Palindromic Sonnet No. I

April 24, 2013

A palindromic sonnet from 2112 AD, in which the poet, recalling a lost, golden age of food production, attempts to cultivate a burger.

Set a note– Don’t salt a burger up.

Set a pupa in a manic ass.

Mare slups a pupa pure, wets a pup,

Deific, lactates in alpine moss.

Upon a time, we fed on Agnus Dei;

Fed nude – garnets, aortae – mad-eyed.

Ah, burger – art, sacred lore – hops astray.

Art’s asp? Oh, ‘er older-cast, rare grub had

Eyed a meat-roast enraged; undefied,

Sung an ode few emit: an o-pus.

So men, I plan, I set at calcified

Pupa stewer, up a pupa’s pulse.

Ram’s sac in a mania pupates…

Pure grub at last – No! – detonates.


Historical background

This sonnet was written in 2112 AD, and reveals much about the culinary knowledge of the time. Following decades of environmental catastrophe, crop failures, mass starvation and the collapse of western civilisation, people resorted to eating grubs, insects and parasites. The poet clearly laments the loss of the golden age of food, when people dined on such delights as lamb and burgers, and in this sonnet he presents us with his description of an attempt to produce the mythical ‘burger’ by implanting pupae into larger beasts and harvesting what he hopes will be mature burgers – the ‘pure grub’ of the past.

The first stanza sets out the poet’s understanding of the process. Stanza two recalls the golden age, laments the loss of culinary knowledge, and recalls the legendary (older-cast, rare) grub who turned people away from carnivory by exuding a prized pus. In the third stanza the poet reaffirms his objective, and in the final couplet we learn whether he has succeeded or failed.

It is thought that the poet’s use of the palindromic form (if intentional) reflects the strength of his yearning to return to the past.


1. Agnus Dei – This means ‘Lamb of God’ and appears to be a reference to a popular pre-collapse religion in which worshippers sacrificed their finest-fed lambs to placate a fussy god. As such, it can be understood to mean ‘food of the gods’.

2. O-pus – A pus which is music to the taste buds. Some scholars think this is a reference to honey: as meat became scarcer many people turned to beekeeping, although honey-production skills were gradually lost and the bee larvae themselves became a staple food. Other scholars claim that the legend was a conflation of the honey bee and the popular pre-collapse singer Maurice Ee, whose hit album Red Rump? Murder! popularized vegetarianism.


Alternative ending/beginning, with L3-L12 variation

Set, as a recipe, fossil byre grub:

Set a pupa in a manic ass.

Mare slups a pupa, tops reviled mare cup;

Deific, lactates in alpine moss.

Upon a time, we fed on Agnus Dei

Fed nude garnets, aortae, mad-eyed.

Ah, burger – art, sacred lore – hops astray.

Art’s asp? Oh, ‘er older-cast, rare grub had

Eyed a meat-roast enraged; undefied,

Sung an ode few emit: an o-pus.

So men, I plan, I set at calcified

Puce ram, de-liver, spot a pupa’s pulse.

Ram’s sac in a mania pupates…

Burgery bliss of epic era sates.

Evolution of a line

April 23, 2013

During the process of constructing my palindromic sonnet about burger cultivation by implantation of pupae into livestock, there were a few lines in particular which underwent several rewrites. I find it interesting – and a testament to the endless possibilities of the English language – that it is possible to find different ways of expressing similar ideas palindromically. This also further strengthens my belief that there is simply no excuse for writing shoddy, syntactically knackered, incoherent palindromes.

Below I’ll focus on one line-pair (Lines 3, 12) and how it evolved. First, here is an outline of the relevant bits of sonnet structure and rhyme scheme.

L1. …burger up.

L2 … manic ass.

L3 Mare…pup/cup

L10 … opus.

L11 … calcified

L12 pup/puc… [‘opus’ rhyme]

L13 Ram’s sac…

L14 [last line of rhyming couplet]

L3 needed to express the idea of something beginning with ‘Mar’ doing something to a cup/pup, within the overall context of grotesque food production or animal husbandry methods. Of course there are a few other ‘up’ rhymes, but these two generally were the most flexible.

