Sunday 29 September 1996
According to the Home Page, the site was last updated at some point in the 17th century, but it is an attic crazily packed with the aerostats, flanges, cobalt and general late-Victorian flotsam of British comic surrealism. It's nice to see that this tradition has translated from the small presses into the digital ether, demonstrating that the Net can handle idioms other than Californian. Hooting Yard is a haven for people who like words they can savour, and lots of them. A highlight is the 709-word sentence extracted from Frank Key's story "The Crunlop Experiment". "I think it works on its own terms, even out of context," Key observes.
As well as perusing Key's stories and drawings, visitors are invited to take part in "Intriguing Projects" such as the proudly undefined Homunculus Project, for which one of the suggested starting points is Oulipo. This stands for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature, an enterprise cited by Key as a major influence. Launched in 1960, it was dedicated to the creation of constraints upon writing. An Oulipian author is "a rat who himself constructs the labyrinth which he proposes to get out of (un rat qui construit lui-meme le labyrinthe dont il se propose de sortir)".
Key provides a link from Hooting Yard to a site in Ontario where a PhD student called Stefan Sinclair keeps the Oulipian flame not just alight but incandescent: starry backgrounds, pale blue text on a pale grey field, and all the other Web equivalents of go-faster stripes. It's in French and English.
Raymond Queneau, a founder of Oulipo, depicted his book A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems as a model of a machine for generating sonnets. Sinclair has used the language of hypertext to create a working electronic model of this machine, predictably incorporating a constraint only too familiar to Web travellers. It requires a browser that understands Java, a taste so far acquired only by the Web avant-garde. Aspiring Oulipians who prefer to use their own wetware can jump to a French site which carries a table of constraints planned by Queneau, and embellished by fellow Oulipians such as George Perec and Italo Calvino.
Queneau's machine conceit was noted by Calvino in a discussion of the possibilities of a "literature machine" given as a lecture nearly 30 years ago. "Its true vocation would be for classicism," Calvino opined. He pointed out that experiments in machine writing, depending on chance, had hitherto sought to produce disorder. "The test of a poetic-electronic machine would be its ability to produce traditional works, poems with closed metrical forms, novels that follow all the rules."
Sinclair's automaton seems adept at generating doggerel that rhymes, presumably not what Calvino had in mind. While we wait for a program that generates traditional literature in a hypertext setting - Prescott, one might call it - Hooting Yard is sol- iciting texts composed entirely from cryptic crossword clues, to be sent to the Tetchy Cruciverbist.
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