"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.

Originally Published: October 27th, 2007

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...

  1. October 27, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    Of course the real genius of Cent Mille Milliards De Poemes also rests in two facts, does it not:
    1. It is in fact, only one poem, containing within in 100 trillion possibilities. How many of these possibilities one has to actually read before one starts to get a true sense of the whole is an interesting question, but it is clear that one does not actually have to have read all of them in order to have read the poem. By reading only a few permutations, one already begins to get an adequate *feel*, knowledge, understanding for the whole, which starts to give diminishing returns on the labour of reading new permutations. A person is constantly changing through time, a succession of various instants of themselves, but after a few meetings one knows who they are.
    The translation, of course, is a second, different, poem.
    This also means that the poem does not exhaust the list of possible or necessary sonnets, but merely multiplies that list. A true limit case would be a parallel processing computer modelled along the lines of Queneau's brain that could write a different one of these multiple sonnets every hour. Or one that could produce multiple personas (of varying similarity or difference in personality from Queaneau, in different languages), each persona writing its own kind of one of these multiple sonnets every hour. Which is to say Cent Mille Milliards developed as a form of expression in its own right, and not as a one off.
    2. Which brings me to the thing that makes Queneau worth reading, so lovely to read, more lovely than pretty much any in his gang or among his later disciples: his personality, his zany humanism. Not one of his projects obliterates his personality, all carry his stamp and his way of feeling. You might say that it is language doing the real writing, and that might be true in some distant empirical sense, but how can one avoid or make irrelevant Queneau's personality?

  2. October 27, 2007

    I like Queneau's Exercises in Style a great deal-- I don't want to appear to dismiss him-- but the pernutative-combinatorial sonnet machine strikes me as almost a trivial achievement: anyone can write 1,000,000 sonnets you'd only want to read once. I want to write one sonnet you'll want to reread 1,000,000 teams. Though really I'd settle for ten.

  3. October 28, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    This is a fun game, and I can see myself pointing sonnet students towards it for a lark; indeed it would be fun to have the flip book to pass around. Perhaps what is most impressive to me is that the English translation or version (I have no idea how strict or free it is--rather free I imagine) has been worked out so perfectly in its rhyme and syntax. But does it tell us anything about the sonnet itself? Composing end-stopped lines so they can be interchanged in rhyme, meter and syntax, if that is your only goal, is not actually very difficult, though it is time-consuming. You can make centos of 14 lines from Shakespeare if you like: it might be funny, or nonsensical, or even a poem in its own right if you work at it; but it doesn't tell us all that much about Shakespeare, except that he wrote in iambic pentameter. Doesn't this rather show us that to write a good or a great sonnet you do need a controlling intelligence rather than a sonnet generator? Doesn't this make you want to go out and read GREAT sonnets rather than spend all night generating rhymed 14-line computer outputs? There are experimental sonnets that really do test the boundaries of the sonnet--the sonnet is all about innovation within tradition, and has been since it entered the English language, via translation, with Wyatt. (Spencer, for instance, brings sonnets into English with unrhymed translations of Petrarch. There is Milton, who took the sonnet out of the sequence and radically changes the subject matter and about erases the volta altogether. Then there is George Merredith, who writes 16 line sonnets; Hopkins who invents the 6/4.5! proportioned curtal sonnet. There are the women who enter the Petrarchian love tradition, but turn it on its head, taking the point of view of the cold, unattainable mistress, a la Edna St. Vincent Millay. And lots and lots of contemporaries--Karen Volkman springs to mind--doing new and interesting things) I would recommend Don Paterson's 101 sonnets to get a taste for just how various this form really is--and he limits himself, which I do not do, just to 14 liners.
    So I guess I would say: while this is a really neat trick this pony does, and an entertaining trick you might want to see it perform several times, it still knows just the one trick, and I guess I'd rather see a dressage horse put through the full range of its paces, ancient as they are, in lively and interesting ways.

  4. October 28, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    Well... I dunno... I'm sure it wasn't THAT easy to write, and CERTAINLY not that easy to conceive-- especially in the 1950s. Moreover, the lines of cent mille milliards are very clearly the product of a "controlling intelligence", a genius of satire, in fact. They do mean something and, moreover, as Italo Calvino points out in his essay on Queneau, they also teach us something about grammar. Tho Q's trademark was his light touch and his works are not show-offy but first and foremost entertaining. To me at least. And that counts for not a little.

  5. October 28, 2007
     Don Share

    Well, you know it had to happen, but I'm going to mention Lowell's Notebook-cum-History-era free sonnets. I'm convinced that if anyone else but Lowell had written them all and marketed them as a single contemporary epic "long-poem," they'd be seen quite differently and positively. Though I quite understand the reasons for the Notebook versions in particular being slighted, even to the extent of being almost completely excluded from the "collected" poems, I hate to think of their being consigned so completely to the dustbin of, pardon the expression, History. Perhaps Lowell suffered, too, from having the force of personality which Queneau's followers, following Eliot more closely than they'd like to admire, eschew.

  6. October 28, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Vivek, no doubt you are right about the satire, charm and entertainment, which perhaps aren't as evident to me on such a slight acquaintance. I'm certainly willing to grant that this is a tour de force of sorts. No doubt it does teach us, too, something about grammar and syntax. But I'm not persuaded it teaches us much about the sonnet itself--in that sense this game seems reductive rather than explorative. I don't know that it aims to do much more than entertain and mind-boggle, and also to poke fun, as you suggest, I think, at sonneteers--and that is enough, certainly, for what it is. I guess I am interested in the single sonnets that are also great poems, which is a very minor subset in a form that has often been used, as here, to generate skeins of verses, in crowns and sequences.

  7. October 28, 2007
     Don Share

    Er, that should read "more closely than they'd like to admit."