Simultaneously, running backwards through L3, L12 needed to start with something beginning with pup/puc, which had been ‘calcified’ (the final word of L 11), and then move on coherently towards the final couplet (which expresses the idea of a grub pupating maniacally and exploding), ending on something rhyming with ‘opus’. Also, the grammatical subject, starting in line 11, is ‘I’, so all verb forms needed to be first-person.

Phase I:

L.3 Mare’s erectile nob [lap] dilates a pup

L.12 pupa. Set a lid. Bone [pale]-lit, cerese / Ram

‘Set a lid’ is rather vague, perhaps an allusion to cooking the pupa. Read aloud, ‘set a lid’ sounds like ‘cetalid’, which I hoped might be some kind of insect, justifying the choice as a kind of holorime… but it’s not.

I realized ‘dilates’ could be replaced with ‘castrates’. The mirror, ‘set art-sac’, although an opaque phrase in itself, made sense within the sonnet as a whole. Another option was ‘re-wets’ or ‘de-wets (stewer/stewed) which also fitted quite well, but made L12 one syllable too short.

Another alternative was

Mares, erect, repel a penile cup

puce line; pale, pert, cerese / Ram.

I liked ‘pale, pert, cerese’, but the meaning of ‘puce line’ was too obscure. Then I discovered that ‘cerese’ is actually spelled ‘cerise’, so I had to abandon the Mare’s erection entirely and try a different track. The second half of the line could remain intact, but the first half needed changing:

Mare’s ebony nob dilates [castrates] a pup

pupa. Set a lid [set art sac]. Bony ‘n’ obese / Ram


Mare’s Ebola gel dilates a pup

pupa. Set a lid. Legal, obese / Ram

Phase II:

As the rest of the sonnet was taking on more coherence, I felt that these lines could be reworked for tighter coherence with the sonnet overall. I also felt that ‘ram’, which first appeared in L13, needed introducing earlier, otherwise its presence felt a bit random. I replaced ‘mare…’ with ‘Mary’s sassy ram’ which I then realized had been used by another palindromist, so I changed it to ‘Mary’s sissy ram’ – which also made sense because the beast lactates in the next line. I settled upon:

Mary’s sissy ram castrates a pup

pupa. Set art sac. Mary’s sissy / Ram

Two problems with this were 1) ‘sissy’ echoes the sibilance of ‘opus’, but is certainly not a rhyme. 2) The final rhyming couplet, which in a sonnet should be a self-contained summing up or surprise, was no longer independent, but extended back into line 12 – not a great crime in the scheme of things, but for a perfectionist this was unsatisfactory. Actually the original ‘bone[pale]-lit, cerese’ also created this flaw, but not so overtly.

Phase III:

I decided to return to ‘mare’ as the subject of L3, try and set up a ‘ram’ early in line 12 and also find a strong rhyme for ‘opus’ in L12. I settled on ‘pulse’ for the final word in L12, not a perfect rhyme but close enough, and it also led nicely into the final couplet about the exploding grub. So I then had:

L3 Mare slups …

L12 pupa [puce] … s pulse

There were some obscene options, e.g.:

Mare slups til lips castrate a pup

Pupa. Set art sac. Spill its pulse.

Looking for explosive ideas, I tried working with

Mare slups on a clover [clove/cloven] … e cup [a pup]

puce [pupa] …. re [e/ne] volcano’s pulse

But it proved impossible to fill the two-syllable gap in L3 with something that gave the three syllables needed for the L12 gap, and made sense.

Because pupae are central to the sonnet, I eventually went with the following, and tried various ways of filling the gaps.

Mare slups a pupa… e cup

puce ….a pupa’s pulse


Mare slups a pupa’s sap, tips sac-race cup

Puce carcass pit, pass a pupa’s pulse


Mare slups a pupa pot, tips sac-race cup

Puce carcass pit, top a pupa’s pulse


Mare slups a pupa’s sap− reviled mare cup

puce ram, de-liver, pass a pupa’s pulse


For a while I settled on:

Mare slups a pupa’s sap− mare’s one cup

puce-nose ram, pass a pupa’s pulse.

