Piecing the Language Together

New Girl’s Winston Bishop doesn’t let his colorblindness get in the way of his passion for jigsaw puzzles. Should you take a page out of his book?

In January, I came across a tweet from poet NM Esc, also known as Neon Mashurov, reading, “I think translating activates the same part of my brain as doing jigsaw puzzles, which, for anyone who has never seen the absolutely obsessive way I tackle jigsaw puzzles, means I might have a new favorite project genre.” As a monolingual writer, I lack the tools necessary to fully immerse myself in the jigsaw experience of transforming, from scratch, one language into another. As someone who has assisted a former classmate with the process of editing poetry translations, however, I see exactly why a jigsaw puzzle would be an obvious point of non-linguistic comparison.

Each word in a translated poem should accurately evoke the meaning of the original; that much is obvious. Less obviously, depending on the poem and its style and artistic or ideological goals, a translated word might also need to evoke the original’s shape, its sound, its rhythm, its rhyme. It might need to carry a whole world of connotations on its back. There is rarely just one option for the right word in a translation, so the translating poet must shift through a mess of word-pieces, seeking whichever will lock into place exactly with the others, fitting comfortably and bringing the desired larger image to life.

There are limitations to this metaphor. Mainly, because as Willis Barnstone explained in the 2001 piece, “An ABC of Translating Poetry,” “A translation is an x-ray, not a xerox.” The poetry translator’s goal is not to perfectly recreate the image on a box. Rather, it is as though the translator is looking at the image on a box and then imagining what lies just beneath. The skin is stripped away and a skeleton is constructed for the image, from deduction and imagination, in a kind of cryptozoological (cryptopaleontological?) act of artistry. We see not what readers of the original language see, but we see what made the original language work. What made it stand up and move. This might not be the work of a jigsaw-solver, but it certainly presents a puzzle.

Barnstone’s work also tells us, “A good translation is a good joke. Reader, you are fooled.” A successful pun considers, transforms, and makes art from a word’s multiple meanings and dimensions, and a successful translation does the same. Translating poetry is fundamentally an act of wordplay. One must play with the words as if with Lincoln Logs or Play-Doh—or jigsaw pieces! In an earlier post on poetry, I featured the above comic strip, in which Nancy takes a creative, boundary-breaking approach to solving the jigsaw puzzle of her surroundings, and perhaps that is the most accurate metaphor for translation.

In a 2018 conversation with NPR, translator and poet Aaron Coleman posits, “The language lapses that inhibit an ideal interpretation can ultimately be ‘a creative, productive failure.’” Coleman goes on to say, “Maybe it can open up a new way for us to see what can happen in English and what can happen in Spanish, for me, or whatever the original language is.” Nancy, in switching around the puzzle pieces, has engaged in creative, productive failure, opening up a new way for us to see what can happen in the language of the puzzle. I love this perspective on translation, as someone who would not typically be considered to have the language skills necessary to translate from one language to another.

If you too are hesitant to try poetry translation because of the limits of your language, I’d like to invite you to go ahead and try anyway, even if you have to lean on Google Translate every step of the way. Even if you resort to marking some sections entirely untranslatable. In the words of The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy,” this National Poetry Month! Find some creative, productive failures that open up new ways for you to look at language. Maybe your finished product will be the verbal equivalent of Winston’s jumble of a jigsaw puzzle at the top of this post; that doesn’t mean you can’t call it a masterpiece.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Person of Interest

In 2011, speculative CBS thriller Person of Interest began with the premise that a computer genius named Finch (played by Michael Emerson) had built an AI that could tell when acts of violence were about to occur in New York City. In order to intervene, he hired a former special operative named Reese (Jim Caviezel). The only information that the AI ever provides is a social security number; each episode, this leaves Finch and Reese to solve the central question: does this SSN belong to a victim of an impending crime, or a perpetrator? Do they need to be stopped, or saved?

