Tuesday 8 February 2011

Games poets play

The writer, formerly mythologiser, prophet, or at least specialist on love and death has become expert in subtle and wayward intellectual sophistries. Of these, poetry games are the most advanced. Often they are acknowledged only at a subconscious level - but the reader is always the innocent victim (see Tag below.)

  • Piggy in the Middle - The author and text engage in teasing allusions - the reader in the middle never catching on
  • Snap - The poet quotes from other poets without acknowledging sources openly. Recognition by readers convinces them that they have won some of the 'cards'
  • Murder in the Dark - A traditional poetic form has been slaughtered: readers must discover which one, how, and (the hardest bit) why. Sonnets are frequently the victims.
  • Ain't it Awful - The game is borrowed from Berne, who suggests it is also played on a social level. Also known as I can make you cry.
  • Hunt the Thimble - The poem suggests a hard nugget of eternal truth can be found if the reader works hard enough. Text may also implant 'getting warmer' and 'getting colder' indicators.
  • Chase the Lady - Coined re Shakespeare's sonnets, a sequence in which some individual poems can be understood, giving readers the idea that if they work hard enough all can be understood; there are, however, deliberate decoys ('They that have the power to hurt but will do none..')
  • Pop goes the weasel - Here the last word of the poem appears to provide a sudden 'answer', which is, of course, not the answer.
  • Pin the tail on the donkey - Readers are asked to add a good final line to an otherwise hopeless poem.
  • What am I? - Deliberate conventions of poetry are challenged to make reader insecure.
  • Musical Bumps - Unexpected disruptions of rhythmic patterning when least expected. Readers tolerate this in anticipation of the 'prize'.
  • Charades - For some reason that is never explained the most sensible and informative mode of expression can't be used, so the poet must resort to obscure, sometimes risible, alternatives
  • Pass the Parcel - Each break in the poem's musicality is assumed to reveal part of the mystery
  • Blind Man's Bluff - Disorientated by initial obscurity, the groping reader is pleased with anything they can manage to grasp.
  • Tag - The reader is always 'it'.

The modern reader is no longer content with easy forays into Spot the rhyme or I spy with my little i. Instead, a range of sophisticated after-dinner-party games have emerged

  • Life-swapping parties - 'Keys' are thrown onto a table, and picked at random. Popular with confessionalist poets.
  • Karaoke - the poet supplies only the background - a template (workshop) poem
  • Trivial Pursuits - the ultimate in poetry games

Poets live in fear of the moment of 'Switch' which allows 'the player to move out of the game by choosing to express his authentic need directly.' This is sometimes expressed by the words: "This poem is crap." Pre-empting this ploy is so important that it has engendered a new genre - post-modernism (don't worry, I'm only joking).


  • Games People Play, Berne, E (1964), Penguin
  • Transactional Analysis Counselling in Action, Stewart, I (1989), Sage
  • Games authors play, Peter Hutchinson, (1983) Methuen

By Tim Love and Helena Nelson

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