Ouliperrata and Palindromes

The End of Oulipo? : An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Lauren Elkin & Scott Esposito (2013) claims that “Georges Perec … wrote a palindrome of over 5,000 words …” (p. 15, also mentioned on p. 25). However, this is wrong, unless these authors have access to an extraordinarily surprising never-before published palindrome of Perec’s. His long palindrome does not have this many words.

In 1980, Hachette published Perec’s La Clôture et autres poèmes, which contains “Le Grand Palindrome,” written in 1969. “Le Grand Palindrome” is also online; it is posted on another page without its title but with a declaration that the palindrome is 1247 words long.

Wikipedia states that this text has 1247 words and 5566 letters, and the French entry on Perec agrees. (The number of letters was probably the source of the confusion about 5,000 words in Elkin & Esposito’s book.) Since the palindrome is online, we can do some original research to determine the word and letter count – someone must have, because the cited source does not say how many words and letters there are; the source is simply the text itself. The Web is littered with different numbers that are supposed to be the length, in words, of Perec’s palindrome. David Bellos, who quoted and translated the beginning and ending of Perec’s long palindrome in his extraordinary biography, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, described the palindrome as consisting of two halves, each of five hundred words (pp. 428-429).

Standard word-count programs come up with a larger number of words than either Bellos or Wikipedia have: The Gnu utility wc counts 1367, for example. In part, that’s because some of the punctuation is set off with spaces. But it may also have to do with a reasonable way of counting words in French being different than wc’s method.

So, leaving aside the question of words for the moment — but noting that the answer seems to be in the 1000-1400 range, and couldn’t be 5000 – let’s take a look at the number of letters. I placed the palindrome’s text (all of it, including the strange title that is a reversal of Perec’s name and the place and date of writing) in a file called perec.txt and did the following to count the letters:

% fold --width=1 perec.txt | grep -c '[[:alpha:]]'

The result is 5219. Yes, I checked to make sure that accented letters are being counted on my system. I’m not sure where the extra 5566-5219=347 letters are supposed to be. There are only eight digits, so the ‘1969’ at the end (and ‘9691’ at the beginning) couldn’t account for the larger number. And I counted 736 punctuation marks, so the puzzle isn’t solved by considering punctuation marks to be letters, since that (in addition to being incorrect) would make the palindrome too long. Unless my text is corrupt, I suppose that some of the punctuation marks were counted as letters before.

You can read in Daniel Levin Becker’s 2012 book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature that Perec “wrote a palindrome of more than 1,200 words, the world’s longest until a computer program eclipsed it” (p. 181). The approximate word count seems right, but what about the rest of the statement?

On January 1, 2002, the first edition of Nick Montfort & William Gillespie’s 2002: A Palindrome Story was published. This text, published in a much nicer edition later in the year and made available in several formats online, is a 2002-word palindrome that we wrote together. We had actually hoped that the suite of software we developed, Deep Speed, would generate text for us and serve as a third co-author, but unfortunately its main use ended up being to check our work. In the end, 2002 was about as much generated by computer as “Le Grand Palindrome” was generated by typewriter.

(Perhaps Becker was referring to the data-driven palindrome found by Google’s Peter Norvig? That was composed and published on February 20, 2002, weeks after 2002 was first published in celebration of the new year. Also, while I consider it a brilliant hack, and while I certainly think that computer programs can produce literary output, I’m not sure how to understand or learn from this program and this text as a literary project. In terms of pure length, it’s a long palindrome, yes, but so is this; in fact, that one is longer than any that Norvig has produced.)

Now, to reassure Oulipo fans, 2002 and “Le Grand Palindrome” are written in different languages, so it would be awkward at best to claim that we directly outdid Perec. Also, it took two of us to write our English palindrome and only one of Perec to write his palindrome in French, so Perec still holds the record per-person per-palindrome. And finally, as my parenthetical remark and link above is supposed to show, it’s just silly to compare palindromes’ length alone; it’s important to read them and see how compelling they are. Writing a palindrome of more and more words involves conducting a more lengthy and profound exploration of language. Perhaps that type of exploration means falling off a cliff – as some thought Perec did; as some surely thought that William & I did in writing the exceedingly difficult text 2002. But it’s an exploration, and for us, as for Perec, it resulted in a radical and unusual literary work.