Solving this question typically involves a veritable cornucopia of guesswork, research, hacking, plot twists, and pieces of paper taped to walls and connected by webs of string (one of my favorite TV tropes, featured in Supernatural and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Chess also features prominently, as do various secretive systems of communication. No episode is quite as likely to appeal to your inner solver, though, as season four, episode two, “Nautilus,” which aired on September 30th, 2014.

In this episode named for its chambered nautilus shell motif, Finch and Reese receive the SSN for chess grand master and college student Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard). She’s AWOL from school and chess in pursuit of a mysterious game’s prize. The game began with a post on an obscure message board: an image of a nautilus, captioned, “If you seek enlightenment, be the first to walk through the chambers.” There was data hidden in the image of a nautilus, and it sent Claire off down the rabbit hole.

Following her, Finch watches as she pulls a tab of paper from a lost dog sign, with a nautilus watermarked behind the numbers. After calling the number leads to nothing, Finch realizes: “It’s not a phone number . . . it’s multiplication.” Multiplying produces GPS coordinates, pointing to a location in Harlem.

There, a mural of seemingly random shapes (painted by artist Apache Gonzalez) covers a wall. Once again, there’s the nautilus. Back in his office, Finch studies a photo of the mural, finally recognizing it as a variation on a Bongard Problem. He explains, “This particular type of puzzle presents two sets of diagrams. The diagrams in the first set share a common feature. The blocks never overlap with the curved lines. Conversely, in the second set, the blocks do touch the curves, but there’s another common element.”

Reese interjects, “There’s a different number of blocks in each diagram.”

“Using this pattern,” Finch continues, “I can fill in the blank space with the only number of blocks left out, which is three, thus solving the puzzle, creating a sort of three-pronged arch.” Googling, Reese finds a matching photo of an arch in Central Park.

That night, Claire is near the arch, standing in traffic. When Reese interrogates her about her apparent death wish, they’re interrupted, but later, the answer comes to light. If you stand at the right point in the street, banners for “motorcycle safety month” visually blend together to show the faint image of a nautilus. Beneath the nautilus: pictures of traffic lights that Finch correctly identifies as the equivalent of Braille dots. They spell out, “184th and 3rd.”

Claire’s next found in a biker bar at 184th and 3rd, staring at a bulletin board decorated in gang logos. One features a skull with nautiluses for eyes; letters surround the skull in a seemingly random arrangement. At an otherwise dead end, Reese sits at his desk, rewriting the letters over and over, seeking a scrambled word, until Fusco (Kevin Chapman) determines that the letters refer to musical notes, forming the tune to “New York, New York.” Reese is able to deduce a location: the Empire State Building’s observation deck.

Here on out, the puzzles become simpler, less compelling; from a Doylist standpoint (referring to author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perspective, as opposed to fictional character John Watson’s), we might assume that the writers have decided that it’s time for the plot to dominate, turning the puzzles into mere perfunctory means to an end. I’m convinced, however, by the Watsonian explanation, that Claire has sufficiently proven herself, and the AI game-master is content now to lead her by the hand.

But why the nautilus shell? In the episode, computer hacker Root (Amy Acker) refers to the nautilus as one of nature’s examples of a logarithmic spiral. It’s commonly also referred to as an example of the golden ratio, but as explained in “Math as Myth: What looks like the golden ratio is sometimes just fool’s gold,” that’s not so true. Is that they key—that the prize Claire seeks is fool’s gold?

The episode’s primary puzzles have been solved, and the series has come to an end (though it can be streamed on HBO Max). Still, this one question of the nautilus’ significance remains. What is the symbolic connection between a nautilus shell’s chambers and the “enlightenment” the game promises? Is enlightenment encoded in the logarithmic spiral, or in something more particular to the mollusk itself? I don’t have the answers, but as the nineteenth-century poem “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. shows, Person of Interest’s screenwriters were not the first to see something spiritual in the nautilus, and I doubt they’ll be the last.

