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 We find them in literature, in historical documents, and in popular culture.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 Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

[Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.]

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential writers in all of American literature. Not only did he come to epitomize all things ghastly and unnerving in Gothic horror with chillers like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but he also trailblazed the detective fiction genre with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

He also made an impact on the world of puzzles.

[Image courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation.]

Those familiar with Poe’s works of fiction probably think I’m referring to his story “The Gold-Bug,” one of, if not the first, stories to not only mention cryptography, but to include a substitution cipher (a cipher where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a different letter, number, or symbol).

In “The Gold-Bug,” an unnamed narrator meets the unusual William Legrand, a man obsessed with restoring his family’s lost fortune. Legrand shows off a large scarab-like insect, the titular gold bug. A month later, the narrator and Legrand are reunited when the obsessed Legrand (along with his servant Jupiter) goes off on a expedition to discover the location of the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Kidd.

As it turns out, a piece of paper Jupiter used to collect the gold bug had traces of invisible ink on it, revealing a cipher containing instructions for how to find Kidd’s gold.

[Image courtesy of Bookriot.]

But this was far from Poe’s only dalliance with codebreaking. In fact, he helped popularize the art and science of cryptography with a series of articles in a Philadelphia publication called Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

In December of 1839, he laid out a challenge to his readers, boasting that he could crack any substitution cipher that readers submitted:

It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any other arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc.

Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith–however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

For the next six months, Poe tackled every cipher sent to Alexander’s. According to Poe, he received around a hundred ciphers, though historians have stated that only 36 distinct ciphers appeared in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 of which had solutions or partial solutions printed.

Nonetheless, it’s believed that Poe solved each of those 36 ciphers.

[Image courtesy of Awesome Stories.]

He followed up this impressive feat with an essay about cryptography in July of 1841 for Graham’s Magazine, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which he discussed ancient methods of encryption and decryption, name-dropping codebreaking icons like Trithemius, Vigenere, and others.

He also published two cryptograms for the readers to solve, both submitted by a man named W.B. Tyler, “a gentleman whose abilities we highly respect.” Poe claimed he didn’t have time to solve either cryptogram, leaving them to the readers to crack. (Naturally, some scholars theorize that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself.)

It would be over a century before the first verifiable solution to a W.B. Tyler cryptogram appeared. Professor Terence Whalen published his solution to the first Tyler cryptogram in 1992, and even offered a $2500 prize to whomever could solve the remaining Tyler cryptogram.

[Image courtesy of Cryptiana.web.]

That prize was claimed 8 years later by a Canadian software expert named Gil Broza, who cracked what turned out to be a polyalphabetic cipher, one in which several substitution alphabets are used.

Naturally, Poe’s interest in secret messages and codebreaking has led some to suspect that secret messages are lurking in his poetry and works of fiction. (Similar conspiracy theories abound regarding the works of Shakespeare.)

To be fair, there is something to this theory.

In a manner similar to Lewis Carroll hiding Alice Liddell’s name in an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, Poe dedicated a poem to friend and poet Sarah Anna Lewis by hiding her name, one letter per line, in the poem itself.

[Image courtesy of The Baltimore Post Examiner.]

Of course, Poe’s method was more intricate than Carroll’s. The S in Sarah was the first letter on the first line, the A was the second letter on the second line, the R was the third letter on the third line, and so on. (Hiding coded messages in plain sight in this manner is known as steganography.)

And to this day, the hunt is on for secret messages in Poe’s works, particularly his more esoteric and oddly worded pieces. For instance, his prose poem “Eureka” — a musing on the nature of the universe itself, which actually proposed a Big Bang-like theory for the birth of the universe well before scientists offered the same theory — is believed to contain some sort of secret message or code.

Poe stated on more than one occasion that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” So if there is a code lurking in his works, someone will surely find it.

And in the meantime, we can still enjoy the chills, the grand ideas, and the mysteries he left behind. That’s quite a puzzly legacy.


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A pickle of a puzzler!

A little touch of absurdity never hurts when it comes to a good logic problem or brain teaser.

