restricted access 11. The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian B
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In 2002 the Spenser Society, which regularly sponsors a session or two at the annual Modern Language Association convention, asked me to participate in a panel on the legacy of the Spenserian stanza. I am hardly a Spenser expert, but when I studied the stanza, with its ingenious interlocking rhyme scheme (ababcdcdd), in which eight iambic pentameter lines are followed, to great effect, by a final alexandrine, it struck me that although after the nineteenth-century poets no longer use the Spenserian stanza, its complexity and especially its deployment of the alexandrine have much to teach a poetry culture that is increasingly indifferent to the role of sound in poetry. Indeed, the free verse, now dominant not only in the United States but also around the world, has become, with notable exceptions, little more than linear prose, arbitrarily divided into line lengths. But there are two sites where sound is once again being foregrounded. The first, as we have already seen, is in Concrete and post-Concrete visual poetries. The second may be found in procedural (rule-governed) poetics, whose center today is probably the French movement called Oulipo. The following essay takes up the Oulipo alexandrine and some of its Anglophone derivates. 11 The Oulipo Factor The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall Loyal practitioners of the alexandrine, our hexameter, unhinge from within the meter of this rigid and puerile mechanism. The ear, freed from a factitious counting, takes joy in discerning, on its own, all the possible combinations of twelve tones. Stephane Mallarmé, “Crise de vers” Our words must seem to be inevitable. W. B. Yeats, Letters on Poetry to Dorothy Wellesley In1988JacquesRoubaud,theremarkablepoet-novelist-theorist-mathematician, published a book called La vieillesse d’Alexandre (The Old Age of Alexander), which makes the case that the death of the alexandrine—the twelve-syllable line that is the staple of French poetry from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century—has been grossly exaggerated. Roubaud’s dramatic story begins in the twelfth century with a short fragment of a Provençal poem dedicated to the exploits of Alexander the Great, written by one Alberic de Pisançon.1 This poem, written in octosyllabics, was soon followed by a decasyllabic (pentameter) Alexandre, and then in 1170 Lambert le Tort de Chateaudun introduced the decisive innovation destined to create an indissoluble link between the hero and the meter in which his exploits were to be celebrated in the many Alexander poems that followed—a line that had twelve syllables and a complex set of rules. In the Alexander poems that now proliferated, the hero was depicted as conqueror and lover; he tamed and mastered the wild horse Bucephalus, descended into the underworld in a glass barrel, and was always the perfect chevalier courtois. By the mid-¤fteenth century, the twelve-syllable line was named the alexandrine, and it became the celebrated verse form that extended from Corneille and Racine, as in the latter’s famous reference to Phèdre as La ¤lle de Minos et de Pasiphaé down to Baudelaire, whose alexandrines often break up not into hemistichs, as in the above example, but into trimeters, as in: A la très belle, à la très bonne, a la très chère In its variable forms, the alexandrine remained intact until the fall of the Paris Commune in 1870. In that year it experienced a catastrophe—the word is well chosen because etymologically it means kata (down) plus strophe (turning) and hence has metrical overtones—at the hands of Rimbaud’s “revolutionary” poem “Qu’est-ce pour nous, mon coeur” (see La vieillesse d’Alexandre 20–26). For here the rules, especially those relating to the necessary prominence of the sixth syllable and the place of the silent e, were consistently violated. And Roubaud relates this violation to the violation of the social order, which is the impetus of Rimbaud’s oppositional poem. After Rimbaud, so the common wisdom would have it, the “broken” alexandrine was increasingly replaced by free verse: Apollinaire’s and Cendrars’s rhythms set the stage for what Roubaud calls “le vers libre international”—the free verse now dominant around the world, whose only distinguishing feature is lineation as such. Free verse, Roubaud notes, easily adapts linguistic units to linear ones and is characterized by its formal indifference (204). Its absence of rules makes it suitable for a global age, for free verse passes readily from 206 Chapter 11 language to language and...


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