2002 received praise from members of the Oulipo and a positive review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. It certainly wasn’t the usual one-line palindrome fare that many are used to. Although it’s challenging, I hope that more intrepid readers will eventually engage with text. I’m disappointed that a major magazine article on palindromes and the Wikipedia page on the topic don’t mention it. I’m disappointed that scholars and literary critics (who have devoted time to other works of mine and of William’s) haven’t delved into 2002. And it doesn’t give me much hope when the well-known long palindrome of a tremendously famous and influential French writer, however well-known it is, is still widely unread. We can’t even figure out how many words and letters it has.

Consonants and Vowels form Constant Vows

Since the news has apparently reached a certain social network (of which I am not a member), I’ll mention on here that with a minimum of fuss and no prior announcement, Flourish Klink and I got married today.

A challenge that arose was writing wedding vows that captured that essential and positive semantics of the traditional statements, but which acknowledged that two people can be, in some ways, opposites, looking at things from different directions while also agreeing to live as partners and to make the same commitment to one another.

Of course, it would have been more challenging, and perhaps more amusing, if I had followed this writing constraint and also added a promise to “obey” to Flourish’s vow. Texts of this sort often are especially pleasing when they change their meaning from first half to second half. But for this particular purpose, the point is really the make the two halves equal in meaning, even if the language itself is less varied as a result.


All through good and bad times, through sickness and health, through all, yes, I will love and honor. Will I? Yes.

Yes, I will honor and love. Will I? Yes. All through health and sickness, through times bad and good, through all.

Symmys: Ymmy, Ymmy Symmys

I send you, dear readers, the press release from Mark Saltveit
(palindromist, editor of The Palindromist, and stand-up comic) about yesterday’s award ceremonies, complete with amusing references to me – and I send my congratulations to Aric Maddux and the other winners!

Palindromes Win at SymmyS Awards

Shock as First-time Writer Takes Grand Prize With Serious Message On Pill Addiction; Discovered Via Tweet


Aric Maddux of Indianapolis, Indiana won the Grand Prize for Best Palindrome at
the 2012 SymmyS Awards Sunday night with the first palindrome he ever wrote.
His winning entry, a rare “word-unit palindrome,” was a dark warning about the
dangers of prescription pill addiction:

“You swallow pills for anxious days and nights, and days, anxious for pills, swallow you.”

Maddux, a computer technician and poet, tweeted his debut effort to Professor Nick Montfort of M.I.T.,
who took fourth place in Will Shortz’ World Palindrome Championship last year. Montfort, recognizing
Maddux’ talent, nominated the beginner for the SymmyS – and then lost to him in the finals.
Any Ymmy Award (the singular of SymmyS) was awarded in four categories — Short, Long, Poetic, and
Word-Unit Palindromes – in addition to the Grand Prize for Best Overall Palindrome.

Maddux spoiled an otherwise dominating night for Australian Martin Clear, who won the Long
Palindrome YmmY outright, tied for first in Poetry, and placed second in both Short and Long
Palindromes. He wrote fully 10 of the 40 total finalist entries, spread among all four categories. Clear’s
short palindrome, which came within half a point of winning that division, dipped into pop culture:

“I made Rihanna hirsute, familiar, frail: I’m a fetus Rihanna hired, am I?”

Popular author Jon Agee (“Go Hang A Salami, I’m a Lasagna Hog”) won first and third place in Short
Palindromes, scoring with both “A Slightly Violent To-Do List” and this “Igloo Dialogue:”

“’An igloo costs a lot, Ed!’
‘Amen. One made to last! So cool, Gina!’”

Statistics professor John Connett, of the University of Minnesota, took both 3rd and 2nd place in the
Word-Unit category with an unprintable entry and with this epigram:

Fishing for excuses? No need. You need no excuses for fishing.

A word-unit palindrome is one where entire words reverse, instead of individual letters. The motto of
the Three Musketeers — “One for all, and all for one!” – is a famous example. “Surprisingly,” Saltveit
noted, “the fiercest competition was among the word-unit palindromes. Before this competition, they
did not get a lot of attention. Nick Montfort has worked hard to popularize them, and it ended up
costing him an Ymmy.”

