Queneau in re Inspiration

A oft-quoted passage from Queneau:

…it must be noted that the poet is never inspired, if by that one means that inspiration is a function of humor, of temperature, of political circumstances, of subjective chance, or of the subconscious. The poet is never inspired, because he is the master of that which appears to others as inspiration. He does not wait for inspiration to fall out of the heavens on him like roasted ortolans. He knows how to hunt, and lives by the incontestable proverb, “God helps them that help themselves.” He is never inspired because he is unceasingly inspired, because the powers of poetry are always at his disposition, subjected to his will, submissive to his own activity…” (Le Voyage en Grece, 126; Quoted in Benabou, Marcel. “Rule and Constraint.” Trans. Warren Motte in Oulipo: A Primer for Potential Literature. Dalkey Archive, 1998. 43.)

And a similar statement from Queneau in one of his novels, this time with a more specific attack against his former companions the Surrealists:

“That’s right. take another example: inspiration. They see inspiration as the opposite of artistic technique and they aim to have a constant supply of inspiration by rejecting technique, even the technique that gives meaning to words. So what do we get? Inspiration vanishes: you can hardly use the word inspiration for people who roll strings of metaphors and reel off puns by the yard. They lurk in the dark hoping to unearth the hammers and sickles that will break the chains and sever the links that bind man. But they’ve lost their own freedom. They’ve become slaves to twitches and mechanical reactions and they congratulate themselves on being turned into typewriters; they even set themselves up as an example, which shows what naive demagogues they are. They think the future of the mind lies in their prattle and their stutterings! Quite the opposite, I don’t believe that a true poet is ever ‘inspired’: both the lowest and the highest denominator are beneath him, he’s above technique and inspiration, which come to the same thing as far as he’s concerned, because he’s in full possession of both of them. The really inspired person is never inspired: he’s always inspired: he doesn’t go looking for inspiration and he doesn’t get up in arms about artistic technique.” ” (Odile. Trans. Barbara Wright. Dalkey Archive, 1988. 100-01.)

These statements get to the heart of the Oulipian enterprise as conceived by Queneau (and being one of the two founders that counts for something), as well as the general concept of writing with constraint. The idea that a writer is mystically inspired breaks down. Writing isn’t about waiting for a shining light to expose some great idea, it is process, practice, work. It is demystified. The implication of a constraint forces the writer to work harder, but in a way that is directed. See what difference it makes if you just sit down and try to write anything at all or if you sit down and try to write a haiku or paragraph that doesn’t use any a’s.

Maybe next time “writer’s block” sets in, it’s time to try something new. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike (who knows when if ever that will happen), find a structure, a constraint, to work with.