Puzzles, Poems, Problem-Solving, & Productivity

How is a poem like a puzzle? That question’s easier to answer than the Mad Hatter’s classic “How is a raven like a writing desk?” From crosswords to cryptograms, many beloved puzzles do, if nothing else, resemble poems in their mutual wordiness. However, some forms of poetry are more puzzly than others—compare a sprawling collection of free and blank verse like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to the concise machinery of a syllabically limited haiku, the boundaries of which are as strict as the edges of a crossword puzzle.

Like Nancy, though, you can always break the boundaries of form to create new meaning.

When you start to write a haiku, your possibilities are wide-open; with each word you set down, though, the potential choices for what might follow narrow. In effect, your “word bank” shrinks, and if three syllables already occupy the first line, then any words longer than two syllables are ineligible for that line’s continuation. The poet’s puzzling brain must kick into action, considering words for their dimensions and how they might lock into place with the words directly alongside them.

Haikus aren’t the only poetic forms that require this type of geometric thinking. Similarly brainteasery in their construction are sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. Concrete poems take the shape of objects relevant to their contents, and erasure poetry—much like a word seek—highlights hidden messages by winnowing the chaos of a pre-existing text.

An erasure poem by Jen Bervin, made from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

What about a more sprawling, less tightly organized work like “The Waste Land,” then? Beyond the wordiness it has in common with cryptograms et al, is it left out of our riddle’s answer? Roddy Howland Jackson, in the recent essay, “Beastly Clues: T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword,” appears to argue that no, such works are very much like puzzles.

Jackson takes us back to the 1920s, when “The Waste Land” first appeared in print, and modernist poetry and puzzles alike were derided by critics. He locates “a question asked about labour and idleness in this period: are crosswords and difficult poems worth the efforts required to elicit literary pleasure and linguistic revitalisation? Or merely a waste of time?”

As a poet and puzzler, this question resonates with me a century later. Swimming in the high-pressure waters of hustle culture makes us highly sensitive to the terror of “wasting time,” as in doing anything that doesn’t build our personal brands. Writing and reading poetry that isn’t tidily instagrammable? Solving puzzles that aren’t social media fads? By hustle culture’s standards, both of these things are wastes of time.

So how is a poem like a puzzle? Both present us with opportunities to take back our time, to carve out pockets of our days where we exert mental energy purely for the joy of thinking. Instead of being just a bullet point on your resume, your problem-solving skills can be part of how you resist the pressure to always have your nose to the grindstone.

Next week, we’ll encourage you to find joy in poetry by more closely examining one particular puzzly form. In the meantime . . .


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