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.


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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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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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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Prose, Poetry, and Puzzles: Multiple Ways to Look at the Same Text!

Puzzle fans are used to searching for multiple avenues of entry when it comes to solving.

Crosswords have the across and down clues. Some people go straight for the pop culture clues, while others seek out fill-in-the-blank clues. Diagramless crosswords add an additional challenge by removing the black squares and set numbers that guide you.

Fill-Ins and Word Seeks have all sorts of entries you can start hunting through the grid for. Logic problems have several clues you can use to whittle down possibilities and utilize the information you have.

Heck, Rubik’s solvers are positively awash in potential paths to success.

[Image courtesy of Gizmodo.]

Fans of more complicated jigsaw puzzles are also familiar with this concept. The standard approach is to find the edges and work your way in, but I know plenty of solvers who either sort by color or build from the middle around recognizable figures in the image.

Of course, jigsaw puzzle companies know this and they abandon the traditional rules of jigsaw puzzles, creating some diabolical ways to force you to change your tactics and find new ways in. There are jigsaw puzzles with no edge pieces (meaning no flat edges), so-called “infinite” puzzles like the one pictured above, and brain-teaser jigsaws where the pieces can be assembled in many different ways, but there’s only one correct solution.

And as it turns out, there are a few historical items that prove this sort of multi-approach thinking isn’t limited to puzzles.

book-1

[Image courtesy of This Is Colossal.]

Say hello to a marvelous variation on the dos-à-dos book concept that resides in the National Library of Sweden.

Normally, dos-à-dos books (or back-to-back) books are just what they sound like: two books bound together at the spine. But this religious text is six books in one. Depending on which clasps you have open and shut, you can read this book six different ways.

Each book is a devotional text printed in Germany during the 16th century — including Der Kleine Katechismus by Martin Luther — and it’s a masterwork of craftsmanship, skill, and design. It boggles my mind just looking at it.

And yet, a single book with six ways to read it seems like a drop in the bucket when you compare it to a poem that can be read thousands of different ways.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

This is Star Gauge, also known as Xuanji Tu (Picture of the Turning Sphere). It is a palindrome poem by Su Hui, a 4th-century female Chinese poet whose most famous creation still amazes to this day.

Written in the form of a 29 x 29 grid of characters, Xuanji Tu can be read forward or backwards, horizontally or vertically or diagonally, or organized by its color-coded grids.

As you might have guessed, it’s called a palindrome poem because it can be read backwards or forwards, though some scholars have estimated more than 2,800 different rhyming poems can be produced by reading it different ways.

Most of her other works have been lost to history, but this one piece alone leaves an incredible legacy.

Whether it’s a six-fold book, a puzzle with an infinite number of arrangements, or a poem with thousands of different interpretations, it’s amazing what you can create with a puzzly mindset and the insight to approach things from a unique perspective.


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A Dash of Poetry Punnery! — The ReHASHtag Game

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You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie or hashtag games on Twitter.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzlePoetry. Today’s entries all mash up Penny Dell puzzles with famous poets, verses, titles, poetry styles, and more things associated with the world of poetry!

Examples include: Langston Hughes Calling?, The Crossroads Not Taken, and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s Daisy?”

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Puzzly Poets!

Ezra Spellbound

Wizard Wordsworth

Sylvia Plathfinder

Maya Right Angelou

John Keats It Moving

Dylan Thomasterwords

Christina Rows-Garden-setti

Wallace Odds and Stevens


Puzzly Poems!

Codewords on a Grecian Urn

The Spider’s Web and the Fly

As the Rhyme Time Draws Nigh

Stepping Stones by Woods on a Snowy Evening

The Red Wheelsbarrow

Kubla Khansonant Search

A to Z-mandias

Jabberwacky Words


Puzzle Haiku!

It’s hard to keep this
many puzzles in order.
Take your Places, Please!

Deduction Problem
Letterboxes, Brick by Brick
The sharpest pencil

Two angry puzzlers
often traded Sudokus
and exchanged cross words.


Famous Puzzly Verses!

I think that I shall never see, a puzzle lovely as These Three.

There is no frigate like a variety puzzle book-
to take us lands away…

Quoth the Raven “Superscore.”

For he on Honeycomb-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Pairsadise.

Who made the Crossword?
Who made the Word Seek and the Fill-in?

It came without Fill-Ins. It came without mags.
It came without Patchwords, Letterboxes or Mixed Bag.

2-B or B-2, you sunk my Battleships.


“Wasting Ink”

Made thirty-one copies, but I’m solving in pen
so it’s back to the printer again and again.


Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, how I wonder where You Know the Odds are,
Match-Up above the Whirly-Words so high, like a Diamond Mine in the sky,
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, How many Triangles I wonder where you are


One intrepid puzzler even reimagined Edgar Allan Poe’s classic work “The Raven” with a puzzly perspective, complete with art! Check it out!

poe-try


Members of the PuzzleNation readership also got in on the fun when we spread the word about this hashtag game online!

Twitter user @pauliscool1927 immediately leapt at the opportunity, offering the delightful riff, “A dog with a muzzle solves a puzzle?” which feels like both a short rhyming piece and a crossword clue.


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Poetry entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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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.

carminafig7

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.

poetry_puzzle_da_header_3-2

[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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