anagrams in america
I'm about to leave town for the weekend to visit the ALSC, which means I'm unlikely to watch much of the ACLS, and when I get back to Massachusetts I'm going to write a letter and send it to the ACLS.
That not-quite-coincidence, together with our little guy's newfound liking for rubber alphabet letters he can sort and assemble in the bath (and with the surprising unavailability online of the best poems by James K. Baxter, which pushes a planned post on him clear into next week) has made me think about anagrams, acrostics and other letter-patterns in poetry: who uses them, and how?
Examples and brief speculations below the fold.
The most famous acrostic in contemporary poetry is probably Paul Muldoon's "Capercaillies," a stanzaic poem about a romance gone bitter whose stanzas spell out "IS THIS A NEW YORKER POEM OR WHAT?" It's a prank, but it's not just a prank, since (as often with Muldoon from that period) the intricate games are a sign of frustration, even exhaustion, with simpler attempts at sincerity, collaboration, or connection of a kind that other people will understand.
The simplest anagram (combined with a pun) I know to have been made into a good English poem is George Herbert's Jesu, if you count it as an anagram (maybe you shouldn't, since it wouldn't work in standard modern spelling; maybe it's just a phonetic play). As in much of Herbert, there's a consistent suggestion that Herbert (if not, perhaps, any pious Christian) should be able to find, in the language he speaks, the basis of a Christian consolation-- though it may take some patience to rearrange the letters rightly, just as it may take patience to live the right life.
Other poets of the seventeenth century played with anagrams too... Herbert made a couplet out of another. This secular, computerized age might generate more couplets from the software that anagrammatizes individual words to no end: has anyone tried making modern poems from such things? Has anyone (here's the real test) made them sound like anything more than (not other than; more than) games?
The Oulipo group, as you might expect, came up with even harder variations on the anagrammatic text, though I'm not aware of poetry in English that works as poetry in the form of a triple anagram: please prove me wrong.
Speaking of Oulipian techniques, our own Christian Bök has a good book of lipograms, poems (in this case a book-length prose poems) arranged to leave out particular letters (in this case, vowels).
The most intricate letter-rearrangements-- anagrams, visual puns on letter-shapes, recurring patterns at letter-level-- likely belong to Louis Zukofsky, whose book-length "A" (sections of which I like very much) includes a series of sawhorses (shaped like an "A") and many rearrangements of the letters B-A-C-H, in homage to the ways in which J.S.Bach himself included his own name in his scores (Germans call H what we call B-natural; what we call B-flat, Germans call B).
But the really impressive set of anagrams qua anagrams (not lipograms or acrostics or visual poems) by a living poet has to be the series (I hope it will be a book soon) by Michael D. Smith, whose poems rearrange (not the words but) the letters in famous texts-- and feel as if he hadn't: the odd taste the constraint gives to the diction, for me at least, becomes clear only on rereading, while the constraint itself, if nobody had told you about it, would never be clear at all.
Here are two of Smith's anagram poems; here's the larger group in which I discovered him and his wily methods-- look especially at this manifesto of sorts, which rearranges prose by Benjamin Franklin. And here's what I think might be one of the first in the series. There's a chapbook I haven't seen-- and I hope that there will soon be more.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...