I’ve long been a fan (from a respectful distance) of Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, ‘workshop of potential literature’; I posted about it here and here), so I was pleased to see Paul Grimstad’s LRB review of Daniel Levin Becker’s recent book on the subject. Herewith a few tidbits of LH interest:

The newest member of the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker, born in Chicago in 1984, opens his Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature with a description of a beau présent read at the funeral of François Caradec (an Oulipian and biographer of Roussel) at Montparnasse cemetery in 2008. A beau présent, or ‘beautiful inlaw’, is a version of the lipogram in which only the letters of the addressee’s name – in this case f, r, a, n, c, o, i, s, d, e – are used (in the inverse constraint, the ‘beautiful outlaw’, the letters of the person’s name are missing). […]

An important distinction in the early phase of Oulipo was the difference between what they called anoulipism, devoted to discovery, and synthoulipism, devoted to invention. It wasn’t a hard and fast distinction: ‘from the one to the other there exist many subtle channels,’ as Le Lionnais put it in the First Oulipo Manifesto. Given the group’s concern with tradition, it is worth pointing out that the emphasis on potential rather than actual works is not at all a new idea. Borges is always imagining, even reviewing, potential works. Think of that wonderful list of Pierre Menard’s Nachlass with its Oulipian sounding experiments in French metrics and Boolean logic, essays on modifying the rules of chess, and ‘monograph on the possibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary … which would be ideal objects created according to conventions’ (this is not to overlook that astonishing exercise in potential literature where Menard, in copying out Don Quixote to the letter, ends up creating an entirely different work). In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov, another of Perec’s heroes, described a fictional country-house murder mystery which the narrator tells us is not so much about particular characters as about ‘methods of composition’. And in his sublime memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov compared the taste in the head he got from composing chess problems to ‘various other, more overt and fruitful operations of the creative mind, from the charting of dangerous seas to the writing of one of those incredible novels where the author, in a fit of lucid madness, has set himself certain unique rules’.[Footnote: Nabokov was briefly considered for induction into the Oulipo but the idea was scrapped, perhaps because, as he admitted in the preface to the screenplay of Lolita, there is ‘nothing in the world that I loathe more than group activity’. Paul Braffort nevertheless makes a case for l’oulipisme nabokovien, in part by considering Nabokov and Queneau’s shared love of Martin Gardner’s Scientific American articles on puzzles and logical paradoxes.] […]

Becker makes clear what is exciting about the Oulipo: the discovery and application of constraints; the annihilation of cliché; the setting up of encounters between literature, mathematics, music and computers; analysing and exploring, but also broadening and generalising, the dynamics of composition (Le Lionnais, Becker tells us, went so far as to devise the formulation ‘Ou-X-Po’ to stand for the way any practice might be submitted to constraints – OuCuiPo might be the name of a group of constraint-based chefs).

I like “Ou-X-Po” a lot. But I confess I don’t understand “beau présent, or ‘beautiful inlaw’”; does anybody have any enlightenment to shed?


  1. Garrigus Carraig says

    I took “présent” to mean that the letters in question may be present, and “inlaw” to mean (non-canonically?) that they are allowed in, and “outlaw” to mean that they are forbidden. In other words, “inlaw” is imagined to be the opposite of “outlaw”.
    There is apparently a verb “inlaw”, which means to restore an outlaw to the protection of the law.

