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Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

by

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature Cover

 

 

Excerpt

<p><b>Chapter 3: </b><b><i>Reading Out Loud</i></b><i></i></p><p><i> </i></p><p> The Oulipo didn&rsquo;t start doing its reading publicly until the early seventies, before which its activities were steeped in a cautious, low-level clandestinity. Its first sorties were mostly tied to festivals and colloquia: a conference at Reid Hall, the Parisian branch of Columbia University; the Europalia festival in Brussels; a &ldquo;Pompidoulipo&rdquo; at the Centre Pompidou; the Festival de la Chartreuse in Villeneuve-l&egrave;s-Avignon. The Paris <i>jeudi</i> readings began in 1996, at the 100-seat Halle Saint-Pierre in Montmartre; since then they have migrated to a 250-place auditorium at Jussieu, a University of Paris campus near the Panth&eacute;on, then to the far more capacious Forum des Images in the massive underground shopping complex at Les Halles, and finally, in 2005, to the slightly smaller but more suitably prestigious <i>grand auditorium</i> at the BNF. </p><p> &#9;Readings are a natural and sustaining part of the Oulipo&rsquo;s public life for a number of reasons. For one, it gives the audience a reason to care, to buy a book after the reading, to put a face to the name on the spine, to rub elbows with other elegantly disheveled <i>mordus</i>. Conversely, while it allows the Oulipians to be approached by their admirers, it has also become a significant means of evolution for the group&rsquo;s collective corpus. The BNF, which is fairly intimate despite its seating capacity, is a place where new material can be tested before a sympathetic audience and where old material can be repurposed and given new valence&mdash;a place, for the most part, where oulipian texts attain the life they were meant to lead. </p><p> &#9;The <i>jeudis </i>for the last several years have been organized by theme. Each reading in the 2006-2007 season, for instance, was devoted to a color, beginning with <i>Infrarouge</i> and ending with <i>Ultraviolet</i>. For the occasional writer like Salon, someone whose daily life is not centered on literature, a monthly reading is a great impetus to compose, with a sufficiently pliable prompt to yield quality results. (Salon&rsquo;s offerings, pun-besotted shaggy-dog stories that are at once savant and howlingly corny, are invariably among the most crowd-pleasing texts of the evening.) For younger members who have not yet published much, the theme of an upcoming <i>jeudi</i> can provide the concrete hook for a new idea: Forte, for instance, found that the reading on <i>le bleu du ciel</i>, or blue of the sky, lent itself well to a form he had recently created, a series of 99 pseudo-randomly ordered observations that collectively depict a single topic. (Likewise, after my induction, I used a reading on the theme of <i>les premiers outrages</i>&mdash;first indignities&mdash;as an excuse to develop my half-baked theory that the tower of Babel episode in the book of Genesis was the first oulipian event in history.) Meanwhile, more seasoned and prolific authors like Jouet can reach into their own back catalogs and find something relevant to the evening&rsquo;s theme; others&mdash;such as B&eacute;nabou, whose bibliography is concentrated mostly on metaliterary issues&mdash;can just as easily trot out a beloved (or obscure) text by a deceased Oulipian, or a particularly apropos one from someone outside the clan: French poet Tristan Corbi&egrave;re, British screenwriter Richard Curtis, Roman rhetorician Quintilian, and so on. </p><p> &#9;All this gives an effect not unlike that of the spiral of Oulipian heads projected behind the stage: it suggests that there is no end to the connections that are possible between disparate minds focusing on one thing, the sheer volume of stuff that can be brought together under the aegis of even a couple of humdrum ideas. Like the <i>galaxie</i>, the themes seem to signify this both in practice&mdash;what&rsquo;s been written already&mdash;and in theory&mdash;what could be written, given a theme and some time and a handful of techniques. Each reading is, in this respect, a small and casual affirmation of potential literature&rsquo;s potential applicability to the real world. </p><p> </p>

Product Details

ISBN:
9780674065772
Author:
Levin Becker, Daniel
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Author:
Becker, Daniel Levin
Location:
Cambridge
Subject:
Composition & Creative Writing
Subject:
Reference/Writing
Subject:
Language Arts & Disciplines-Authorship
Subject:
Literary Criticism-European - French
Subject:
History, Modern -- 20th century.
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Cloth
Publication Date:
20120430
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Language:
English
Pages:
352
Dimensions:
8 x 6 in

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Related Subjects

Humanities » Literary Criticism » General
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Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature New Hardcover
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Product details 352 pages Harvard University Press - English 9780674065772 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Ebullient to those already under the Oulipian spell and likely befuddling to those ingenuity intolerant, Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels is a fascinating, engaging, and well-researched account of Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (translating loosely as the "workshop for potential literature"), a collective of mostly French writers and mathematicians that employ(ed) a range of constraints in their work to aid in the exploration of the seemingly limitless possibilities and forms inherent in literary creation.

Oulipian inquiry has yielded novels without certain vowels, love stories without gender, poems without words, books that never end, books that do nothing but end, books that would technically take longer to read than most geological eras have lasted, books that share the exercise of mourning, books that aim to keep the reader from reading them, books that exist for no particular reason other than to amuse and perplex, books that may not actually exist at all. These works, all of them governed in some way by strict technical constraints or elaborate architectural designs, are attempts to prove the hypothesis that the most arbitrary structural mandates can be the most creatively liberating.

Levin Becker traces Oulipo's origins and follows them through a half-century to their myriad present-day spin-offs and associated incarnations. Offering brief biographical sketches of many of its most noteworthy members (including cofounders Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais), as well as explanations of some of the group's most favored techniques, Many Subtle Channels is an indispensable addition to the Oulipian library in English. Levin Becker, now himself a member (having been co-opted in 2009 at the age of 24, making him the only other American after Harry Mathews), writes admiringly of the group, recounting meetings attended, performances witnessed, and inquests conducted.

Univocalism, the prisoner's constraint, n+7, anagrams, palindromes, alexandrines, sestinas, chronopoems, acrostics, word golf, metro poems, homophones, lipograms, snowballs, pangrams, and tautograms (to name but a handful) are all deliciously captivating, and Levin Becker does an excellent job describing and providing examples of each (although, sadly, some specimens remain untranslated [untranslatable?!] as yet). Surely Many Subtle Channels has a limited audience, but Levin Becker makes it accessible both to the ardent admirer as well as to those with but a cursory interest. Delving into the philosophical ramifications and technical applications of constrained writing (to reveal or not to reveal, that is the question) brings up any number of interesting asides and makes clear that potential(!) volumes of criticism could never begin to exhaust the subject. Many Subtle Channels is an invaluable read for fans of Oulipo or for anyone intrigued by boundless creativity, structured formation, or the irresistible coalescence of literature and mathematics.

...and so in the Oulipo, as in these stories, it is the act of seeking that defines the characters. They become who they are in searching for a solution, through the optimism and momentum of working toward it on their own terms, with the creative tools and interpretive resources at their disposal. The bigger the haystack, the better it is not to have a particular needle in mind. Think of the Oulipo, if you like, as a search party for those of us who don't know what we're looking for.

Et vive l'Oulipo!

"Synopsis" by , The youngest member of the Paris-based experimental collective Oulipo, Levin Becker tells the story of one of literature's quirkiest movements--and the personal quest that led him to seek out like-minded writers, artists, and scientists who are obsessed with language and games, and who embrace formal constraints to achieve literature's potential.
"Synopsis" by , A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012
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