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?

Images of Time

July 23, 2012

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

Moon haikiah

June 28, 2012

Slate pond –

Lone moon met stem; no omen

Old, no petals

Cicada haikiah

June 25, 2012

Parts tense, gardenia droner is sad

A cicada’s siren, ordained, rages

Nets trap


The first time I heard a cicada was in a Tokyo street at night, and I honestly thought it was a security alarm, such was the intensity of its siren.

With haiku, the 5-7-5 syllable count is only really relevant in Japanese, in which it is as natural a rhythm as iambic pentameter is in English.

Basho’s Bed

May 26, 2012

Set a ballade–

Be not sad.

No plan, I forego regret.

A wet I? Mere folly…

Dim, lacy moths, in a vigor, fall.

Ill at last, I move to (no regrets) a faded dale–

A glade, pools.

Some more go too?


Jump! ol’ frog, or flop.

Mujo no oto1


Me, moss-looped, algael,

Added a faster gero note,

Vomit salt, all ill.

A frog, I vanish

To my calm idyll of eremite water

…gero gero…

Final pond –

A stone bed

All abates



Notes and comments

1. Mujo no oto. Japanese for ‘the sound of impermanence’. Mujo or impermanence is an important concept in Buddhism and central to Zen aesthetics. This phrase also references Basho’s original haiku, the final line of which is ‘mizu no oto‘ – the sound of water.

 2. Gero gero is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a frog’s croak, but is also used adverbially to describe vomiting. This pun was one of the inspirations for the poem.

I cobbled together this longer poem from some ideas generated as I created the first Basho poem, After the frog. In this one, I imagine Basho retiring to a solitary hermitage (in a shady glade, with lacy moths, pools, etc.) and himself diving into a pool to join the frogs. The ‘gero‘ grows more urgent inside him until he can’t contain it (‘a faster gero note’). He vomits salt, and sees that he himself has become a frog.

The final stanza is itself a haiku, and nicely captures the essence of the poem: all regret and suffering disappears in this hermit’s final resting place.

After the frog

May 24, 2012

I, Basho, sit in a rigor, fond.

No plop, ol’ pond? No frog? I ran

It is – oh! – sabi.


Notes and comments

Fond: Used here in its archaic sense of foolish

Sabi: A Japanese word with no simple translation. An important aesthetic concept in Japanese art and life, it denotes a kind of elegant, refined simplicity with implications of solitude and antiquity.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is Japan’s most famous and beloved of haiku poets.

This haikiah was inspired by his most well-known haiku

furu ike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

Which translates fairly literally as

Old pond –

A frog dives in

The sound of water

In a twist, I imagine Basho sitting by the pond again, on another day, waiting for a frog to plop, but becoming overwhelmed by the lonely beauty of the scene as no frog appears.

Moth ash ver. 2

May 3, 2012

Moth ash

Deer field–

Idle, I freed too sere moths

Ah! To meld, arcing

In ebony align.

I wish to melt

‘Til – little moths –

I wing, I lay.


Benign, I cradle moth ash to

Mere soot.

Deer field, idle I



Notes and comments

Lying in bed last night I noticed a few more imperfections and possibilities, so here is a revised and ever so slightly expanded version.

1) The opening line ‘too sere moths’ seemed too abrupt, and I realised that ‘Deer field’ was a good context setter and ‘deer field, idle I freed’ is palindromic so could be tacked onto the beginning/end easily. It also works nicely in terms of palindrome poetics in that the end takes us back to the start, but something has changed – the poet himself is now freed, perhaps.

2) I changed ‘ebony / a sign … I say’ to ‘ebony align… I lay’. The use of ‘align’ adds to the sense of the poet melding – aligning himself – with the moths. ‘Lay’ also adds another flying (or landing) verb.

3) Having lost the ‘I say’, the ‘No’ is less dramatic, slightly more detached and introspective, more in keeping with the tone.


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