Thursday, 13 January 2011

Strange Forms

Ancient Hebrew cultures valued poetic word-play, as did Greek, Roman and early Arab writers. In medieval China (400–600 AD) the “New Songs from a Jade Terrace" collection was playful, and the 7th century poet Magha wrote elaborate Sanskrit. Historians (Barbara Tuchman, etc) have suggested that in medieval European households word-games provided an important source of entertainment somewhere between the poems or stories of troubadours and games such as cards or chess. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio used numerology as well as various word-games. Late 15th century France had its “Grands Rhétoriqueurs". Such writing was still quite common in the 16th and early 17th centuries even amongst the greatest writers. “Love's Labor's Lost” pushed word-play so far that G.B. Harrison (editor of “Shakespeare: The Complete Works") thinks that critics have tended to “leave the play to those who are more interested in literary puzzles than in poetry". Ben Jonson's “The Alchemist” (1610) begins with a 12-line “Argument” whose initial letters spell out the title, though elsewhere he also made fun of verbal tricksters – a portent, because by the 18th century the reaction against “false wit” was well established. Pope's “Essay on Criticism" and Joseph Addison (especially in the Spectator Nos. 58–61 of 1711) were influential voices condemning the prevalent “trick writing” which included poems that intentionally banished a given letter, rebuses, echo poems, limited-word exercises, acrostics, anagrams, and chronograms. Addison blamed English monks with too little talent and too much spare time for reviving these Latin and Greek tricks. Further criticism of “false wit” came from Dr. Samuel Johnson. In his wake, the steamroller of 18th century neoclassicism and rationalism followed by the Romantic revolution broke a tradition which has never fully recovered.

Word-play survived in the UK amongst the masses as parlour games, in advertising, and in the popular “Miscellania” publications of Victorian times. Freed of the lyrical imperative, post-modernism revived ludic interest, with poets like Heather McHugh and Paul Muldoon exploiting various devices. Word-play and constraints suited the ego-suppressing aims of some language poets too – Jackson Mac Low used procedural constraints – but such work remains steadfastly marginal. The most sustained attempt at developing forms rather than dabbling in sporadic word-play has come from the Oulipo (Ourvoir de Littérature Potentialle) movement. Whereas readers seem prepared to tolerate a little word-play (finding it acceptably liberating, fissuring down into the core of language) rigorous Oulipian forms are all too often granted no value in themselves, being considered self-imposed handicaps, impediments to truth. Indeed, they often have a negative value that content can at best only compensate for. Oulipo writers claim that free verse is never free – if authors don't define a constraint, constraints will in turn define their work for them. Even sonnets are too restrictive for many poets today, but there are many more challenging forms. Poetic forms commonly use patterns based on sound (metre, rhyme) or number (syllabics) or both (iambic pentameter). Graphological forms (based on spelling) are less popular. Perhaps this is because

  • like syllabics, they work on the page rather than orally, and the oral tradition still dominates.
  • being uncommon they're too easily misunderstood or dismissed as merely playing with words, an opinion strengthened by their overuse as lesson exercises or as cures for writers' block.
  • forms often work by using repetition to establish an expectation which is then only partially satisfied – e.g. variation on the meter; strong and weak rhyme, etc. Forms based on spelling are less able to exploit such effects – if a word’s misspelt, it’s “wrong", not “interesting".
  • suspicions remain that although the challenges of strict forms may give rise to fracture and compression, the results appear in poetry magazines under false pretences. The reason that (e.g.) Abecederians are in poetry magazines may simply be that venues for short prose have disappeared.
  • the technical difficulty of the forms render practitioners vulnerable to accusations of intellectual or social elitism despite linguists' claims that word-play is natural and universal, as common in the Australian outback and central Africa as in Sorbonne common rooms.
  • historically, such forms have encouraged a currently unpopular competitive element, the “degree of difficulty” of the form mattering as much as the execution.

As exhibit 1, let's take this extract from Two ways to make it

     Oh Eros, the hot heroes
like you once
      rose sore
from bed,
      each ache
a proof of love. Now
      actors co-star
in divorce
      suits – it's us
they envy.

