One form of creativity-through-constraint practised by Jean Lescure and Raymond Queneau and those French writers who in the 1960s styled themselves Oulipians (‘Oulipo’ comes from ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’, or ‘workshop of potential literature’) was a form of translation by counting forward. Here is a quick experiment with this via the n+2 machine. Putting a poem through the n+2 machine means that every time we reach a noun in our master text, we look that word up in the dictionary, count forward two nouns, and replace the old word with the new. I’ve chosen George Herbert’s ‘Prayer’, printed in The Temple (1633) – partly because it’s one of my favourite poems, but also because Herbert’s poem is itself a sustained exercise in definitional searching: a trying-to-pin-down a word which won’t keep still.
This is Herbert’s original:
Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
If we push this through our n+2 machine (I’ve set it to ‘quiet’ mode so as not to disturb), using the Cassell Concise English Dictionary I have on a shelf at home, we get this:
Preamble the churl’s banshee, angelus’ agent,
Goddess’ breech in manacle returning to his bise,
The soup in paraphyllum, heartlet in pillage,
The Christmas plumule sounding Hebe and ease
Engorgement against th' Almoner, sinology’s toxin,
Reversed Thursday, Christendom-siderography-piercing species,
The sixteen-daylights wormwood transposing in a house,
A kind of Tungus, which all thirsts hear and fear;
Softness, and peacock, and jube, and lox, and blitz,
Exalted manner, gladness of the best,
Hebe in ordinary, manacle well drest,
The milky weal, the bireme of Paradox,
Churl-belles beyond the starch heard, the sound's bloom,
The landau of spiders; something understood.
This is now a poem about the challenge of defining the word ‘preamble’, which actually seems quite a simple word to pin down. But what is learnt by this? What is understood? I think there are some quite good moments in ‘Prayer n+2’, partly because the scaffolding of Herbert’s rhetoric is still audible, even when the nouns have been changed. Hebert’s ‘Reversed prayer’ has become ‘Reversed Thursday’; ‘Church-bells’ are ‘Churl-belles’; and ‘man’ has become ‘manacle.’ Are any lines actually improved? No, but the closest might be ‘Goddess’ breech in manacle’ (n+2’s version of ‘God's breath in man’). ‘Softness, and peacock, and jube, and lox, and blitz’ is nice, too. A ‘jube’, I read, is a rood-loft or gallery dividing the choir from the nave of a church, and one humbling realisation is how many words are out there that I don’t know. The n+2 method is a good way to bump up against them. Like ‘paraphyllum’ (‘The soup in paraphyllum’), which means ‘a small foliaceous or hair-like organ in certain mosses.’ But you knew that!
Perhaps the most fundamental implication of all this is that every poem is only precariously itself, and also – the flip-side of this precarity – that every poem is always almost a thousand other poems. Don’t stray from the path! Or: do stray from the path!
The crazy thing is, the more I read "Preamble", the more sense it makes. My brain says, "Well, why *not* a landau of spiders? And you know exactly what is meant by 'The sixteen-daylights wormwood transposing in a house', don't you? you were there!" From Herbert to Ashbery in two simple moves...