Intersections of Puzzle and Poetry

The more you look, the more you can find puzzles in all sorts of interesting places. We find them in literature, in historical documents, and in popular culture.

So it should come as no surprise that puzzles can be found in the world of poetry as well.

We’ve covered a few examples where poetry and puzzles have overlapped in the past, whether it’s the creations of Peter Valentine, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or the art of carmina figurata.

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But that’s only scratching the surface.

One of the most common ways that puzzly techniques find their way into poetry is through acrostics. Acrostics spell out messages with the first letter of each line or verse.

One of the most famous is a poem by Lewis Carroll at the end of Through the Looking-Glass where he reveals the identity of the girl who inspired his famous stories:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

Carroll certainly offers the most famous example, but I must confess that my favorite example comes from a story on Wikipedia. Poet Rolfe Humphries was banned from Poetry Magazine for life for an acrostic aimed at a diplomat and former president of Columbia University. The acrostic quite bluntly read “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass.”

Of course, the message reading down — also known as an acrostich — isn’t the only way these messages can be hidden.

There are also examples of mesostich — where the word or message is spelled with letters in the middle of the verse — and telestich, where the last letters of each line spell a name or message.

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[Image courtesy of Twitter.]

These techniques were also used in ancient Greek inscriptions, where one particular example, AL205, featured acrostich, mesostich, and telestich messages at the same time.

Other puzzly stylings have also allowed poets to flex their wordplay muscles.

For instance, David Shulman wrote a 14-line sonnet about George Washington’s famous river crossing where every line is an anagram of “Washington crossing the Delaware”:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

There are also ABC poems, a form where the goal of each poem is to use words starting with each letter of the alphabet in order. You can find some entertaining and impressive examples here.

Some poets, however, have flipped the puzzle poem on its head by treating the poems like puzzles. The folks at UVA’s Puzzle Poetry group utilize Tetris-like puzzle pieces with words on them to assemble poems.

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[Image courtesy of the University of Virginia.]

The concept dates back to 2017, a creation of Neal Curtis and Brad Pasanek, serving as a way to both explore and deconstruct the art of poetry itself by making a puzzle out of it.

It’s a very cool idea, reminiscent of how magnetic poetry sets allow you to turn your fridge into a canvas by assembling and reworking the order of the various available words.

Puzzles by their very nature are about finding a solution, bringing order out of chaos, whether it’s assembling puzzle pieces, answering devious crossword clues to fill a grid, or unraveling a tricky brain teaser that pushes you to think in a different way.

And since poetry is all about expressing truths in a personal way, it makes a lovely sort of sense that puzzly techniques would intertwine with this thoughtful, elusive form of art.


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The Puzzly Art of Carmina Figurata

We don’t discuss poetry all that often in the blog. To be fair, when it comes to poetry and crosswords, all you really need to know are E’ER, O’ER, ODE, E’EN, and ‘NEATH.

But there is one form of poetry that lends itself quite handily to our favorite field of study, sitting at the crossroads of art, poetry, and puzzles. Today, we’re going to talk about carmina figurata.

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[A poem shaped like an altar, a work by Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius.
Image courtesy of Some Grey Matter.]

A carmina figuratum is a poem wherein either the entire body of the poem or select parts form a shape or pattern. Often this shape reflects the subject of the poem.

But that’s what the term has come to mean over time, as poetry has evolved and grown. The original carmina figurata were religious-based poems where letters were colored red to stand out from the regular black lettering in order to draw attention to or highlight a certain religious figure.

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[“De laudibus sanctae Crucis” by Oliverus.
Image courtesy of WTF Art History.]

For instance, in this image, titled “Praises to the Holy Cross,” you can see “rex,” meaning “king” in red above Christ’s head and “virtu” on his stomach, among other words. Obviously, having the image superimposed over the text helps highlight the words, representing John 1:14, ““And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”

Quite a bit to unpack in such a small piece.

Other carmina figurata have no color or imagery, relying on the cleverness of the reader to uncover the hidden messages within the text. This was particularly true of the poet Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius, who wrote dozens of carmina figurata of increasing complexity.

Some of these hidden messages honored the same rulers the poems were meant to impress. Other messages referenced the date the poem was written or the poet himself. Some even concealed drawings or designs.

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[Several of Porphyrius’s most ambitious creations, revealing just how far a reader would have to delve to uncover the hidden messages. Images courtesy of Some Grey Matter.]

From the article on Some Grey Matter:

The poems contain supplementary text ‘hidden’ within the main body of the individual poems and intended to be ‘discovered’ by the reader. These versus intexti poems were apparently intended to dazzle Constantine with their technical virtuosity and thereby inspire the hoped–for recall of their creator…

Now that’s ambition. Imagine you’re constructing a Marching Bands puzzle, with the overlapping lines and loops of text, but all in the hope of courting favor with a major political player. And to do so, you need to hide even more information in the grid. That’s next-level puzzling, to be sure.

Whether you’re moved by the artistry, impressed by the construction, or intrigued by the puzzly challenges they represent, you must admit: carmina figurata are works of puzzle art unlike anything else.

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