It is strange and, some might say, shameful, that this is the only Queneau book I own, and that I have only come by it recently. It’s not even a bilingual edition. It’s not even poetry! (Is it?)
But Queneau is a Charles Xavier among poets; his reach and influence extends well beyond those who have actually read his work. And not simply because his disciples have disciples of their own, or because he was the head of a movement (Oulipo) that has had more than one zeitgeist-y moment, but also because his achievements as an innovator can be boiled down to simple, eye-opening descriptions that have the power to send other writers scurrying to their laboratory-sheds to replicate his experiments. When you first hear about Exercises de Style, for instance – a book that recounts the same anecdote 99 times, each in a different literary or journalistic style – you can grasp the significance of it without a lesson in literary history, and without having to so much as glance at a single page.
Let’s have a glance anyway though. Here’s the English version (translated by Barbara Wright) of the anecdote rendered as a homeoteleuton:
On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: “Oi, mate!” But to anticipate Billingsgate debate, he hastened to abate, and sate.
An houate aftrate, in front of the Saint-Lazate gate, I notate him agate, talkate about a buttate, a buttate on his overcate.
And here it is again as a sonnet:
Glabrous of dial, a plait upon his bonnet,
This lousy lout – (how sad the neck he bore
And long also) – performed his usual chore:
The bus was full and he tried to get on it.
One came, a number ten – perhaps an S;
The platform joined to this plebeian carriage,
Crammed full of folk, allowed no easy passage;
Rich bastards lit cigars there, to impress.
The young giraffe described in my first strophe
Once he was on the bus began to curse an
Innocent chap – (he sought an easy trophy,
But got the worst of it); then found a seat
And sat in it. Time passed. Some wicked person,
Returning, found his buttons did not fit.
It’s similarly easy to get the gist of Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a set of ten sonnets with entirely interchangeable lines, allowing for, well, a hundred million million possible combinations. You’re more likely to encounter this work on a website than in book form, and it’s no coincidence that Queneau is referenced in every single book on games studies I currently have on loan from the library – his work is a touchstone for students in game-like literature, literature as inducement to play. The mere fact of its existence is encouraging for anyone troubled by the apparent one-sidedness of the author-reader relationship in poetry.
That much of the value and import of Queneau’s work resides in its formulation also means that he comfortably vaults the language barrier. If you don’t need to read him in English, you certainly don’t need to read him in French. This is not without drawbacks: I’ve detected for a while now a fatigue with Oulipo-inspired work by English-speaking poets, and the murmurings of complaint that the average Queneau-em lacks both purpose and substance. Arguably, anyone truly wishing to imitate the spirit of Queneau should be concocting their own formal innovations, not simply repeating his exercises. One invention of his in particular, the univocalism, long ago became the English-poetry equivalent of bicep-flexing. And it can be galling to be dismissed as an Oulipian trickster simply because one makes use of ideas that have now been around for more than half a century.
So it makes sense to turn back to the work itself, and inevitably find that there’s more to this poet than clever and hyper-restrictive forms. What I like most about Queneau (the above book isn’t the only one I’ve read, just the only one I own) is his penchant for inter-poem patterning and assemblage. It isn’t just the poems, but the books themselves that are elaborate structures. In Morale élémentaire, for instance, the latter half of the book consists of 64 prose poems based roughly on hexagrams from the I Ching. It’s like a deck of cards; it could be published as a deck of cards. Content-wise, tone-wise the poems are incredibly ranging – sprawling, even – and yet they always feel reined in, always feel marshalled. I hate to end on a cliche, but this is precisely what I consider to be missing from many poetry books that leave me cold. At the very least, it makes for a refreshing alternative. Queneau sells you the complete set, painstakingly collected, the finished sticker book, rather than giving you the junk shop tour.