Fail harder

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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