There’s the classic river-crossing puzzle (with either a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans and or a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage) that challenges you to get all three across without one eating one of the others, but it never explains why you have a wolf or a fox in the first place!

We never really question why we need to know the weights of castaways or why knowing the color of your hat might save your life; we just accept the parameters and forge onward.

Some brain teasers, curiously enough, seem intentionally nonsensical by design. Many claim that Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland riddle “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” was created without a solution. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many (myself included) from posing solutions to the riddle anyway.

And that brings us to today’s brain teaser — “Pickled Walnuts” by Hubert Phillips — which I discovered on io9.com:

You are given a series of statements which may seem to you more or less absurd. But, on the assumption that these statements are factually correct, what conclusion (if any) can be drawn?

1. Pickled walnuts are always provided at Professor Piltdown’s parties.
2. No animal that does not prefer Beethoven to Mozart ever takes a taxi in Bond Street
3. All armadillos can speak the Basque dialect.
4. No animal can be registered as a philatelist who does not carry a collapsible umbrella.
5. Any animal that can speak Basque is eligible for the Tintinnabulum Club.
6. Only animals that are registered philatelists are invited to Professor Piltdown’s parties.
7. All animals eligible for the Tintinnabulum Club prefer Mozart to Beethoven.
8. The only animals that enjoy pickled walnuts are those who get them at Professor Piltdown’s.
9. Only animals that take taxis in Bond Street carry collapsible umbrellas.

I will tell you, as a starter, that a conclusion CAN definitively be drawn from these statements. (Honestly, if there wasn’t some solution, I wouldn’t waste your time with it.)

So, what conclusion can be drawn from these statements?

Armadillos do not enjoy pickled walnuts!

How do I know this for sure? Allow me to walk you through my deductive process.

We know that all armadillos speak Basque, according to statement 3. Therefore, according to statement 5, armadillos are eligible for the Tintinnabulum Club.

Now, according to statement 7, armadillos prefer Mozart to Beethoven. But, in statement 2, we’re told that no animal that does not prefer Beethoven to Mozart ever takes a taxi in Bond Street, which means that armadillos do NOT take taxis in Bond Street.

Therefore, according to statement 9, armadillos do not carry collapsible umbrellas, which also disqualifies them from being registered as philatelists, according to statement 4. And since only registered philatelists are invited to Professor Piltdown’s parties (according to statement 6), armadillos are not invited to the Professor’s parties.

Finally, statement 8 tells us that the only animals that enjoy pickled walnuts are those who get them at Professor Piltdown’s, which means armadillos do not enjoy pickled walnuts!

Honestly, I didn’t find this brain teaser particularly difficult because you can find those middle links very quickly, and by linking more and more statements, you eventually find the two ends — armadillos and pickled walnuts — and your conclusion is waiting for you.

This would’ve been a more difficult puzzle if some red-herring statements were thrown in that didn’t connect to the rest, like “All squirrels on Beaumont Avenue have Tuesdays off” or “The birdbaths on Bond Street were designed by a German sculptor who enjoyed hot dogs.”

Nonetheless, this is a terrific exercise in finding order in what at first appears to be chaos. It’s what puzzlers do: we make sense of the universe, one puzzle at a time.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: So Long, Yogi edition

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today I’d like to return to the subject of wordplay!

There are certain names that are instantly associated with wordplay:

  • William Archibald Spooner and his spoonerisms, like “Is the bean dizzy?” instead of “Is the dean busy?”
  • Sam Weller and his Wellerisms, like “‘Simply remarkable,'” said the teacher when asked his opinion about the new dry-erase board.” (Quite similar to Tom Swifty and his puns.)
  • Sylvia Wright and her mondegreens, like “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” for “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

From authors Lewis Carroll and Jasper Fforde to poet Shel Silverstein and YouTuber Hannah Hart, from characters like Officer Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop to comedians like George Carlin, Steven Wright, Bo Burnham, and Mitch Hedberg, these names are synonymous with puns, wordplay, and the magic of language.

Sadly, this week, we lost someone noted for his unintentional and hilarious wordplay. This week, Yogi Berra passed away.

