitive authority over their perception).

Conditions such as these, brought about by Symbolism and undetermined manifolds of syntax, empower the reader and therefore contributes to the death of the author giving the collection “exultant immobility and joyful progression beyond self”[13]. The ownership of the work is handed over as “one would have to consider the writer to be not a creator of his work but only a discoverer of complexes of sentences”[14]. This makes the text a truly post-modern text (in fascinating contrast to the archaic sonnet form that forms its structural constraint). Therefore it fulfils a purpose in that it contains within it a meaning that suits its age: “Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author.”[15]

Varying interpretations of the text have been offered, an example of which is summarised here. The interpretation by my fellow writer Emma Kittle from a newly constructed sonnet from the collection shows the understanding of “the thought processes involved with two people and pregnancy”[16]. This is not something that I had considered when I was writing any of the sonnets although the concept of generation was very much in my mind. I was pleased that Emma was able to end her reading on a happy note with “a life which I have clearly made my own” which she views as “positive…final acceptance” in the struggle of giving up your independent life to the responsibility of parenthood. Kind regards to Emma for her feedback on her sonnet from the collection.

By returning next to the mathematical elements of Oulipian practice and considering the societal factors that could shape meaning of a poem or piece of writing, I have examined Chaos Theory as a means to producing constraint. The idea was to use the model of Chaos Theory within the parameters of the alphabet to create the conditions for literature. This would mean creating a non-linear aperiodic system with an input of 26 graphemes, which would create a feedback of random selections of letters from which you may be able to create correlatives of letters to create words. This could be done by attempting to make anagrams from the randomly selected groups of letters or by waiting for words to form themselves. The feedback from the equation would ultimately produce a frequency and it is from this frequency that patterns would emerge. While this is interesting in theory, in practice it would virtually impossible. The frequency with which words may form would be such a rare occurrence within the feedback that it would be akin to finding a grain of sand on a beach. Therefore such a model would require a computer to generate the feedback and sift through for the frequency patterns. Only then when the frequency patterns were handed to me would I then be able to start making correlated linguistic manifolds. I am not a mathematician or a computer scientist so I have been forced to abandon this Chaos Theory Model of Oulipian word generation.

New discoveries on quantum physics are also interesting when considering which constraints to use. The recent creation of the Hadron collider in an attempt to simulate the ultimate generative force in the universe seems to fit the concept of Oulipo very nicely. When exploring Hadrons it turns out that to make a sub atomic particle you need six hadrons. I would therefore like to turn to a sestina to conclude this explanation. (To observe the importance of the number six I will not include an envoi).


Mark these words; in them you will find that there is love

that holds us all together. As spring comes blooming,

blooming into life in riotous ecstasy

of furtive colour, sink into your perception

and usher in your new world of hopeful chaos,

damning all that’s part of this hopeless creation.


Acknowledging only that which comes from creation

of words, phrases and images, the only love

I find is in these words alone. People are chaos.

Youth will always find new ways to shine its blooming

vernal face, not nulled by forgotten ecstasy.


Remember that you too have tasted ecstasy

and have been there at the moment of creation.

Now toying with lovers’ and others’ perception

I seek to fake every move to deny true love,

but spring will come again and booming, blooming

and stomping into a summer it holds chaos.




You hold the power to deal with any chaos,

to turn it in an instant to sweet ecstasy.

Even from a wound, a want, you too come blooming

with words, again forming beauty in creation

from constraint, constraint, constraint. This you do with love

and a stopper in Huxley’s doors of perception.


You hold the power of any wild perception.

From that you too will stay open to this chaos

and as from one you will remember ecstasy.

There is a magic to be found in creation,

so sit back in your soul to observe the blooming.


From deep within these six buds these petals come blooming

for you to admire and drink scented perception.

Yet there can be no greater thing than creation.

Even in the swirling hell realm’s depth of chaos

the springtime blossom still sings out its ecstasy

and with words, with hot haunting power, I feel love.






[1] Mathews, H & Brotchie A, Oulipo Compendium, (London: Atlas Press, 1998) p131

[2] Jackson, Kevin, Invisible Forms, (London: Macmillan, 1999) p219

[3] Jackson, Kevin, Invisible Forms, (London: Macmillan, 1999) p219


[4] Lawler, James R, The Language of French Symbolism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969)p.viii

[5] Porter, Laurence M, The Crisis of French Symbolism (London: Cornell University Press, 1990) p.254

[6] Peyre, Henri, What is Symbolism? (Alabama:  University of Alabama Press, 1980)p.8

[7] Isler Wolfgang, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in The Reading Process in Reader Response Criticism ed. Tompkins, Jane P (London: The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd, 1980) p52

[8] Isler Wolfgang, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in The Reading Process in Reader Response Criticism ed. Tompkins, Jane P (London: The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd, 1980) p52

[9]  Ingarden, Roman, The Literary Work of Art, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973) p99


[10] Ingarden, Roman, The Literary Work of Art, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973)p99


[11] Isler Wolfgang, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in The Reading Process in Reader Response Criticism ed. Tompkins, Jane P (London: The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd, 1980)  p55

[12] Mathews, H & Brotchie A, Oulipo Compendium, (London: Atlas Press, 1998)p14


[13] Lawler, James R, The Language of French Symbolism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) p.viii

[14] Ingarden, Roman, The Literary Work of Art, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973)p99

[15] Foucault, Michel, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977) p117

[16] See Appendix 1