Oulipo (French pronunciation: ​[ulipo], short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: "workshop of potential literature", stylized OuLiPo) is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior and Jean Lescure, and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.

The group defines the term littérature potentielle as (rough translation): "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy". Queneau described Oulipians as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape."

Constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Perec's "story-making machine", which he used in the construction of Life: A User's Manual. As well as established techniques, such as lipograms (Perec's novel A Void) and palindromes, the group devises new methods, often based on mathematical problems, such as the knight's tour of the chess-board and permutations.


Oulipo was founded on November 24, 1960, as a subcommittee of the Collège de 'Pataphysique and titled Séminaire de littérature expérimentale.[1] At their second meeting, the group changed its name to Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Oulipo, at Albert-Marie Schmidt's suggestion.[2] The idea had arisen two months earlier, when a small group met in September at Cerisy-la-Salle for a colloquium on Queneau's work. During this seminar, Queneau and François Le Lionnais conceived the society.[3]

During the subsequent decade, Oulipo (as it was commonly known) was only rarely visible as a group. As a subcommittee, they reported their work to the full Collège de 'Pataphysique in 1961. In addition, Temps Mêlés [fr] (in French) devoted an issue to Oulipo in 1964, and Belgian radio broadcast one Oulipo meeting. Its members were individually active during these years and published works which were created within their constraints. The group as a whole began to emerge from obscurity in 1973 with the publication of La Littérature Potentielle [fr], a collection of representative pieces. Martin Gardner helped to popularize the group in America when he featured Oulipo in his February 1977 Mathematical Games column in Scientific American.[4][5] In 2012 Harvard University Press published a history of the movement, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, by Oulipo member Daniel Levin Becker.[6]

Oulipo was founded by a group of men in 1960 and it took 15 years before the first woman was allowed to join; this was Michèle Métail who became a member in 1975 and has since distanced herself from the group.[7][8] Since 1960 only six women have joined Oulipo,[8][9] with Clémentine Mélois last to join in June 2017.[10]

Oulipian works

Ambigram Oulipo
Ambigram Oulipo

Some examples of Oulipian writing:


Some Oulipian constraints:[11]

S+7, sometimes called N+7
Replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. For example, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago..." becomes "Call me islander. Some yeggs ago...". Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs.
Snowball, or a Rhopalism
A poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.
A method wherein each “new” sentence in a paragraph stems from the last word or phrase in the previous sentence (e.g. “I descend the long ladder brings me to the ground floor is spacious…”). In this technique the sentences in a narrative continually overlap, often turning the grammatical object in a previous sentence into the grammatical subject of the next. The author may also pivot on an adverb, prepositional phrase, or other transitory moment.
Writing that excludes one or more letters. The previous sentence is a lipogram in B, F, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it does not contain any of those letters).
Prisoner's constraint, also called Macao constraint
A type of lipogram that omits letters with ascenders and descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y).
Sonnets and other poems constructed using palindromic techniques.
A poem using only one vowel letter. In English and some other languages the same vowel letter can represent different sounds, which means that, for example, "born" and "cot" could both be used in a univocalism. (Words with the same American English vowel sound but represented by different 'vowel' letters could not be used – e.g. "blue" and "stew".)
Mathews' Algorithm
Elements in a text are moved around by a set of predetermined rules[12][13]


Founding members

The founding members of Oulipo represented a range of intellectual pursuits, including writers, university professors, mathematicians, engineers, and "pataphysicians":

Living members

Deceased members

See also


  1. ^ Seaman, Bill (October 2001). "OULIPO VS Recombinant Poetics". Leonardo. 30 (5): 423–430. doi:10.1162/002409401753521548. S2CID 14002965.
  2. ^ Barry, Robert. "The Exploits And Opinions Of Gavin Bryars, 'Pataphysician". The Quietus. TheQuietus.com. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
  3. ^ Sobelle, Stefanie. "The Oulipo". Bookforum. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
  4. ^ Playing with Poetry: using mathematics to discover new verses by JoAnne Growney
  5. ^ Review of Imaginary Numbers by William Frucht Mathematical Association of America press release
  6. ^ Levin Becker, Daniel (April 2012). Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. Boston: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674065772. Retrieved 13 May 2017.
  7. ^ Michèle Métail (2013-08-21). "Michèle Métail". www.oulipo.net (in French). Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  8. ^ a b Elkin, Lauren; Esposito, Scott (2013-01-17). "An Attempt at Exhausting a Movement". The New Inquiry. Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  9. ^ "Who Are the Women of Oulipo?". Center for the Art of Translation | Two Lines Press. 2017-04-12. Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  10. ^ Mélois, Clémentine (2017-06-13). "Clémentine Mélois". www.oulipo.net (in French). Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  11. ^ Lundin, Leigh; Grassiot-Gandet (2009-06-07). "L'Oulipo". Criminal Brief. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  12. ^ rules for the algorithm
  13. ^ Clute, Shannon Scott; Edwards, Richard L. (2011). The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism. UPNE. ISBN 978-1611680478.

Further reading