  2. marie-lucie says

    The Oulipiens do give a definition of the poetic form beau présent, easily found by googling the words. It is likely that the author of the article is proffering the translation currently used by anglophones interested in the form, “beautiful inlaw”, in which the second word cannot be justified.
    Beau/belle, literally ‘beautiful (masc/fem)’, enters in the formation of “inlaw” words: beau-père, belle-mère, beau-frère, belle-soeur, but the same compounds also mean “step…”, so respectively father-in-law/stepfather, mother-in-law/stepmother, brother-in-law/stepbrother, sister-in-law/stepsister. The common meaning in these two series is that these people are additional relatives one should treat like blood relatives, except more politely (beau/belle were used to add a degree of politeness to terms of address in the Middle Ages and were especially useful if a person of high rank wished to address one of lesser rank in a manner indicating respect). But if beau means both ‘beautiful’ and ‘in-law/step’, beau présent cannot possibly mean ‘beautiful inlaw’ since présent cannot ever mean ‘inlaw’. And if there is no “inlaw” in the phrase, there is no “outlaw” either, since the French terms do not include any reference to law.
    Looking up beau présent on google gives a number of links. The Oulipiens define beau présent as a poem addressed to a person of either sex, in which the letters used are the ones in that person’s name (there are a few potential variations on this theme). The possibility of changing the gender means that présent(e) (a feminine counterpart belle présente exists) refers to a person who is actually present, and it cannot be a noun referring to present time or to a gift (the other meanings, in French as in English). One of the links leads to a poem called belle absente, literally ‘beautiful absent (female)’. I am not sure if this means that the poem should be read in the absence of the person in question or if it means that the poem should avoid the letters in the person’s name.

  3. marie-lucie says

    p.s. If there is indeed a meaning “inlaw” somewhere, it has to be in ‘beau’, so perhaps ‘present inlaw’ ???? but this is not a present = ‘gift’, instead it is an adjective used as a noun (a very common feature of French). Unless the creator of the phrase beau présent arrived at it by a peculiarly convoluted route which I cannot retrace, which included an “inlaw” meaning, the English translation is nonsense.

  4. “Beautiful inlaw” doesn’t make much sense, when you read what has to say about beau présent:

    Un Beau présent (resp. Belle présente) est un poème (resp. une poésie) composée en l’honneur d’une personne d’un sexe ou un autre, chérie ou détestée. Chaque vers est écrit en n’utilisant que les lettres du nom du (resp. de la) destinataire.
    Les beaux présents et belles présentes sont recommandés pour les anniversaires, les remises de décorations, les lettres d’insultes et autres occasions festives.

    The expression seems to mean simply “nice present”.

  5. I particularly like les lettres d’insultes et autres occasions festives.

  6. marie-lucie beat me to it by a nez.

  7. marie-lucie says

    … although I am not like Cleopatra.

  8. John Emerson says

    As I remember, Jane Austen also confused “in-law” and “step” relatives.
    I call my brother’s brother-in-law, whom I dislike, my “brother-in-law-in-law”.

  9. @marie-lucie: But it seems that the difference between un beau présent and une belle présente is the length (the latter being shorter, une poésie rather than un poème), rather than the sex/gender of the recipient. No?

  10. I take poésie in this context to mean ‘body of poetry’.

  11. N'est-ce pas? says

    beau présent
    A cunning allusion to Mallarmé’s famous “bel aujourd’hui”, n’est-ce pas? (See “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui”. I believe they went to sea in a pea-green beaute, across the Channel.)

  12. Cunning but over-conned, I think, so plutôt non. Beau présent is surely an unsurmountably trite conceit of well-mannered life, and as such very oulipable. Nevertheless one does appreciate “went to sea in a pea-green beaute“.

  13. By the by, you’re not fooling me with that “N” nick, mister. There is only one contributor at this site who serves up such comments.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: a nice present
    Although un présent can mean ‘a gift’, it is not the most common word for that meaning. In France what you get for your birthday or at Christmas is un cadeau, but if you were recounting the story of the Three Kings (of Orient) in a fairly formal manner (eg not to small children) you would probably use des présents for the gold, myrrh and frankincense.
    Ran: But it seems that the difference between un beau présent and une belle présente is the length (the latter being shorter, une poésie rather than un poème), rather than the sex/gender of the recipient. No?
    In everyday speech there is not much difference between une poésie rather than un poème, although un long poème is more likely than une longue poésie. You would call the Iliad un poème épique, an instance of la poésie épique ‘epic poetry’. I think that when I was in elementary school we memorized des poésies rather than des poèmes. I agree that présent/présente in this context seems to apply to the type of poem, but belle présente could also refer to a female recipient since Oulipians like puns.
    JC: I take poésie in this context to mean ‘body of poetry’
    I don’t think so. It could be true if it referred to, for instance, La poésie de Verlaine or La poésie médiévale or some such. But une poésie is an individual poem. A book consisting of a number of fairly short poems by different authors could be called Recueil de poésies.
    N’est-ce pas? : A cunning allusion to Mallarmé’s famous “bel aujourd’hui”, n’est-ce pas?
    I had not thought of it, but it seems quite likely.