You’ve most likely heard at least one of his famous lines:

  • Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.
  • I knew the record would stand until it was broken.
  • Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.
  • We made too many wrong mistakes.

Joe Garagiola captured Yogi’s legacy of memorable quotes perfectly when he said, “Fans have labeled Yogi Berra ‘Mr. Malaprop,’ but I don’t think that’s accurate. He doesn’t use the wrong words. He just puts words together in ways nobody else would ever do.”

And apparently it was a family trait. In The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!, there’s a page that features Yogi-isms from every member of his family, proving that nobody is immune to delightful word fumbles from time to time.

Yogi, thanks for all the laughs and all the times you made us look at words differently.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Word Ladders edition!

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Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’m posting the answers to last Thursday’s Word Ladder puzzles!


First off, there are the two Word Ladders from Lewis Carroll’s puzzle collection Doublets:

Cain to Abel: CAIN-CHIN-SHIN-SPIN-SPUN-SPUD-SPED-APED-ABED-ABEL

Tears to Smile: TEARS-SEARS-STARS-STARE-STALE-STILE-SMILE

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And here are the solutions to crossword constructor Joe Krozel’s bonus Word Ladders from his New York Times crossword:

1. Table tennis: For ages, the only joy in my life.

PING-PONG-LONG-LONE-LOVE

2. Unspeaking inspirer will simply have to communicate in taunts.

MUTE-MUSE-MUST-JUST-JEST

3. Upon removing the strap, Mr. Rogers dashed away from his snow vehicle and glided.

FREE-FRED-FLED-SLED-SLID

4. Sell contraband to a flock of Jerry Garcia fans with intensity.

DEAL-DEAD-HEAD-HERD-HARD

5. Audacious poet (with signs of aging) outlaws military conflict.

BOLD-BALD-BARD-BARS-WARS (or BALD-BAWD-BARD-BARS-WARS, although the first answer changes every letter from the starting word)

How did you do, fellow puzzlers? Did you crack them all?


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Scaling a Word Ladder to Success!

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If I challenged you to transform the word ROCKS into the word SPARK, could you do it? By changing one letter at a time, making a new word every time, five changes would complete that chain of words.

ROCKS – SOCKS – SOAKS – SOARS – SPARS – SPARK

Congratulations, you’ve chipped away at those rocks, created a spark, and ignited a puzzly fire! Not only that, but you’ve just built yourself a Word Ladder.

Word Ladders, also known as Changawords, word-links, laddergrams, doublets, word golf, and numerous other names, have been around in their current form for nearly a hundred and forty years. Lewis Carroll is credited with creating them, publishing a series of them in Vanity Fair magazine and a collection of them under the name Doublets.

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For example, in Doublets he challenged solvers to connect CAIN to ABEL. He did it in nine steps. Can you match him, or beat him?

Can you turn TEARS into a SMILE in six steps?

As you can see, there’s often a theme or connection linking the words. Some Word Ladders connect anagrams (like SEAT to SATE) or semordnilaps (like WOLF to FLOW). Others connect two words in a phrase (like TRUE to BLUE) or link two words in the same category (like LION to LAMB if the theme were “Mammals”).

They can vary in word length as well as in number of steps between words. Often (but not always), the fewer steps, the easier the solve.

But, as it turns out, solvers continue to add new variations and wrinkles to the established format.

Image converted using ifftoany

Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle featured Word Ladders as themed answers, but these Word Ladders actually formed coherent sentences! 92 Across, for instance, was clued “Boisterous oaf confused the previous set of actors.” And you’d have to be a pretty savvy solver to come up with LOUD-LOUT-LOST-LAST-CAST as the word ladder that fits the clue!

And the constructor, Joe Krozel, kindly offered a few bonus Word Ladders for solvers to unravel. Can you crack them all?

1. Table tennis: For ages, the only joy in my life.

2. Unspeaking inspirer will simply have to communicate in taunts.

3. Upon removing the strap, Mr. Rogers dashed away from his snow vehicle and glided.

4. Sell contraband to a flock of Jerry Garcia fans with intensity.

5. Audacious poet (with signs of aging) outlaws military conflict.

How many successful Word Ladders can you build? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

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