The “Frequency” project is an investigation into Oulipian constraint-based writing in several levels:
- A linguistically determined lexicon of the 200 most frequently used words in the English language— an endeavor that is already built upon the constraint of the corpus that analysis is based upon: Oxford Online and Google have both famously made such analyses, with massive and different data sets.
- Rettberg then wrote 10 lines of verse beginning with each word, using only the words on the list, for a total of 2000 sentences. This alone is a massive creative endeavor which he describes as “painstaking work.”
- He analyzed these lines to develop a data set, organized in arrays based on the following variables: frequency rank of initial word, rhyming end words, number of syllables per word, number of syllables per line, number of words per line, and lines per string length (number of characters, including spaces).
- The analysis embedded in these arrays allowed Rettberg to write algorithms to generate 200 instances of 10 different kinds of formally constrained poems, some from well established poetic traditions, one developed by the OULIPO, and three he developed himself.
More systematic approaches to reading it are also available, such as deleting the name of the .html file on the browser’s address bar to get a directory listing of all 200 poems in that form, or manually changing the number value to read more generated works in that style. Even allowing the work to run for a while and use the back button on your browser to produce a list you can select from is a way to read more selectively.
However you choose to read the poems generated by this project, there is one question that hasn’t been addressed yet by this posting. Are the poems any good? How successful is the result of this obsessively recursive creative investigation of constrained writing?
Over the next four entries, I will perform systematic readings of the poems produced by this project, considering how effectively they engage the poetic traditions they formally embody, organized as follows:
Longer (European) forms:
- Terza rima
- Petrarchan sonnet
- Spenserian sonnet
- snowball (by character)
- snowball (by word)
- doubling (an original form based on the snowball)
- two towers
At the end of this investigation, I will return to assess the project as a whole, hopefully with answers to some of the questions posed above.
I say “hopefully,” because I am also writing under constraint— reading one group of poems and writing about it, every day, and I honestly don’t know what insights the future might have in store.
Shall we explore this together?
Note: Read the ELMCIP Knowledge Base entry for this work.