In closing, I offer the following excerpt from Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative to mull over in your own pursuit of the nautilus shell’s deeper meaning:

The spiral does not belong to the nautilus shell, unless it also belongs to the whirlpool, the hurricane, the galaxy, the double helix of DNA, the tendrils of a common vine. If there are golden ratios that govern the structures of our bodies and our world, then of course there must be such shapes among the less measurable aspects of existence.


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A Rising Tide

The New Yorker declared in 1959 that the “most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle” was a woman: Margaret Farrar, then the crossword editor of the New York Times. Here in the twenty-first century, whether the most important person in the world is a woman or not seems to be a thornier question. A 2014 work of criticism by constructor Anna Shectman reported that the crossword world was very much dominated by men, and that this problem had only worsened in the previous two decades. An important development since that piece’s publication is the Los Angeles Times’ recent announcement that PuzzleNation’s own editor, Patti Varol, will be taking over as its crossword editor, but while this is a huge step forward, a lot of work remains.

In her Washington Post piece earlier this month, “I’m a Black woman who creates crossword puzzles. That’s rare, but it shouldn’t be,” Portia Lundie summarized the central ironic issue at play: “crosswords as we know them were standardized by a profound woman, yet the authority on language still seems to be in the hands of a few White men.”

For Women’s History Month, rather than looking back at Margaret Farrar, we want to look forward: toward the women making crossword history in the here and now, paving the way for a more equitable future. Toward Anna Shectman, Portia Lundie (see the “Three of a Kind” crossword for more of Lundie’s work), and other profound women seeking not to standardize crosswords, but to complicate the idea that standardization should be the ideal.

We don’t believe in just one spider-themed hero, just one important woman, or just one approach to constructing crosswords!

These days, The Inkubator is a funded and functional crossword subscription service, sending puzzles by women and nonbinary constructors to subscribers a few times each month. As their mission statement puts it, the project serves as “a venue for women to exhibit and get paid for high-quality puzzles, especially (but not exclusively) puzzles that may not have a chance at mainstream publications due to feminist, political, or provocative content.”

Back in October 2018, The Inkubator was just a dream with a Kickstarter. Around this time, Hailey Gavin interviewed co-founder and constructor Laura Braunstein about her vision for The Inkubator’s future. In response to a question about the suffocating nature of mainstream crossword norms, Braunstein put forth the inspiring challenge: “If this is a pluralistic culture and people are threatening that, could the puzzle be a place where we fight back? Could the puzzle be a place of resistance?”

Braunstein nods to another project, spearheaded by Deb Amlen, Amy Reynaldo, and Patti Varol. Women of Letters is a puzzle packet by some of the industry’s top constructors who happen to be women. The puzzles serve as an incentive for solvers to donate to women-centric causes—if you give at least ten dollars to one of the charities listed on the project’s page, and email your screenshot to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com, you’ll receive the packet in return. By combining a platform for crossword-constructing women with a call for financial support for activism, Women of Letters shows us a concrete way in which the puzzle can be a place of resistance.

Even if it didn’t link arms with other causes, Women of Letters, like The Inkubator, would be a remarkable example of women fighting for a pluralistic culture. It is a radical act just to represent an alternative set of perspectives to those typically laid out in the grids that we allow to define valuable knowledge (“Crosswords are strange arbiters of cultural relevance,” after all). These projects are especially radical because they put a name to how these constructors’ perspectives defy institutional norms, shining a light on gender’s importance. Portia Lundie put it elegantly: “In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere,” no such thing as an objective relationship to language or to knowledge of the world around us.

A pluralistic culture can only be represented in the plural, by a rising tide of women, all with different views from different places, lifting all boats. Solidarity matters more than figureheads when it comes to making real change.


Daily POP walks the walk, regularly bringing you puzzles constructed and edited by women.

