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.

Originally Published: October 12th, 2007

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...

  1. October 12, 2007
     Jordan

    Ed Allen's 67 Mixed Messages is all acrostics -- the same acrostic, actually.

  2. October 12, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    Kasy is on the karma rag now (anagram work), currently off of the Sonnets (he is also a renaissance scholar and berates my misknowledge occasionally) -- http://squirrelsinmyattic.blogspot.com/
    Like wearing a strappy corset, it is very Ren. John Dee arcana, protoscientific knowledge, &c. As a scientist, I do a lot of anagrams, with maths, we've all grown up now as a culture but it still exerts a fascination. A lot of good-sounding language works anagramatiicaly on the syllable level, and even straight up anagrams throw up lots of spooky consonance and alliteration. Of all the poetry games I can think of, it generates the best work, both because of the sound patterns and because of a slightly acausal feel it has -- what letter you get to use is in part determined by the letters you haven't used yet, and there's a sort of fulfillment of the Gambler's fallacy.

  3. October 14, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    a brief message from here at the ALSC conference... I just adore these New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters, which first appeared in Literary Imagination. I suppose technically pangrams rather than anagrams.
    Coincidentally (or not?), anagrams came up in my talk yesterday on Lucretius. He uses the alphabet, with the ability of its limited 20-odd letters to produce all the words in the language as an analogy for atoms and their combinations. Particularly he plays with ignis and lignis, to show how the same elements (elementum also means letter in Latin--in fact the folk etymology derives the Etruscan word "elementum" from L-M-N-tum... say it aloud...) can be common to both fire and wood. Anagrams, palindromes and acrostics were serious play to ancient writers--the alphabet having an almost magical power--casting a spell, as it were.

  4. October 14, 2007
     Don Share

    Speaking of typewriter testing, and not really in the category of acrostics, are George Starbuck's SLABS, or Standard Length And Breadth Sonnets, now almost forgotten but overdue for re-examination!

  5. October 16, 2007
     Ange

    Alicia, do you think all formal methods consititute a spell or charm? Conversely, are anagrams, palindromes, sestinas and sonnets, well, forms of superstition? (Asking seriously, not snarkily.)

  6. October 18, 2007
     Don Share

    OK, here's the most American of American anagrammatical poems: "Washington Crossing the Delaware," a sonnet by David Shulman written in 1936 and, according to the poet, unsurpassed. The poem's title and subject refer to the famous painting by Leutze; each line is an anagram of the title!
    Here it is!

  7. November 8, 2007
     Don Share

    Don Paterson's afterword to his Rilke "version," Orpheus, deserves a lot more discussion than it has garnered. But I bring it up here to see what you think of this excerpt, which relates to anagrams:
    "Lyric unites words primarily (though not wholly) through the repetition of their sounds; if you believe words to be indivisibly part-sound and part-sense, then lyric must also unite sense. Reciprocally, the words we choose to convey the most urgent sense automatically tend to exhibit a higher level of musical organisation. Lyric presents an additional strategy besides syntax to bind our words together. This, incidentally, has severe consequences for the Saussurian dogma of the arbitrariness of the sign, which most poets know to be sheer madness. (As did Saussure, deep down, who ended his days tormented by the demon of anagrams.) This arbitrariness would be fine, if words merely denoted - and since science uses language in a purely denotative way, linguisticians understandably tend to throw their weight behind that theory. Poetry is just as interested in what words connote, however, and the overlap between their connotative haloes, their common feel, is often strongly manifest in shared features of their sounds."

  8. November 9, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    I just saw these further comments. Didn't mean not to respond to Ange, but was probably on the road at the time. I just don't know how to answer her interesting query. Some people certainly do use forms, sonnets especially, to almost magically contain strong events or emotions (as Edna St. Vincent Millay's "I shall put chaos into 14 lines"). Rhyme certainly has a magical and superstitious element to it, especially in English, where the associations between rhymed words seems especially strong because otherwise arbitrary (not so much the case with more inflected language, where rhyme indicates a similar part of speech or gender or number as much as anything else.) Rhyme has its own magical-thinking logic to it. When people object to rhyme it is often precisely on that ground--that it gives the emotional sense of connection or closure--the connotation of closure, I guess, to follow Paterson--even when there is nothing logical to back it up.
    I think sonnets actually belong to a different category of form, though, than sestinas or villanelles. Sonnets are almost Platonic--something like them would exist even if they hadn't been invented in precisely that form. An awful lot of lyric poems from all kinds of times and cultures weigh in at around 14 lines and have a turn in them. Villanelles and sestinas, though, are entirely synthetic creations. Which isn't to say they can't produce great poems, or that they aren't worthwhile. I'm all for artifice!
    It's weird, Don, I have just been rereading the Paterson Orpheus and his essay on versions--it's next to me here on my absurdly-disorganized desk. Don Paterson is brilliant.
    Maybe I should just do a post entitled "Don Paterson is brilliant."