But this has a few weaknesses. It’s not obvious what ‘pass a pupa’s pulse’ means; ‘mare’s one cup’ doesn’t really add much (but could be a reference to the equine version of ‘two girls one cup!’); and ‘puce-nose ram’ is the wrong sort of ugly.

Finally, I have decided on:

L3. Mare slups a pupa pure, wets a pup

L12. Pupa stewer, up a pupa’s pulse.

‘Pure’ takes two syllables, and ‘up’ is the verb meaning ‘to raise’. I’m happy with this solution because L3 is nice and sloppy, and L12 manages to convey the idea of the pupa’s pulse being increased, leading to its explosion in the final couplet. I also like the fact that there are a lot of plosives (the ‘p’ sounds) in L12 which resonate with the final explosion! The problem remains that ‘ram’ in L13 is not set up previously in the sonnet. But if this omission mars the sonnet, the truly perceptive readers should be able to spot the extratextual ram.

Beef sonnet update

April 11, 2013

I have finished my palindromic sonnet! In the end the subject matter shifted away from beef to a dystopian view of meat production processes and the poet’s own desire to return to a golden age of burger cultivation. The Portsmouth News – the local newspaper – is doing a feature on me and my palindromes, and will hopefully be printing the sonnet!

I have not yet gotten around to writing the promised haiku about lettuce.

The palindromic moment: play and poetry

March 14, 2013

Recently I have had cause to think about the whole idea of trying to write serious or lyrical palindromic poetry that seeks to transcend the confines of the discipline and tries to achieve at least some modicum of the emotional intensity felt at the moment of the poem’s inception.

Palindromes born in this way are probably the exception. Usually, (in my case and presumably for other palindromists) the experience of writing a palindrome, poetic or otherwise, is this:

1. You deliberately look for or stumble upon a word with reversible potential


Sift through words related to a particular topic or theme to find usable candidates.

2. You start teasing outwards (or inwards – I usually work from a central word outwards) and try to build something coherent that either fits with the original theme, or – in the process of expansion – suggests its own theme.

This is a fun, creative, intellectually challenging process, and it is satisfying to arrive at something that hangs together well. In this dialectical dance of form and meaning, the formal constraints ultimately dominate, but the extent to which they dominate is dependent as much on the writer’s persistence and patience as it is on the limits of the lexicon. Now let’s look at the second, rarer approach.

I have had this experience a few times. It goes like this: something in the real world creates one of those haiku-like moments of perception – it could be an atmosphere, an object, a smile, anything. A moment of intense awareness arises, and with it the desire to capture it in a poem. But why a palindrome? It’s hard to articulate, but the feeling I have is of the initial word or words closing up into a ball, not just as words but as a bundle of energy, an infurling word-seed which forms the kernel and outspreading centre of the initial moment of inspiration. The detailed content of the poem may not ultimately reflect the initial inspiration, but the spirit is held onto and suffuses the poem. On other occasions, a wordrow (a word and its mirror or mirrored fragment) will itself suddenly take on a similar kind of potency; it becomes charged in my mind with a kind of intensity born of the relationship between the elements (e.g. the erotic implications of ‘lips spill’). Writing a palindrome born from this seed is a much more intense experience than the normal mode – it demands that the original moment of the poem is honoured in every word. Although the formal constraints remain, the feeling is that no compromises can be made, and that – just as when one writes a normal poem – every possibility must be weighed and only accepted if it harmonizes with the overall poem. That’s the feeling anyway.

Interestingly, I would say this is the exact opposite of the kind of textual violence described in Erika Greber’s fascinating article on palindrome semiotics: rather than a disrespectful destruction, it is the desire to return the words fully back to themselves in a kind of synergistic doubling.

It was this feeling that inspired Moth Ash and Images of Time. I shall discuss the latter below and attempt to show how it all hangs together and remains true to its origins – as it may not be obvious at first read. The poem is at the bottom of the page, or click here to open it in a new tab.

The inspiration behind the poem was the image of a cat’s footprint in the snow, coupled with a feeling of transience and fragility – the fragility of each snowflake, and of the footprint in time, a fragility which then, in my mind, projected into the animal that made it – a mortal creature, fragile in time. So, the lexical starting point was ‘animal foot’, and the fragment running through it ‘[pho] to of lamina[l] built into ‘oh photo of laminal light’ which is, I suppose, an expression of wonder at the footprint in the snow. Unfortunately I could not work the precise image of the footprint into the poem.

