Discovering Oulipo and The Freedom of Constrained Writing

By Raphael Krasnow

The beauty of being a creative person is that many of us are inspired to learn new things, and engage with new concepts on the daily. I am currently in the midst of an eye-opening literary and poetic exploration. This enlightenment is due mostly to the power of a French writing collective formed in the middle of the 20th century called, Oulipo. Oulipo, in French, stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which roughly translates into workshop of potential literature. Founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the primary goal of this group of poets, mathematicians, and writers of all types, was (and still is) to explore and create something called, constrained writing.

To me, the idea behind constrained writing was meant to create literary beauty through the lens of certain parameters, or *drum roll, please*…constraints. Constraints are very common in the world of poetry. For example, sonnets, haiku, and sestinas are some of the more common forms of constrained poetry. While they are fascinating techniques, and can provide far more interesting results than one might expect, what really intrigued me was the realization that there were so many more options, with dare I say, potentially wacky results.

As a lover of free-verse, my poetry is meant to be performed or slammed, so the idea that using constraint could liberate my process as a writer, at first, seemed laughable. That is, until my exploration of Oulipo led me to univocalic poetry. The essence of a univocal poem is that the writer may use only one vowel throughout their piece, essentially making the poem a lipogram by restricting the use of all other vowels. While this may seem incredibly restricting and tortuous, the beauty and aural delicacies of the univocal poem, proved to be perfect for my style of writing. When you can only use one vowel, and therefore only the sounds that that one vowel can make, you are offered up a feast of potential assonance and rhyme: two of my favorite elements of writing.

I’ve grown to appreciate the freedom that practicing within these constraints can grant. I realize that many other writers might have the same fear or apprehension about constraints that I once had, and that's exactly why I wanted to share what I've learned. Maybe it might help you tap into a well of discovery.

So, I'm offering up a challenge to any reader that is inclined: try writing univocalic poetry. You needn’t share it with anyone if you don’t want to; it can be your own private exercise of form. I assure you that if you give it time and patience, “restricting” yourself just might open your writing to new horizons. You can choose A, E, I, O, U, and if you are very daring, Y. After attempting to use A, E, I, and O, I found working with E helped me most.

For your reading pleasure or proof that it is doable, here is my most recent univocal poem using the letter E.


Grew restless.

The recent tense end embedded embers,





Grew restless.


stressed tresses, sent lewd letters.

Even wrestled gender-bent sex dresses.

Her chest shed,


                                    Been restless.

                                    Been restless.

                                    Been restless.


He best get the fret wet.

She bled, let her dead wed,

led bed wetters,

entrenched betters

he bred her free trend setters.


                                    Been restless.


Pet-less nests get less pests

Best get me the rest, see,


Been restless.


Enter the center

Mend her fender

Then end her.

Then end here.

Then send beer,

Get me here.



                                                                       Be restless.