journal of contemporary poetry

Something Old, Something New – The Return of Letters

January 23rd, 2014



In poetry, sound can be used as independent agent, or integrated into the cognitive
meaning. Its patterns can be regular, or it can be used to link particular words.
Some people (e.g. Basil Bunting) have gone so far as to suggest that sound can be
a poem’s prime conveyor of meaning. But words have an alternative substrate –
letters. Their effect too can be independent or synchronised with meaning. Where
sound can be exploited in end-rhymes, letters can be exploited in sight-rhymes,
or as in Jon Stone’s recent “Mustard”, where each line ends in an anagram of the

Its flavour in the nostrils a thundercloud smart
like seeing your crush on a superstuds arm;

In a 2006 interview Clive Wilmer said “It seems to me that rhyme does the job
of occupying the mind, it takes care of the part of the mind that is good at playing
chess, or doing crossword puzzles … The mind is occupied by that. It is effective
then in enabling insight”
. Letters can admirably perform this role, and have done
so for millennia.

Ancient Hebrew cultures valued poetic word-play, as did Greek, Roman and early Arab
writers. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio used numerology as well as various word-games.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” pushed word-play so far that G.B. Harrison (editor of “Shakespeare:
The Complete Works”) thinks that critics have tended to “leave the play to those who are
more interested in literary puzzles than in poetry”.

Pope and Joseph Addison were influential voices condemning the prevalent
“trick writing”. Addison blamed English monks with too little talent and too
much spare time for reviving these Latin and Greek tricks. Further criticism of
“false wit” came from Dr. Samuel Johnson. In his wake, the steamroller of 18th
century neoclassicism and rationalism followed by the Romantic revolution broke
a tradition which only now is showing signs of recovery.

In the next example the irregular anagrams are highlighted much as in crosswords:

Culture’s very core is shaken; recovery is slow
until a rag man risks an anagram.
Letters are united, untied from form.
The broken shield is held aloft in triumph,
reflections more serious than first thought.

The following displays a regular pattern – alternate lines contain anagrams

Oh Eros, the hot heroes
like you once
rose sore
from bed,
each ache
a proof of love. Now
actors co-star
in divorce
suits – it’s us
they envy.

Or every line can be an anagram. Shakespeare’s sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect
actor on the stage”) ends with:

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to loves fine wit.

Here’s Heather McHugh’s transliteration of those lines:

Twitter HELLO earthward, to vanish alone.
Fetish’s vow is now to be: all heterogeneity.

In Bill Turner’s “Anagram Homage” (published in Iota), every line is an
anagram of the same UK poet’s name. Here’s one stanza:

Is a pen neutral? I
peer (Italian sun!)
at plain ruin, see
in alien pasture
a supernal tie-in.

Anagrams are just one of many lexical devices. The patterning can be at the
start of lines using Acrostic and Abecedarian forms. These old forms are being
revived in the hands of poets like Claire Crowther. Her “Ufood”, a type of
Abecedarian, appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of “Tears in the fence”. It begins:

You’re amsweet, you’re agribitte, you’re ayl.
You’re boshmop, you’re blannues, you’re boolish.
You’re case-popped, you’re culpeta.
You’re dashup.

The arbitrary nature of English spelling that so irritated G.B. Shaw is viewed as
an opportunity by other writers. Here’s how Heather McHugh’s “Ghoti” starts:

(“Ghoti” is a Shavian concoction)

The gh comes from rough, the o from women’s,
and the ti from unmentionables – presto:
there’s the perfect English instance of
unlovablility – complete
with fish. Our wish was for a better
revelation: for a correspondence –
if not lexical, at least

As this poem hints, letter-based forms aren’t to everybody’s liking. Sound has
a head-start that dates from pre-literate times. When asked to word-associate
“sky”, “blue” (a cognitive connection) might be a common answer. The poetically
minded might come up with rhymes like “high” or “lie”, but I doubt that
anyone would suggest “say” though it’s only a letter different from the original
word, just as the rhyming words are only one sound different. Sounds more easily
become visceral – onomatopoeia provokes our senses; tongue-twisters challenge
us to a physical engagement.

Readers unfamiliar with such forms are likely to think that they’re Procrustean
word-play; that form damages content. The same arguments are sometimes brought
against metrical forms by those not brought up into such a culture – too much
like hard work, too little focus on the Self. If readers meet letter-based forms
via Oulipo, LangPo or word-puzzle books such reactions are understandable, but
other role-models exist – U.A. Fanthorpe’s poetry used word puzzles; Heather
McHugh and Paul Muldoon win plaudits for their word-play. It’s like a sculptor
in wood letting the grain show through. It’s true however that even compared with
sonic forms, there’s often little margin for error. Sonnets can survive half-rhymes
or an extra line. With anagrams and palindromes there’s much less wriggle room.

Translating’s problematic too. We still live in an oral society where sounds have
more meaning than arbitrary spellings have – understandably so, but I think lexical
devices still have much to offer. The multi-layer, holistic approach required won’t
suit all poems or subjects, but I detect an increasing number of examples emerging
from the small press. In particular, Tom Chiver’s anthology Adventures in Form shows
that a wave of younger poets are rediscovering that words are made of letters as well as

Tim Love




Tim Love lives in Cambridge, England. His work has been published in various magazines including Stand and The Rialto and in collections published by HappenStance (“Moving Parts”, 2010) and Nine Arches Press (“By All Means”, 2012)

See also:
“Oulipo Compendium”, edited by Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie, Atlas Press, 1998
“Adventures in Form”, edited by Tom Chivers, Penned in the Margins, 2012
“Without a Net” by Ernest Hilbert (http://www.cprw.com/without-a-net-optic-graphic-and-acoustic-formations-in-free-verse-by-ernest-hilbert)
(the unacknowledged poems are by the author)
(Photo, with thanks to limbte at Flickr)



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