The section ‘…regal it raced untended / new as birth, gill, animal foot, oh photo of laminal light / ribs a wended net, nude cartilage r…’ all emerged from an attempt to build on this image and feeling of fragility and vulnerability. You might think this is interpretation after the fact, but the point is that there are always possibilities, and in rejecting all words other than those which have bidirectional thematic polyvalence, it is possible to go on building outwards in a manner which remains true to the original inspiration and feel of the poem.

The fragment ‘[lost in robe] regal it raced untended’ suggested an expansion of the theme into the whole process of life itself, coursing through the world in a blind, chaotic manner. And simultaneously the fragment ‘reborn, its old’ suggested the wider metaphysical idea of each instance of life recapitulating Life itself as an ancient process of birth and death, genetic evolution, etc.

This is further developed in the section ‘I, man, robed ocean, or / Ocean, I gave life’. While its mirror fragment,’.. e file / vaginae, coronae, code-born aminos] was an attempt (using the magic of bidirectional thematic polyvalence!) to keep the focus on life and things that give life: Vaginae (we are all born from them), coronae (a metonym for the sun, which drives life on the whole planet), code-born aminos (amino acids generated by DNA, the code of life).

Two final ideas emerged in the final stage of poem construction (i.e. the beginning and the end).

1) The idea of the system as a place of potential which is fertilised and given life. This is achieved in ’till unmet systems we defile’, which refers forward to ‘vaginae, coronae, code-born aminos'; and ‘dews met system’, which, again suggests fertilisation of something abstract by something wet – sperm perhaps, or a primordial soup in an ancient ocean.

Before this defiling, the universe is ‘a temenos’ – which is a sacred space, a concept which Jung in particular discusses. Again there is deliberate thematic cohesion here in the idea of something pure, untouched and lifeless being ‘defiled’ and giving life.

‘Null, its one’ also mirrors the syntax and metaphysics of ‘reborn, it’s old’ in an attempt to suggest unity of opposites, form and emptiness, life and system as opposites with an underlying unity.

2) The final theme is cycles of time – the idea that the cycle of Life itself might occur in an endless cycle of universes (a tempo old), perhaps revolving (‘rev’ is not a great word, but it ties in with the idea of cycles: spools, loops, tempo) within a metaverse (universe of universes) of metaverses!

So, the whole poem, as an object, can be seen as a move from the widest perspective – the cycling of universes – through the emergence of life to a single moment – an animal’s footprint (Oh photo of laminal light!) at the very centre – followed by a moving away and further elaboration on the themes of the first half of the poem. Whereas in the construction process it begins with that single moment and moves outward to the abstract edges.

It may be that despite all this, it fails as a poem, but I would like to think that the above description at least shows that it is possible to approach writing a palindromic poem which has a degree of ambition (and maybe pretentiousness!) commensurate with the difficulty of the task.

And with that, I shall begin work on my beef sonnet

Images of Time

Spools emit timed loop.

Metaverses rev−

A temenos

Till unmet systems we defile:

Vaginae, coronae,

Code-born aminos in universes’ rev−

A tempo old.

Lost in robe regal

It raced, untended

New as birth, gill, animal foot

Oh photo of laminal light!…

Ribs a wended net

Nude cartilage

Reborn, it’s old.

Loop metaverses rev in unison

I, Man, robed ocean, or

Ocean, I gave life.

Dews met system;

Null, it’s one.

Metaverses rev

–a tempo old–

Emit time’s loops

Beef sonnet

March 13, 2013

Inspired by a fellow palindromist’s attempt to construct a palindromic sonnet about nothing in particular, I have decided to set myself the lesser challenge of writing a palindromic sonnet about beef. All your questions have been anticipated and answered below:

1. Why beef?

Why not?

2. Seriously though, why beef?

I wanted a challenge I could really get my teeth into.

3. Aren’t you aware of the recent scandal surrounding horsemeat in beefy meals? How can we be sure that your palindrome doesn’t contain horsemeat?