  15. I call my wife’s godson my godson-in-law.

  16. I don’t seem to be able to find specific evidence online, but I have always assumed Perec invented belle absente first, as though a poem dedicated to someone not there, which seems poetic but otherwise unremarkable. It’s a pangrammatic lipogram: each line has all the letters of the name except one, in order. And on that, beau présent, which is mostly just an acrostic, is a pun. That happened to be dedicated to men like Georges Condomina. When dedicated to women, a belle présente, by which time the term itself seems less natural without the punning context. (You can make a beau présent have more constraints. I don’t believe the early ones did, but some in Beaux présents, belles absentes do, if I remember right.)
    Beautiful outlaw, as though the subject were not just missing but explicitly forbidden, is a shift of belle absente. And beautiful inlaw a pun on it.
    So, what’s doing on that LH asks about is, I think, two divergent punning chains.
    As I said, this is mostly guessing. There are likely more explicit statements or more careful studies.

  17. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, MMcM. You are obviously well versed in the doings of the Oulipo crowd. I knew little about them apart from the name. You solved the mystery of the “peculiarly convoluted route” I was referring to. Merci!

  18. Yes, thanks, MMcM; very well explicated.

  19. My thanks too, MMcM. I now see this Oulipo business is way out of my ball park.

  20. perhaps it’s blandly literalistic, but since no one’s said it yet: i take the “un poème/une poésie” to be simply an Oulipien (resp. Oulipienne) play on the french gendered noun-classes, which continues throughout the definition (in its barest form in “les lettres du nom du (resp. de la) destinataire”).

  21. I’ve found this “beau présent”, about the Academia’s members, written by a friend who is Oulipien in his blog.:
    Gabriel de BROGLIE, René GIRARD,
    François CHENG, Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS,
    Jean Christophe RUFIN, Assia DJEBAR,
    Maurice DRUON, Yves POULIQUEN,
    François JACOB, Pierre NORA,
    Max GALLO, Erik ORSENNA ;
    Jean Luc MARION, Félicien MARCEAU,
    Simone VEIL, Jean d’ORMESSON,
    René de OBALDIA, Alain DECAUX,
    Claude DAGENS, Michel DÉON ;
    Jean-Marie ROUART, Angelo RINALDI,
    Jean CLAIR, Jacqueline de ROMILLY,
    Frédéric VITOUX , Marc FUMAROLI,
    Florence DELAY, Pierre-Jean RÉMY,
    Philippe BEAUSSANT, Hector BIANCIOTTI,
    Pierre ROSENBERG, Jean-Loup DABADIE,
    Dominique FERNANDEZ, Michel MOHRT,
    Jean-Denis BREDIN, Michel SERRES,
    Ils seront verts jusqu’à ce qu’ils soient morts.
    En attendant, ils sont tous vers.
    Ce poème est un beau présent !
    C’est aussi un pangramme, depuis
    l’élection de Weyergans !

  22. marie-lucie says

    Ce poème est un beau présent !
    But it does not follow the Oulipien definition at all. It also repeats the name Yves Pouliquen in adjacent lines.

  23. >Marie-lucie
    I’m sorry! I don’t understand the definition exactly.
    As regards the name, actually this verse was crossed out in the original text because Maurice Druon had dead but WordPress…
    You can read it here:

  24. marie-lucie says

    Jesús, according to the definition, all the words of the poem have to use ONLY the letters in the person’s name. It helps if the person has a long name with many letters. A name like Fred Wah (a Canadian poet) would be quite a challenge.

