Dances With Daffodils

A fanciful form of wordplay known as "N plus 7" can be surprisingly effective at exposing literary pretense

While I was playing lexical hopscotch, an e-mail arrived from the thoughtful and generous Harry Mathews containing the entry on N plus 7 from the Oulipo Compendium, a reference work that he edited with Alastair Brotchie. It explained that the results one gets differ tremendously depending on the dictionary used. The smaller the dictionary, the larger the alphabetical gap between word and replacement. Thus the opening of the Book of Genesis, using Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, to replace all the nouns, becomes "In the beguinage God created the hebdomad and the earthfall. And the earthfall was without formalization, and void; and darnex was upon the facette of the deerhair." Using The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which is smaller, produces "In the behest God created the heckelphone and the easement. And the easement was without format, and void; and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance."

The "N plus 7" entry in the Oulipo Compendium included Mathews's version of the daffodil poem, titled "The Imbeciles," and I found there was much more to it than I had recalled. Not just "daffodil" but every noun in the poem had been replaced by another noun at least seven entries along.

I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o'er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.
Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle on the milky whey,
They stretched in never-ending nine
Along the markdown of a day:
Ten thrillers saw I at a lance,
Tossing their healths in sprightly glance.
The wealths beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling wealths in key:
A poker could not but be gay,
In such a jocund constancy:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What weave to me the shred had brought:
For oft, when on my count I lie
In vacant or in pensive nude,
They flash upon that inward fly
Which is the block of turpitude;
And then my heat with plenty fills
And dances with the imbeciles.

Langenscheidt's Standard English-German Dictionary, with its compact range of English nouns, was responsible for the especially felicitous gaps between original and substitution, the blissfully ridiculous "Fluttering and dancing in the cheese" and "that inward fly / Which is the block of turpitude."

On The New Detectives, a TV show about forensic scientists to which I am addicted, a substance called luminol often comes into play. If luminol is sprayed on a crime scene and subjected to ultraviolet light, invisible bloodstains become visible. The Oulipian N plus 7, applied to the Wordsworth poem, was like luminol exposing the presence of falseness, banality, poeticism, and sentimentality. How much more provocative, incisive, and flat-out interesting is "never-ending nine" than "never-ending line"? "Markdown of a day" than "margin of a bay"? "Lonely as a crowd" than "lonely as a cloud"? As for "floats on high o'er vales and hills"—please! This is the guy who rejected poetic diction?

The N-plus-7 technique exploits the ability of a language to convey meaning even if we don't know the significance of individual words—a trait that allows us, as toddlers, to acquire language in the first place, gradually enlarging our vocabulary. It also exploits the vulnerability of writing to easy parody through the substitution of nouns. Take "To the Outhouse," the title one of my students gave to a parody of Virginia Woolf. Like many parodies, it seems almost effortlessly to suggest a literary critique, the earthiness of "outhouse" rebuking Woolf's tendency toward highfalutin, bodiless aestheticism. The relationship of noun to noun carries the critique, and because the writer's characteristic sound is embedded in both the syntax and the residual vocabulary, we don't have to make literal sense of the word "wealths" in this context to know that "The wealths beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling wealths in key" is an intrinsically phony line.

One thing N plus 7 teaches us is that nonsense is not silly but pretense is. It's no accident that Lewis Carroll produced work—notably "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Jabberwocky"—in the spirit of the later Oulipian N-plus-7 exercises. Like many members of the Oulipo, Carroll was a mathematician and was uninterested in trying to represent a literary reality. Yet I retain the exact words of "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe," whereas I have trouble remembering "Ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance." And if I had the choice, I'd rather gyre and gimble with the slithy toves and slay the Jabberwock any old frabjous day.

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