The Symmys are produced by The Palindromist Magazine, the world’s leading palindrome periodical.
Hundreds of entries were assembled from direct submissions to the magazine as well as a worldwide
search for new talent. Competitors hailed from Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
“We created these awards to showcase the great new palindromes being written every year,” explained
to Palindromist Editor Mark Saltveit. “Many people think all the good palindromes were written years
ago. These great new works show how wrong that is. And word-unit palindromes are a good way for a
beginner to get involved, as Aric showed tonight.“

The night’s biggest controversy involved the disqualification of an entry. A little-known article in a 1984
issue of Word Ways magazine was found to have a palindrome very similar to a Short Palindrome
contender by the little-known Anne Tenna.
“Ottoman Empire: We Rip Men!” (a motto)
Tenna’s entry was leading the category and in second place for the grand prize at the time of its
disqualification. “No one is suggesting plagiarism,” noted Palindromist Editor Mark Saltveit. “The
earlier palindrome was very obscure, and parallel invention is not uncommon. But we hold the highest
standards for originality, and this entry had to be withdrawn.” Tenna nonetheless tied for first place in
the Poetry category, and had four nominations total.

The ceremony, held at Portland, Oregon’s Funhouse Art and Beer Cabaret, featured Los Angeles
comedian Dax Jordan, star of the upcoming show DaxTV on the MavTV network, and tap dancing
saxophonist Michael “Shoehorn” Conley. Both added original palindromes, written for the occasion, to
their performances.

The panel of judges was a murderer’s row of wordplay and geek celebrities, including puzzle master Will
Shortz, “Weird Al” Yankovic, comedian/author Demetri Martin, comedian Jackie Kashian, musician John
Flansburgh, journalists Jack Rosenthal and Ben Zimmer, and palindromists Tim Van Ert and Jeff Grant.


Full details are available on the website of The Palindromist Magazine, including:
Biographies and photos of the contestants; Biographies and photos of the judges; A full list of winners;
and A full list of the nominated palindromes (10 in each of four categories).

Star Wars, Raw? Rats!

Un file de Machine Libertine:

Star Wars, Raw? Rats!

… is a videopoem by Natali Fedorova and Taras Mashtalir. The text is a palindrome by Nick Montfort that briefly retells “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” making Han Solo central. The soundtrack is a remix of Commodore 64 music by Sven Schlünzen & Jörg Rosenstiel made by Mashtalir.

The palindrome is a revised version of the one Montfort wrote in 75 minutes for the First World Palindrome Championship, held in Brooklyn on March 16, 2012:

Wow, sagas!
Solo’s deed, civic deed.
Eye dewed, a doom-mood.
A pop …
Sis sees redder rotator.
Radar eye sees racecar X.
Dad did rotor gig.
Level sees reviver!
Solo’s deified!
Solo’s reviver sees level …
Gig rotor did dad!
X, racecar, sees eye.
Radar rotator, redder, sees sis …
Pop a doom-mood!
A dewed eye.
Deed, civic deed.
Solo’s sagas: wow.

Machine Libertine: http://machinelibertine.wordpress.com/

The big-screen premiere of Star Wars, Raw? Rats! will be at MIT in room 32-155 on Monday, April 30, 2012. The screening, which includes a set of films made by members of the MIT community, will begin at 6pm.

Straight into the Horse’s Mouth

My word-palindrome writing project (being undertaken as @nickmofo) has been boosted by Christian proselytizing, by Bök’s page. I am delighted to be featured in Christian Bök’s post on Harriet as an instance of conceptual writing on Twitter – named, in fact, right after @Horse_ebooks.

This makes it particularly apt that Christian describes my writing as potential poetic “fodder.” Why not treat this feed of texts as the gift horse that keeps on giving? Please, feel free to make the tweets of @nickmofo into your chew toy.

Palindrome “Sagas”

Marty Markowitz, borough president of Brooklyn, said his borough was “the heart of America” in welcoming the 35th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. My heart was certainly in Brooklyn last weekend, both literally and figuratively. I was there to participate in the First Annual World Palindrome Championship on Friday and, on Saturday, to visit Big Reality, a wonderful, scruffy art show that included some of my work. More on Big Reality soon; here’s a belated note about the WPC.

