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?