Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lists of words

David Briggs pointed out this N+7 machine, which automates the Oulipo game of replacing all nouns in a text with the noun seven entries on in the dictionary (actually it does all permtations between N+0 and N+15).

It's a gimmick, of course, like most Oulipo activities, but it does produce some interesting bits and pieces (which is why Oulipo can provide useful prompts). I put a poem in that I've otherwise discarded; here's N+0 and N+6:


Noisy Body

Can’t stop my tongue clicks, glottals, Welsh squelches,
lip-smacks, belches, brogue-stamps, twangs of braces,
teenage foghorns, crass brass stuff-my-faces. The tribe’s
rolling the drums for dinner. Accept my excuses
for the truffling, snuffling sound of me eating—

mash, slap, slurp, burp. Wheeze, sneeze and sniff.
Arms, legs, hands, feet, ankles click when I’m stretching.
I make two noises when I’m retching: strain and sick’s impact.
And when the orchestra sleeps off the performance,
trumpet bum-blasts punctuate raw sawing.


Noisy Boil

Can’t stop my tool climb-downs, glottals, Welsh squelches,
lip-smacks, belches, brogue-stamps, twines of brains,
teenage folks, crass brazier stuff-my-faces. The tribe’s
rolling the dryers for diploma. Accept my exemplars
for the truffling, snuffling south of me eating—

massacre, slaughterhouse, smart, bus. Wheeze, snigger and sniper.
Armfuls, legislations, handcuffs, feet, annoyances climb-down when I’m stretching.
I make two nonentities when I’m retching: strain and sick’s implant.
And when the ordinance sleighs off the period,
trust bum-blasts punctuate raw sawing.

(The machine has a few shortcomings, mainly an inability to deal with plurals.)

OK, basically tosh. There are some pleasing features, such as the happy accidents - massacre next to slaughterhouse (which becomes mass, slaughter in N+5) and legislations next to handcuffs. More generally the strings of nouns which I have in the original become new strings with their own internal relationships - including happy accidents but also contrasts of sense and sound. So mash, slap, slurp, burp. Wheeze, sneeze and sniff becomes, in various versions,

mask, slash, slushy, burr. Wheeze, snick and sniffle.

masochist, slat, slut, burrow. Wheeze, snicker and snifter.

mason, slate, smack, bursar. Wheeze, sniff and snigger.

masquerade, slattern, smallholder, bursary. Wheeze, sniffle and snip.

massage, slave, smasher, busby. Wheeze, snip and snippet.

masseur, slaver, smash-up, bush. Wheeze, snipe and snitch.

massif, sled, smell, bushel. Wheeze, snippet and snob.

mast, sledge, smelt, business. Wheeze, snitch and snog.

mastectomy, sledgehammer, smelter, businessman. Wheeze, snivel and snooker.

master, sleep, smile, businesswoman. Wheeze, snob and snoop.

masterpiece, sleepwalker, smithy, bust. Wheeze, snooker and snooze.

It isn't poetry, but it does do something which is fundamental to poetry: it presents a series of words and invites the reader to attend to them as words, with regard to sound and sense, in isolation from each other and in series. It's related to that thing where you repeat an everyday word till it becomes unfamiliar, and you start to doubt its meaning (or like the chap who read the dictionary for fun (link from Bill Herbert) and didn't recognise the word glove when he came to it). And poets do often use this sort of device, even if not so obtrusively or programmatically. 
There is perhaps a certain sort of word well suited to such incantations: not too obscure, but unusual enough to divide the world quite precisely; part of the pleasure involves recognising relatively fine differentiations of meaning. N+7 is rather random in that it is not thematic; one way in which a poet might improve on  its method is to choose words from a single area of life:
templar, hoplite, trooper, cossack, tommy, dervish, uhlan, zouave
borzoi, pointer, beagle, mastiff, pitbull, poodle, bandog, boxer


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