Literature

How to Write 100,000,000,000,000 Poems

A sonnet is a one-stanza, 14-line poem, written in iambic pentameter. William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, all of which are required reading for students of great literature.

Shakespeare may be the most famous writer of sonnets, but he is by no means the most prolific. That distinction is held by the man who wrote 100,000,000,000,000 of the poems — enough to keep you occupied for the rest of your life.

In 1961, Raymond Queneau published a book of sonnets. Technically, it was a recipe book, together with all the ingredients needed to create as many sonnets as anyone could ever want.

The book consists of 10 sonnets printed on cards. Each line is on a separate strip. All of the sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and rhyme sounds, so the lines are interchangeable.

Queneau’s sonnet design allows for a possible 1014 (100,000,000,000,000) combinations, thus inspiring the book’s title, Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes or A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.

The average reader would take about 40 seconds to read a sonnet. At that pace, you could devour all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in about 1 hour and 43 minutes. Reading all of the possible sonnets in Queneau’s book would take you 126,755,059 years, assuming you didn’t stop for a nap or bathroom break.

Although all 100 trillion poems do not exist on paper, an online interactive English translation is provided by Beverly Charles Rowe on this website. Although we recommend checking it out, we do not advise trying to read all the possible combinations without taking at least one bathroom break.


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