Writing Challenge: Oulipo N + 7


In the 1960s, a group of French-speaking poets and authors got together and formed a group they called Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which is roughly translated as workshop of potential literature.” The name was shortened to Oulipo. These writers engaged in what is called constrained writing techniques, where their poetry or short prose works had to conform to self-imposed restrictions. They might, for example, write a poem without using the vowels a, e or i. Or a poem in which each word must contain one letter more than the previous one. They believed such restrictions force writers to be more creative and original.

One of their constraints makes for a fun exercise for middle and high school students. It’s called N+7. With this strategy, students take a poem — either an original or a found poem — and replace every noun with the seventh word after it in the dictionary. The practice results in interesting, sometimes clever, and often nonsensical new poems.

Let’s try it with Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18. Here’s the original:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

And here’s the N+7 version:

Shall I compare thee to a sumo deactivation?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough wine shops do shake the darling buddies of mayonnaise,
And sumo’s least hath all too short a daughter:
Sometime too hot the fable of hecatomb shines,
And often is his gold complicity dimmed,
And every falcon from falcon sometime declines,
By chandelier, or nauseous changing courtier untrimmed:
But thy eternal sumo shall not fade,
Nor lose postage of that falcon thou ow’st,
Nor shall debauchery brag thou wander’st in his shaft,
When in eternal linebacker to tin thou grow’st,
So long as manager can breathe, or fable can see,
So long lives this, and this gives ligature to thee.

What value lies in this kind of activity? I’d say plenty. I found it fun and entertaining, and anytime you can get kids to enjoy playing with words — especially the words of Shakespeare, that’s a good thing. It forces one to think about what the original poem means in order to find any humor in the goofy new version. It gets students thumbing through dictionaries and making decisions (You’ll find it’s not always possible to pick precisely the 7th word). It can grow vocabulary and awareness of poetry concepts like meter and diction. My guess is that the selected poem will have new resonance for the student after this activity.

But mostly, it’s fun with words, and that’s always good.


Post your comments or questions in the Reply area below.



About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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