  25. Zaw Zaw would be a greater challenge.

  26. >Marie-lucie
    Thanks! However, according to Oulipo, there are some particular cases, as “Epithalame Oulipien” when there are two names. Also I’ve found this “Beau Présent” entitled “Aimer” wrote by Perec without any name:

  27. marie-lucie says

    Gracias, Jesús.
    An Epithalame (the English word is similar though not identical) is a wedding hymn or poem, hence the two names. In the Detambel link Perec bends the definition by using just ‘a word’, here AIMER ‘to love’, rather than a name, but this word is very significant. But in the second poem, the name of a woman called Marie-Jeanne Hoffenbach gives Perec a lot of useful letters to play with in order to make a classical beau présent.

  28. The best-known English epithalamion is the one by Spenser, though the one I personally know best is John Donne’s. Any couple who had to listen to Spenser’s work recited would end up committing poeticide.

  29. >Marie-lucie
    I wanted to point up that sometimes there are, at least, two names, or a word that isn’t a person’s name.
    And now, to recover my friend’s reputation :-):
    By the way, we have « epitalamio » .

  30. Any couple who had to listen to Spenser’s work recited would end up committing poeticide.
    Or, since poeticide does occur in OED and is by the most pedantic standards a mixture of Latin and Greek, vaticide.
    Vaticide is in OED, with two entries. The one for crime has it marked “rare”, with this definition: “The killing of a prophet.” But OED misses the intent of the only citation it gives: “1853 W. S. Landor Wks. (1876) V. 119 Vaticide is no crime in the Statute-book.” The context shows that Landor had a poet in mind:

    Praise is not fame; but the praise of the intelligent is its precursor. Vaticide is no crime in the statute-book; but a crime, and a heavy crime, it is: and the rescue of a poet from a murderous enemy, altho there is no oaken crown decreed for it, is among the higher virtues. (See page image.)

    The entry for the perpetrator is glossed as “One who kills a prophet. Also fig.” That “fig.” can cover a multitude of metameanings; and we do see the term applied figuratively to one who rejects a literary creation. Third citation: “1749 T. Smollett Regicide Pref. sig. A3, My Patience being by this Time quite exhausted, I desired a Gentleman, who interested himself in my Concerns, to go and expostulate with the Vaticide [sc. the Manager of Drury-lane Theatre].” The other two citations may also be more about poets than prophets, when context is surveyed. They are: “1728 Pope Dunciad ii. 62 Then first (if Poets ought of truth declare) The caitiff Vaticide conceiv’d a prayer”; “1746 T. Smollett Reproof 171, I see with joy, the vaticide deplore An hell-denouncing priest and sov’reign whore.”
    For “vates”, OED gives the poetic meaning priority: “1. A poet or bard, esp. one who is divinely inspired; a prophet-poet.” L&S are in accord: “A. A poet; a poetess (the oldest name for a poet; but it fell into contempt, and was discarded for poëta, until restored to honor by Vergil; …”; see the “vates” entry at Perseus.

  31. Poeta may be ultimately of Greek origin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a verbum cromulentum, so I am all for poeticide. To me, vaticide would only suggest the killing of a prophet, though admittedly a prophet in verse.

  32. Arrgh, sorry about all those italics. I missed some close tags, obviously.

  33. Fixed! (It was just one omitted slash, but unfortunately it was the one after Poeta.)

  34. marie-lucie says

    From my long-ago Latin studies I remember vates as “devin” (‘diviner’).

  35. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (1982) says:
    1 A prophet, seer (regarded as the mouthpiece of the deity possessing him). […]
    2 A poet (regarded as divinely inspired), bard.

  36. marie-lucie says

    LH, “devin” goes with #1, and #2 is a derived sense which I don’t remember learning.

  37. Spanish has also “vate” (from Latin “vates”), meaning “poeta” and “adivino”, since 1739 in our dictionary.

  38. In Le Guin’s Lavinia, Lavinia in a vision speaks to Virgil, and he tells her he is a poet. “I liked the sound of the word, but he saw I did not know it. ‘A vates’, he said. I knew that word of course: foreteller, soothsayer. It went with his being part Etruscan [she recognizes his surname Maro as Etruscan], and with the knowledge he seemed to have of what had not happened yet.”

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