The work you are holding in your hands represents, itself alone, a quantity of text far greater than everything man has written since the invention of writing, including popular novels, business letters, diplomatic correspondence, private mail, rough drafts thrown into the wastebasket, and graffiti.

François Le Lionnais, postface to Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes

100,000,000,000,000 Sonnets

Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets (Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes) is one of the canonical Oulipian texts. This remarkable work consists of 14 groups of 10 lines of poetry each; the groups are ordered and the lines written such that one may select one line from the first group, one line from the second group, and so on until 14 lines are selected. These 14 lines, read in the order of selection, will comprise a sonnet. Since there are 10 options for each of 14 choices, it follows that exactly 1014 different sonnets may be produced using this method.

The presentation of this work creates something of a challenge. Nobody seems to wish to decimate the acres of forest required to render all possible sonnets on paper; if anyone did, I can't imagine that your local bookseller would stock it. The sole printed edition I was able to acquire takes the form of 10 pages of sonnets, each page sliced between each line, so that the individual lines may be "turned" individually as if they were pages unto themselves.

This presents a couple of problems. It is inordinately cumbersome to "turn to" any particular sonnet. Perhaps more insidiously, it naturally inclines the reader to favor ten of the sonnets as being more naturally paired, just by the particular distribution of the lines. What's more, the very first one of those sonnets is invariably the most "natural" one, as it is the first one any reader reads, and the only one that is at all easy to read without fumbling through a small forest of sonnet-shavings. It is for these reasons that I wrote the above Flash application.

Using Queneau is simple: read the sonnet. When you've thoroughly analyzed it and all its different levels of meaning, move the mouse over one or more lines. Click on a line to toggle whether or not it spins.

In the interests of full disclosure I should probably add that I know very little French, and certainly not enough to translate any sonnet that appears above.

Sonnet source text procured by DKS Courier Services.

Other Versions

Other presentations of Queneau's work, including translations, are available on the web.

Bev Rowe's allows interactive selection of sonnet-lines and easy comparison with the original French. It allows for a much closer inspection of the work's structure.