I can assure you that it will contain some horsemeat, but not much, and probably well hidden.

4. Will there be any cheese in it?

Well, cheese is a kind of meat, so I’ll see what I can muster.

5. Will there be a vegetarian option?

Yes. You can choose not to read it.

6. Seriously though, aren’t you going to cater for vegetarians?

I shall be preparing a haiku about lettuce for the vegetarians.

7. What rhyme scheme and metre are you intending to use?

Rhyming cutlets, and lambic pentameter.

8. Are you planning on including the word ‘feeble’?


9. What about ‘prion’?

Hmm… I don’t want things to get too noir.

10. How about ‘bovine spongiform encephalopathy’?

I’ll leave that one to the masters…

11. When will it be ready?

Depends how you like your beef. Well done will take a while; rare will need a lot longer.

12. Did Shakespeare write any palindromic sonnets about beef?

Not as far as I know.

13. Does that mean if you pull it off you’ll be a better poet than Shakespeare?!

I’ll let history be the judge of that. But basically, yes, yes it does.

Fail softer

March 11, 2013

Reading my Fail Harder rant, I realized that I had overlooked the defining feature of the palindrome – it is a form of play, a game with words. A serious palindromic poem that overlooks this playfulness is perhaps akin to a clown barking at his audience to stop laughing and listen carefully. So perhaps the ideal palindromic poem is one that possesses that ludic quality while still working as a coherent poem. In that case, I offer these two as exemplars:

Basho’s Bed

Paradise Tossed

Fail harder

March 11, 2013

The results of the first SymmyS are in. I had two nominations in the poems category: Moth Ash and Images of Time. Moth Ash came third, and Images of Time didn’t figure. This makes me wonder if I am writing the wrong kind of palindromic poetry!

It seems to me that you can judge a palindrome poem as a regular poem, or as a palindrome. So, what do these two things look like?

A) Typically, a regular poem has a single identifiable theme, strong imagery, controlled rhythm, uses metaphor, a consistent tone, engages with the reader emotionally, and so on.

B) Judging by the canon as it exists, palindromic poems (of the letter unit variety), with a few notable exceptions, fail to meet any of the above criteria. You can usually recognize a palindromic poem because:

The imagery is a bit wacky and all over the place,

The tone, if there is any identifiable tone, is usually non-serious. This results from the inclusion of junk words (i.e. words that are selected simply because the writer can find no other option)  – Even one misplaced word can destroy what might otherwise be a serious, lyrical poem – so why even try!

The syntax is awkward.

Even if there is a fairly good level of overall coherence, there are word combinations that jar or simply don’t make sense,

There is no deeper emotional impact,

Having read it once, you don’t want to read it again.

Of course the key difference between writing a palindrome poem that satisfies criteria A and one that meets criteria B is that criteria A are much, much harder to satisfy. B-type palindromic poems are the norm because it is extremely difficult to control all the elements of a regular poem while working in two directions: it is an enormous challenge to find the right word in both directions simultaneously to satisfy the needs of tone, imagery and syntax. Whereas to find any old word that fits is not that difficult, and it is this less disciplined approach that gives rise to the kind of hodge-podge of imagery, broken syntax and superficial meaning that typifies the genre.

A consequence of this is, of course, that B-type palindromes can look quite complex, perhaps leading the reader to think along the lines of ‘Wow! How on earth did he/she manage to get turnip, flange and rancid in the same line?!’ In contrast, A-type palindrome poems can end up looking quite simple. They look like normal poems and therefore they look ‘easy’, as though not enough effort has been made to make a proper B-type poem.

Possibly one of the finest, most perfectly formed palindromic poems is Same Nice Cinemas by Mike J. Maguire:

Same nice cinemas,

same nice café.

We talk late.

We face cinemas.

Same nice cinemas.

Okay, perhaps it is a little dull, but in its prosaicness it reflects the theme of mundane repetition, a repetition which is perfectly mirrored by the palindromic form itself. I doubt this would have won at the SymmyS either, because it is so obviously not a classic B-type palindrome.

Perhaps the palindrome as a genre is simply not suitable for serious literature, just as you wouldn’t try to pour your heart out in a limerick. If you want to write a serious poem, why not just write a poem?


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