Anagrams have a long history of use in poetry, and can augment meaning just as other low-level effects (rhyme, alliteration, etc) can. As a carver might relish the feel and grain of wood, so poets can exploit (rather than gloss over) the raw material of their craft. In a poem like U.A. Fanthorpe's Word Games crossword clues are used haphazardly. Here the form is regular – alternate lines contain anagrams. The form relates somewhat to the theme, and (except for the line-breaks) doesn't disrupt the poem. Indeed there's a case for saying that the form doesn't disrupt the poem enough – readers might not notice it. An ostentatious form needn't be advertised, but readers nowadays might need a footnote if the pattern isn't obvious. More rigorous still is Bill Turner’s Anagram Homage (published in Iota), every line of which is an anagram of the same UK poet. Here’s one stanza

Is a pen neutral? I
peer (Italian sun!)
at plain ruin, see
in alien pasture
a supernal tie-in.

Another carefully titled poem is Lost Letters, which begins

"Too staid", critics said, “too sad. Poems shouldn't
mean but be". So must the work of men like me who
chose Jarrell's hose or Heaney's hoe become
sparse, hard to parse as they disappear up our collective arse?
Can't they swing and sing as if prose were a sin?

People will notice the internal rhymes but there's a more regular pattern – each line has a triplet of words (“staid/said/sad”, for example) where letters are 'lost'. George Herbert's Paradise uses similar word-play

What open force, or hidden        CHARM
Can blast my fruit, or bring me  HARM
While the enclosure is thine       ARM

The following stanza starts a poem that uses a more radical technique known as “slenderizing”

A poet's double life (draft)

He went gray, too
guilty to stray,
wanting to graze
on beauty without
needing to pray;

If you remove the Rs you get another poem. Here’s another 2-for-the-price-of-1 form – a multi-word pun

Doubled up in pain

He'd long desired her. Twilight restored,
he wondered on the way, doubtful of fate,
still only a boy, far from sure. No ring –
it was finished, a lover gone. No mistake.
He'd longed. He sighed, hurt, while high trees stalled,
he wandered on the wade out, full of hate,
still lonely, a boy far from shore, knowing
it was finished, all over, gone. No missed ache.

Forms can be borrowed other cultures or eras: multi-word puns are more popular (and easier) in French; Anglo-Saxons used regular alliteration; the Chinese had 'magic square' poems which could be read in various directions. An early English example of this is A square in verse of a hundred monasillbles only: Describing the sense of England's happiness, written in honor of Elizabeth I by Henry Lok. By tracing the patterns of sub-squares or crosses, several other poems appear in it. Lewis Carroll relished such challenges, writing the following

Square poem

I often wondered when I cursed,
often feared where I would be –
wondered where she'd yield her love,
when I yield, so will she.
I would her will be pitied!
Cursed be love! She pitied me …

which is the same whether it's read the usual way or column by column. Note that the poem rhymes. It’s not uncommon for these forms to be combined with more conventional effects. Acrostics, for example, are frequently sonnets or blank verse. I think it was only 20 years ago that a near-acrostic was discovered in Act III, Scene I of “A Midsummer-Night's Dream", spoken by Titania

Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate,
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
ANd I do love thee. Therefore go with me.
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee;
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,

Accidental? Maybe those million monkeys finally got lucky, but in any case acrostics have a respectable pedigree – even Dante used them. Here (and in Muldoon's “Capercaillies") the unit is the line, but word and stanza units are possible. Several other features can operate on more than one level. Carroll's square poem worked at the word level, though in modern periodicals one sometimes chances upon poems made of a grid of phrases that can be read row-wise or column-wise to make different poems. Palindromes at the letter-level struggle to be poetic, but mainstream poets have used the device at the line level – "The Back Seat of my Mother's Car" (Julia Copus) is a line-palindrome, and there are two in July 2008's issue of Weyfarers.

All these forms have wide application. As yet, some have only reached the stage of feasibility studies – potential literature. In particular there’s scope for exploration of bespoke, specialist forms. Here are two examples.

8 by 8

"Supercomputer Hydra slays U.K.'s top chess player” (June 2005).
Making war, young Moguls mated,
men stylized by courtly Moors.
Europe's chequered board helped Bishops,
until the noble game was hacked;
castles fell to hypermoderns –
Marcel Duchampion duchess
played John Cage and mocked past masters:
the king is dead – the Hydra heads.