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An Immersion Course in the Language of Images

A lot can happen inside a series of squares. An Oscar-winning actor might meet a basketball star, or your favorite song might intersect with the punny punchline of a joke. Gimmicky grid construction might reveal hidden gems! Gotham might be saved from the Riddler’s clutches! Calvin and Hobbes might sculpt an army of gruesome snowmen! Krazy Kat might introduce newspaper readers to gender fluidity! You might discover new facets of your own artistic voice!

There’s a good chance you already fill in creative arrangements of squares on a regular basis, enriching your brain’s language centers by solving crosswords. Why not take this ritual a step further? Lynda Barry’s Making Comics begins with the reminder, “There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you,” and she shows us that it is possible to return to such a time. By partaking in the book’s exercises, you can learn to reunite images and language in your mind, to “practice the language of the image world.”

If you feel like your language centers need a good jolt, comic-making might be a perfect new hobby, and Making Comics is the perfect introductory text for puzzle fans. As Barry explains, the book’s exercises “take advantage of a basic human inclination to find patterns and meaning in random information,” and who loves patterns more than puzzlers? For instance, one simple exercise she says that anyone can do is drawing a scribble and then figuring out how to turn it into a monster. It’s that simple.

Your blogger with the book in question.

Many of the pattern-finding exercises in Making Comics’ treasure trove are collaborative, depending on a classroom setting or simply a creative partnership among friends. Others, however, can be done in solitude, including the exercises I’m going to take you through below. To prepare: Barry recommends, when just starting out, working with black Flair pens, a composition notebook (preferably not made from recycled materials), index cards (blank on one side), and basic 8.5×11 printer paper. She describes the composition notebook as “a place rather than a thing,” and says that you should try to keep it by your side like a faithful dog. “Making comics involves the same daily practice that learning any language does,” so keeping your materials handy is crucial.

Do you have your materials? Great! Let’s dive into the Animal Diary and consequent Animal Ad Lib, instructions pictured below!

More of Barry’s comics wisdom can be found on her Tumblr and Instagram, or of course, if you’re hooked, you can always pick up a copy of the book. It’s a full immersion course in a new language, in a new way of seeing.


For more fun, daily forays into the world of language, there’s Daily POP!

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The Monster at the End of This Blog

This past Sunday, Instagram user @muppethistory posted that PBS had newly released a Grover-centric game called “The Monster at the End of This Game.” Based on the classic children’s book of a similar name, the game joins assorted other Sesame Street fare such as “Show Me the Cookies,” “Ernie’s Dinosaur Daycare,” and “Oscar’s Rotten Ride” on the PBS Kids website and in the PBS Kids Game app.

Gameplay is unsurprisingly straightforward, designed as it is for small children. On most screens, challenges are as simple as clicking a glowing item; the imperative to draw a triangle notches the difficulty up barely a smidge. The most complex obstacle to reaching the game’s end (and the monster therein) is a shattered arrow that must, like a tangram, be restored to wholeness. As the player rebuilds the arrow, Grover despairs, “I did not know you were such a skilled puzzler!”

While I have no doubt that many of our readers’ puzzle skills outstrip my own, I do, at twenty-seven, have a significant edge on the game’s intended audience of preschool puzzlers. Why, then, did I find “The Monster at the End of the Game” so captivating? It wasn’t nostalgia for the fuzzy blue Grover’s picture-book antics fueling my determined clicking and dragging—I did not read “The Monster at the End of the Book” as a child. I had only the dimmest suspicion, via cultural osmosis, that a mirror would feature prominently in the conclusion, and could not say for certain if Grover would be the monster in the mirror, or if I would be.

