Stefan Themerson, OuLiPo, and Semantic Poetry
#language & literature
small, Stefan Themerson, OuLiPo, and Semantic Poetry, A portrait of Stefan Themerson with Franciszka Themerson’s painting in the background, photo: courtesy of the Ujazdowski Castle CCA in Warsaw, pl_fo_stefan_themerson_3458092.jpg
Semantic poetry is Themerson’s contribution to world literature, one which was creatively developed by French artists from the OuLiPo group. Thanks to the method begun by the Pole, it is possible to transform quotes from the Book of Ecclesiastes into, say, feminist manifestos, and vice versa.
Themerson and Queneau
The avant-garde publishing company Gaberboccus was founded by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson and its name is the Latin equivalent of Jabberwocky, the title of a poem by Lewis Caroll from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Among its publications was the first English version of what is probably the most comic book in 20th-century European literature, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. It is an anthology of variations on one and the same absurdly trivial story: a man stumbles over another man on a bus, one of the men’s button falls off, and then, a couple of hours later they meet on the street. The story is told in 99 different ways. As part of its Black Series, the Gaberbocchus company also released two of Queneau’s other stories, The Trojan Horse and At the Edge of Forest. The French author was a favourite in the Themersons’ library, next to another great literary experimenter of the 20th century, the Italian Italo Calvino.
Together the with mathematician François Le Lionnais, Queneau founded the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a group of writers who experimented with all possible literary structures by employing so-called constrained writing techniques. The members of this group – which is the longest-running literary collective to date and still active today – included (or continues to include) Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Jacques Jouet, Marcel Bénabou and even Marcel Duchamp The Polish publisher which specialises in OuLiPo’s translations is the Kraków-based Lokator company. The most renowned works of this movement include Perec’s novel A Void, written without once using the most common vowel of the French language, 'e’, If on a winter’s night a traveller, Calvino’s hyper-novel which consists only of beginnings, or Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems – a book which is experimental in its very physical structure: it does not contain pages, but cut-up strips. When combined, the strips of A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems are capable of creating the titular one hundred billion sonnets, always, by necessity, different from one another. The members of OuLiPo are also masters of puns.
The Themersons met Queneau in Paris in the 1950s. Documented in letters filled with mutual respect, their acquaintance lasted for over twenty years, through to the French poet’s death in 1976. The book covers for the first English editions of Exercises in Style were designed by Stefan Themerson. The collage he proposed which dismantled a photographic portrait of the author pleased Queneau, to which Themerson replied in a letter:
I am very happy that you are pleased with our edition. Working on it was a pleasure even if cutting your portrait incited mental resistance in me (I am an opponent of vivisection).
In 1960, Themerson proposed to Queneau that he publish his short story called Bayamus. The translation into French was meant to be performed by an electronic machine, without any interference on the part of a human. The Pole also expressed his hope that the prestigious Gallimard publishing company which employed Queneau (he was, among other functions, the director of the Pleiade Encyclopaedia series) would be interested in the publication. Queaneau was also supposed to write an introduction. Unfortunately, the French edition of Bayamus never saw the light of day.
Stefan Themerson was not officially a member of OuLiPo, although some speculate that he was member of Pataphysics College, a movement ‘institutionally’ related to OuLiPo. Pataphysics gathered a group of writers and artists who explored a ‘science’ invented by Alfred Jarry – a theory of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments. Nevertheless – a fact which is frequently forgotten in Poland – one of the Pole’s experimental concepts found great admiration among this Parisian circle and it is still being creatively developed by them – the idea of semantic poetry. Its invention is Themerson’s undoubtable contribution into world literature.
The answer as to what is semantic poetry can be found in the aforementioned Bayamus novel, published in London in 1949.
The famous philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, and a friend of the Themersons, said that the book was 'almost as crazy as the world’. Indeed, the titular Bayamus was born as a girl and became a woman in some unclear circumstances. His sex is difficult to determine, and besides, he has a third leg which loves to roller-skate on. The dadaist Kurt Schwitters and Kurt Meyer, the author of a screenplay to the legendary German expression film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also make appearances in the book.
poetry of the 20th century
According to Bayamus, semantic poetry is based on words, words which are taken straight out of emotionally neutral dictionaries, sharp words which correspond exactly to normal exigencies of precision. In other words, each word which appears in the given source text is to be substituted for by its dictionary definition. Within the domain of this poetry, we do not say, for example, 'horse’, but rather 'a solid-hoofed, plant-eating domesticated mammal with a flowing mane and tail, used for riding, racing, and to carry and pull weights’. Readers of Bayamus will quickly realise that the entire story is written in this manner, using dictionary definitions – an exertion which carries with it strong comic effect, especially when simple objects of everyday use are described with lengthy formulations and cold terms, as if taken out of a dispute between academic physicists. The only things required for semantic poetry are the chosen text we wish to adapt, and a dictionary.
…and definition literature
During this time, artists of the OuLiPo group were developing an identical literary invention but giving it a name of their own, ‘definition literature’. It was introduced by Raymond Queneau. One of its most prominent inventions was the literature developed by Georges Perec and Marcel Bénabou, as part of which the practice of transcribing given terms into other terms also seeks to achieve a pre-determined goal, such as to change the style or transform an idea included in the given fragment. The technique even allowed one to reconstruct an entirely different quotation starting from a selected text.
Below is an example taken from the OuLiPo Compendium, (edited by Harry Mathews & Alastair Brotchie, Revised & Updated, Atlas Press, London, 2011 pg. 227):
'A time of a adversity befalleth us like hidden water issuing distantly from the earth.'
(The Book of Ecclesiastes)
Thanks to the transformations guided by dictionary definitions, the above terms allow us to apply the following substitutes:
time: period of gestation
adversity: condition marked by calamity
befall: impose by destiny
water: any liquid organic secretion
And when we put together all of those substitutes, we come up with the following quote:
The period of gestation was a condition marked by calamity, covertly imposed by an aloof destiny. Amniotic fluid was discharged in a foxhole.
What do we find? It is a fragment of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex! A mastery of language has rendered possible a real magician’s trick – a text from the Old Testament has been turned into a quotation from the manifesto of feminism. As you can deduce, this language game can go on forever, and the only limits are those of one’s own resources of knowledge.
OuLiPo’s other favourite and ongoing activity was historical work: searching for OuLiPo methods employed before OuLiPo was even founded. Such discovered past methods were wittily monikered 'plagiarism through anticipation’. For the members of OuLiPo, by this definition some of the plagiarists included Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Roussel.
The established rules of the OuLiPo milieu definitely include Stefan Themerson in this venerable circle.
Tomasz Wiśniewski, January, 2016
translated by Paulina Schlosser