Quick Review 08
"Prose took the minstrel's verse without a squeeze
His exaltation shocked both youth and crone
The understanding critic firstly sees
'Ere meanings new to ancient tribes are thrown
They both are right not untamed mutterings
That metred rhyme alone can souls enslave
They both are right not unformed smatterings
That every verbal shock aims to deprave
Poetic license needs no strain or stress
One tongue will do to keep the verse agog
From cool Parnassus down to wild Loch Ness
Bard I adore your endless monologue
Ventriloquists be blowed you strike me dumb
Soliloquies predict great things old chum"
from "100,000,000,000,000 Poems"
by Raymond Queneau (trans. Stanley Chapman)
in The Oulipo Compendium
Atlas Press, 1998
Cents Mille Milliards de Poèmes by Raymond Queneau is a flipbook of ten sonnets, in which each sonnet appears by itself on a recto, and each recto is sliced into fourteen horizontal strips, with one line of poetry on each strip, so that the lines themselves can be turned like long, thin pages within the book itself. This design permits corresponding lines from any of the sonnets to replace each other, and these lines follow so rigorous a structure that such permutations can occur without altering either the rhyme scheme or the lyric syntax in any of the other poems. The work thus permits the creation of 100 trillion possible variants, and the author has suggested that, to peruse this book in its entirety, an insomniac reading nonstop, every hour of every day, requires 190,258,751 years to finish the work….
Like "Sonnet for Bonnie" by Darren Wershler-Henry, Cents Mille Milliards de Poèmes also causes my students much bewilderment when they first encounter it, and likewise, I enjoy teaching this poem because it too represents one of the great limit-cases of sonnetry—albeit, a case that does not propose extremes of minimalist expression (as seen, for example, in the poem by Wershler-Henry), but instead a case that proposes a sublime surfeit of messages, far too numerous for any one reader to absorb in even the lifetime of our species. I thus joke with my students, saying that, in the wake of such a book, I see little reason to bother writing more sonnets when we already have a few trillion versions at our disposal; moreover, the author has already patented a literary machine that, by flipping pages in books, can automatically manufacture a sonnet for us in far less time than we might take to write one for ourselves.
Queneau almost seems to suggest that, while prose may have usurped some of the prestige of poems, both genres of writing partake of the same "endless monologue" in the face of some inexhaustible signification. Whether these texts originate from the height of "cool" reason or the depths of "wild" passion, the onerous, if not sublime, burden of all the unexplored potentials of the, heretofore, unpermuted words always outweigh the durability of any one poem, which finds itself churned yet again into grist at every turning of the page. No text can endure long enough to resist all the new ones that it in turn evokes. It too is merely the intimation of a future text that remains likewise unreadable in its absolute entirety because it too is no more than a virtual machine for creating possible outcomes.
Readers who might wish to explore the specific universe of these sonnets in more detail, can do so online by clicking here.
Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...