The lines are alternately iambic and trochaic – the stressed syllables represent the board’s white squares. By placing the poem's pieces (the kings, bishops, and castles) on the squares corresponding to their syllables (and guessing their colours correctly) a chess puzzle is created where you can work out what the previous move must have been, as illustrated on

Here’s a section of Harry Goode’s Against the Jostle and the Thrust

                    Soil makers turn and sift     as by shuffle
              and whirr and veined wing       caught in amber bright
                       or coal dark shaft      and the settle and fold.
                               Tegmina,      testa, bark, bristle and bone,
                            upright       against pull, support for the push.
                            Arc      guarding eye, skull, beak, talon and claw.
              Skin soft      Africa ape, with knowing thumb.
              Enjambment      across mountains, plains and seas,
           stride far reaching        covers dreams, covers worlds

A white zigzag cuts through these decametre lines. On each side of the divide are either T and A (e,g. “sift     as"), or C and G (as in “wing       caught"). Those letters are used by biochemists to symbolise the 4 bases of DNA, which only combine in the pairs the poem uses. The zigzag denotes the double-helix.

Most of the forms illustrated here (especially the specialist ones) support the content and might even be described as “organic", but not in a way that will satisfy everyone. To some readers sound has an intrinsic, even visceral, effect that letter-based patterns can never replace. But some types of Art deliberately and uncompromisingly assert form or procedure over content. It's a different game, but one with potential. Escher wouldn't compromise, nor in many cases would Cage. It's like the game mathematicians play. It's interesting to see what "beauty" survives or emerges if you keep to the rules, it's almost as if it were a discovered (rather than invented) "truth", something buried or inherent in the form/constraint that has to be "brought out". If you don't share Johan Huizinga's views in the value of play, or Margaret Boden's on the creative value of constraints, or if you consider form a lifeless container, then these poems may be arduous to read let alone write, but I think there's room in the mainstream of poetry for many more of these transcultural, hybrid forms than we're currently using.


  • “Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets: A Restoration of the Runes", Professor Roy Neil Graves ( – where much of the historical information in this article came from).
  • “Oxford Guide to Word Games", Tony Augarde, OUP, 1984.
  • “Palindromes and Anagrams", Howard W. Bergerson, Dover Publications, 1973.
  • “Silent Poetry: Essays in Numerological Analysis", ed. Alistair Fowler. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
  • “Pattern Poetry", Dick Higgins, SUNY Press, 1987.
  • “Oulipo Compendium", edited by Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie, Atlas Press, London, 1998.
  • “The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics", Preminger and Brogan, Princeton University Press, 1993 (see the Anagrams entry).
  • “Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics” (1968- ).
  • shows Henry Lok's poem.

Unattributed poems are by the author: the first and third from Poetry Nottingham, the others unpublished.

Later additions

  • Poetry is essentially about words, and these forms establish an unbreakable link from poetry to words
  • Organic Form is when the form and the words evolved together - when form's not an afterthought. The later the constraint's applied, the more likelihood there is of strain - like the budding poet who only worries about the rhyme when they're on the 2nd line of a couplet, as if form were taking belated priority over content.
  • But some types of Art deliberately and uncompromisingly assert form or procedure over content. It's a different game, but one with potential. Escher wouldn't compromise, nor in many cases would Cage. It's like the game mathematicians play. It's interesting to see what "beauty" survives or emerges if you keep to the rules, it's almost as if it were a discovered (rather than invented) "truth", something buried or inherent in the form/constraint that has to be "brought out". I think there's room on the spectrum for such works.
  • "The Back Seat of my Mother's Car" (Julia Copus) is a line-palindrome
  • "Uncouplings" (Craig Arnold) uses anagrams
  • "Adventures in Form" by Tom Chivers (ed) (Penned in the Margins, 2012)
  • Without a Net: Ernest Hilbert on Optic, Graphic, Acoustic, and Other Formations in Free Verse
  • About Paris (a shape + anagram poem)
  • Posterity, Look out (an anagram poem by Kevin McFadden, published in Qualm)
  • The abecedary form - Carolyn Forche (Martyn Crucefix)
  • "Poesia per gioco", Giovanni Pozzi, il Mulino, 1984
  • On Anagrams - Luke Kennard

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