I made into New York in time to meet at Jon Agee’s sister’s house in Brooklyn with him and several other palindromists who would be competing that evening. (Agee is a cartoonist whose books include Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog! and Palindromania!) The other competitors included a fellow academic, John Connett, who is professor of Biostatistics at the University of Minnesota and an extremely prolific producer of sentence-length palindromes. Martin Clear, another author of many, many sentence-length palindromes, came from Australia. Barry Duncan, a Somerville resident and thus practically my neighbor, also joined us. Another competitor was Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist and a stand-up comedian. And Douglas Fink, who won a celebrity palindrome contest with his now-famous entry “Lisa Bonet ate no basil,” was the audience contestant selected to join us.

I met Barry and Doug later that day, and had a great time sitting around and discussing palindromes with the others over lunch. We had plenty to talk about. It was interesting to see that we also had different perspectives, interests, and terms associated with the art. Jon thought “Er, eh – where?” was a good palindrome, probably in part because he was imagining how to illustrate it or frame it in a cartoon in a funny way. The others generally thought this one was bogus. A sentence was the desired outcome for most of us, while I was a fan (and writer) of longer palindromes. And, as we found out that night, the audience had their own tropisms and aesthetics when it comes to palindromes.

We had 75 minutes to write up to three palindromes that we’d read to the crowd, which was to vote for their two favorite. There were three possible constraints given: Use X and Z; Refer to events in the news in the past year; or refer to the crossword tournament itself. Here’s what I came up with, using the first constraint:

The Millennium Falcon Rescue

by Nick Montfort

Wow, sagas … Solo’s deed, civic deed.

Eye dewed, a doom-mood.

A pop.

Sis sees redder rotator.

Radar sees racecar X.

Oho! Ore-zero level sees reviver!

Solo’s deified!

Solo’s reviver sees level: ore-zero.

Oho: X, racecar, sees radar.

Rotator, redder, sees sis.

Pop a doom-mood!

A dewed eye.

Deed, civic deed.

Solo’s sagas: wow.

All of the results (and the text of the palindromes) are up on The Palindromist site – take a look!

Mark Saltveit became champ with a short palindrome about acrobatic Yak sex. John Connett got 2nd, Jon Agee 3rd, and yours truly 4th.

Which is the longest?

In mine, I count 54 words, 237 letters, and 327 characters. If “doom-mood” and the like are single words, we’d have 50 words. Mark says on The Palindromist site that it’s 57 words long; I’m not sure how the counting was done there.

In Barry’s, the only other possible contender, I count 70 words (as does Mark), 184 letters, and 311 characters. Some of those words are “7” and have no letters in them, as you’ll note if you check out the results page.

So, they’re both the longest: Barry’s has the most words, while mine has the most letters and characters.

It’s a sort of odd comparison, because the constraint I used (employ only palindromic words, counting things like “ore-zero” as words) let me reframe the problem as that of constructing a word palindrome with a restricted vocabulary. Of course, you should be very very impressed anyway, with my general cleverness and so on, but I think Barry chose a more difficult feat at the level of letter-by-letter construction.

Does length matter?

Yes. A palindrome should be the right length. 2002 words is a good length if you’re trying to write a palindromic postmodern novel. For a snappy statement, a short sentence is a good length. I think some of the best palindromes are longer than a sentence and much shorter than 2002. My last edits to “The Millennium Falcon Rescue” were to cut several words (an even number, of course), and maybe I should have cut more? And, should I revise this one, I might cut the word that was included for the sake of the Z.

What about those palindromists?

The most interesting thing about this event, for me, was a gathering focused on palindrome-writing. Kids know what palindromes are, the form of writing has been around for more than a thousand years, many people have palindromes memorized, and there are a handful of famous books … but as I see it there hasn’t even been a community of palindrome-writers, discussing writing methods, coming up with common terms and concepts, sharing poetic and aesthetic ideas.

Well, perhaps there has been, in the Bletchley Park codebreakers. But I only learned about them because I met Mark, who is one of the people researching the origins of famous palindromes. And that was, due to wartime security, a very secretive group.

It was great having the Championship hosted by Will Shortz at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, with many puzzle-solver and -constructors who are interested in formal engagements with language. Of course, palindrome events would fit will at other sorts of gatherings that are focused on poetry and writing, too.

Whether or not we have another championship (which would be great), it would be nice to have another summit of some sort and to build a community of practice around this longstanding practice. Particularly if we can get someone named Tim to join us: Tim must summit!