Alternate Titles: One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, One Hundred Trillion Poems, Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes
Raymond Queneau’s "100,000,000,000,000 Poems" consists of a sequence of ten (10) fourteen-line sonnets. Each line within any one sonnet can replace the same in any other while maintaining a uniform rhyme scheme and grammatical correctness.
To facilitate reading across the sequence of ten poems, the poem is printed only on the recto side of the page, and each page is cut into fourteen strips. This arrangement allows for individual strips to be pealed back, revealing a line from the following poem underneath. By pealing the first strip back on the first page, the first line from the second sonnet replaces the first line of the first sonnet. Mathematically this enables 10^14 variations of the sonnet within the work or the Cartesian product of fourteen sets of ten elements each.
The staggering result of this combinatory approach to the writing of a poem is made clear by Queneau in his preface to the original printing of the poem. Queneau notes that it would take more than a million centuries to finish the work, if one read at the rate of one sonnet per minute for eight hours a day, two hundred days per year.
The composition of "100,000,000,000,000 Poems" led, in part, to the founding of the OULIPO (ouvroir de littérature potentielle or the workshop of potential literature). Queneau founded the OULIPO with François Le Lionnais on November 24, 1960 shortly after Queneau sought the help of Lionnais, a mathematician, while composing the work. The two discussed the potential role mathematics could play in literary production.
Later Paul Braffort developed a program effectively creating a digital version of Queneau’s "100,000,000,000,000 Poems." Manipulating the printed work so it can be read proves to be difficult, with its fourteen strips on a given page opening (which all need to be held down). Braffort's computerized edition made the work more easily accessible. The program prompted the user to input his name. An algorithm then utilized the inputted name and the time it took to enter it to produce one of the possible sonnets, which was then printed out. This program was first demonstrated at the 1975 Europalia festival in Brussels and was later sponsored by the Atelier Recherches Techniques Avancées (Advanced Technical Research Workshop) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
At least three attempts have been made to translate the work into English by John Crombie, Stanley Chapman, and Beverley Charles Rowe. Stanley Chapman’s translation is available online at http://www.smullyan.org/smulloni/queneau/ and
Beverley Charles Rowe’s which makes available both English and French versions within the same interface is available at http://www.bevrowe.info/Poems/QueneauRandom.htm.
Brotchie, Alastair and Harry Matthews, eds. Oulipo Compendium. 2nd Revised edition. Translated by Harry Matthews and Ian Monk. London: Atlas Press, 2005. Print.
Motte, Warren F., ed and trans. OULIPO: A Primer of Potential Literature. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
Wikipedia entry for “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Thousand_Billion_Poems (accessed on March 20, 2010)