From Lynda Barry’s Making Comics

Without this particular childhood memory on my side, Grover’s pleading that I not finish the game, his insistence that only woe and horror waited for me as I progressed past the stumbling blocks he placed in my path, reminded me of nothing so much as Lemony Snicket’s narration in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Maybe the driving factor in convincing me to keep playing wasmy uncertainty as to how exactly it would end. But maybe it was a different branch of childhood nostalgia, fondness for the perilous problems plaguing the Baudelaire children in Snicket’s series.

In 2004, HarperCollins released a collection of puzzles called The Puzzling Puzzles: Bothersome Games Which Will Bother Some People, based on the Baudelaires’ trials and tribulations and framed as a training manual for a secret organization from the series. According to the Snicket Fandom wiki, many of the puzzles are designed to be unsolvable, and the letter to the reader from Snicket himself describes the book as “distressing,” and “frustrating,” the polar opposite of “The Monster at the End of This Game” (at least, if you’re outside Sesame Street’s target demographic).

Before signing off, Snicket writes, “I have dedicated my life to unraveling the puzzles that surround the doomed Baudelaire orphans. Why should you?”

Violet and Klaus Baudelaire in the Netflix adaptation of ASoUE

Why indeed? Why try to solve the unsolvable? Why try to solve the extremely easily solvable? When the story is so good, why not try? Who can resist a compelling narrative, especially one brimming with pathos and puzzles, mystery and monsters? Whether the primary focus is on Muppets or murders, whether the monster is Grover, Count Olaf, or myself, I always want to reach the end. I’ll untie any rope, click any brick, trace any triangle—if it means gazing into the mirror at any good story’s conclusion.


If you also love the intersection of stories and puzzles, our Book Smarts, Movie Madness, and TV Time Daily POP puzzles are probably right up your alley! 

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The Sestina and You

Last week, we began to explore a rich riddle together: “How is a poem like a puzzle?” We discussed a couple of important answers, but overlooked the immediately obvious answer that both begin with “P” and have—at least, for a significant portion of English-speakers—two syllables. This may seem overly superficial, but those similarities are nothing to sneeze at! When we’re talking about puzzles and poems, letters and length are deeply important.

With regard to syllables, our post discussed the puzzly limitations of forms like haiku, which become increasingly challenging as you write. Even more challenging than the haiku is the sestina, a French form that requires expert-level problem-solving skills.

Typically unrhymed (though rhyming would only add an extra fun brain-bending element), a sestina is a thirty-nine-line poem made up of six six-line stanzas plus a final three-line stanza known as an “envoi.” The same six line-ending words appear in each stanza, though mixed up like a Boggle cube into a different, strict order in each stanza. If we label the last word of each of the first six lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, then the last word of each of the stanzas afterward follows this pattern:

Stanza two: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3

Stanza three: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
Stanza four: 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
Stanza five: 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
Stanza six: 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1

The final envoi of three lines must contain all six of the ending words. Three of the words will come at the end of the lines, and the other three words will be contained within.

Thus, once the six ending words are established in the first stanza, the ending words of the following stanzas are set in stone, turning the exercise of writing poetry into an elaborate game of fill-in-the-blank. The more wedded you are to having your poem make a lick of sense, the more crucial it becomes to tap into your puzzle brain to determine what jigsaw pieces of language could possibly go inside the parameters established by the “corner pieces” that are these ending words.

Sestina diagram via http://aka-arcadia.blogspot.com/2009/03/sestina-and-double-sestina.html. What other brainteasery poetic limits might we invent if we start placing numbers on different labyrinthine shapes?

Sestina examples that follow the rules of the puzzle:

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape by John Ashbery

A Miracle for Breakfast by Elizabeth Bishop

Forage Sestina by Marilyn Hacker

And one sestina example that breaks them:

Deleting Names (A Decaying Sestina) by Lawrence Schimel

Even if you don’t consider yourself a poet, if word puzzles are your jam, we invite you to try your hand at a sestina, and watch as it unlocks the puzzler inside!


First—consider warming up your verbal, puzzling centers by taking our crosswords or word searches for a spin!

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

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