i s i t a b o o k ?
"Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song?"
- Steven Wright
What follows is a collection of generative devices to use for writing which is not narrative based. The arbitrary rules of these games have also been used by serious writers to produce ideas for poems and stories - some examples are given below. The rules of many of these creative games can be translated into computer code to produce what might be called para-literature. These games are fun - try them.
A busied effigy,
A shy joy-ache, elemental
Pique, yours to feed,
A blue ex-you I see...
- Dennis Des Chenes
Most people think of anagrams as frivolous fun. But they have been used for serious purposes. Here is a short religious poem by the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert inspired by an anagram.
How well her name an Army doth present,
In which the Lord of Hosts did pitch his tent!
Below is an interesting variation on the anagram, an acrostic chronogram from the title page of a book printed in 1652:
The date in roman numerals (MDCLII) is hidden within the author's name.
We got the words for our nonlinearity anagram poems from a wonderful anagram generator
Palindromes are sentences or lines that read the same forward and backward. In 1980, David Stephens wrote a 58,000 letter palindrome "Satire: Veritas." Lawrence Levine wrote a palindromic novel of 31,957 words, Dr. Awkward and Olson in Oslo in 1986. "In Eden, I," a poem by Richard Cox published in Word ways takes the traditional 'Madam, I'm Adam' palindrome further. Each line reads the same forward and backwards. Here are some excerpts:
Eve. Drowsy Baby's word. Eve
Madam, I'm Adam
Named under a ban, a bared nude man.
Miss, I'm Cain, a monomaniac. Miss, I'm...
This goes beyond a clever trick to become real poetry. Some lines have an almost Miltonic meter: "Even in Eden I win Eden in Eve"
Writing ordinary words in reverse order can completely change their significance. To the right is a comical letter from Lewis Carroll to a young friend.
Jonathan Swift wrote this pseudo-Latin in a letter to Richard Brinsley Sheridan:
Mi sana. Odioso ni mus rem. Moto ima os illud dama nam?
It is really reverse English: I'm an ass. O so I do in summer. O Tom, am I so dull, I a mad man?
Interesting ideas can be generated by prohibiting a particular letter from being used in a work. This is called a 'lipogram.' The first lipogram book in English was Gadsby written by Ernest Vincent Wright in 1939. Georges Perec of the Oulipo group wrote the lipogram novel A void which tells a story in 200 pages without using the letter 'e.' For a humorous example, read "Mary Had a Lipogram" reprinted in Making the alphabet dance by Ross Eckler.
To ridicule the nonsensical rules of English pronunciation, George Bernard Shaw demonstrated that the word fish can logically be spelled ghoti:
gh as in laugh
o as in women
ti as in nation
Homophonic translation means translating not the sense but the sounds from one language to another, or even within the same language. The Oulipo group play this game as well. Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, a small book put out by Swamp Press in Massachusetts, contains text which looks like nonsense, but when read aloud, sounds very familiar:
"Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift
wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer
lodge, dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry
putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur
disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut."
(The text for Ladle Rat Rotten Hut is taken from a longer work called The comic looking-glass, by H. Chase.)
James Joyce used homophonic translation to transform languages and fragments of languages, and to create his own brand of English from ordinary English: "Are we speachin d'anglas landadge or are you sprakin sea Djoytsch?" This madness has method in it. By using words that are between one thing and another Joyce can make them mean two things at once, achieving the simultaneity we spoke of on our Literature page. For example, the phrase: "they were yung and easily freudened" means 'young and easily frightened,' but it also carries inescapable overtones of psychoanalysis. "Great Shapesphere" means 'Shakespeare' but also 'the creator of the world' (and of the Globe!).
Something similar is achieved by writing using drawings of objects. The objects' names, said aloud, reveal the word intended. In this rebus letter by Lewis Carroll we see a picture of a deer and we understand that Carroll means dear, but some flavor of the picture clings to the word, giving it an extra dimension of meaning.
Noun + 7 is wonderful game originated by the Oulipo group. The object of the game is to replace each noun in a recognizeable phrase with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary. In this way,
"To be or not to be, that is the question."
"To be or not to be, that is the quibble."
"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the
earth, and the earth was without form..."
"In the behavior Godunov created the Hebrides and the easel, and the easel was without Formica..."
Exquisite Corpse is a game that can be verbal or visual. Please visit our Seldom Asked Questions section for further enlightenment.
For centuries people have considered written words magical and have used them as charms. Here is one of the oldest. The placement of the letters on the page has its own significance.
Part of the power of the charm comes from the way the word gradually builds - it takes on a life of its own.
In this example, the magic is that the words can be read in two directions.
c i r c l e
i c a r u s
r a r e s t
c r e a t e
l u s t r e
e s t e e m
In this line by George Herbert, the placement of the letters yields two paths - one with Christ and one without:
cur f w
A sed iend rought eath ease ain.
bles fr b br and ag
Here is another example of how placement can be used to reinforce meaning, also by Herbert.
Our life is hid with Christ in God.
My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The other Hid and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapped In flesh, and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.
Poems written in the shapes of things are called Concrete poems. One of the most famous examples is the Mouse's Tale from Lewis Carroll's Alice in wonderland. There is also the extra homophonic play on the words tale and tail. Concrete poetry came into its own in modern literature. We have provided some further examples: Light Circle, by Carlo Belloli, and lilac, by Mary Ellen Solt.
This spiral letter written by Lewis Carroll to one of his young friends has several subtle effects. In it he complains that she has been behaving distantly towards him and that she does not care as much about their correspondence as he does. The spiral lines seem to draw the reader in toward the center - bringing her closer. In addition the page must be maneuvered in order to read the letter. The reader must participate in a much more active way than is usual.
Another kind of writing that demands audience participation is mirror writing. To read it one must hold it up to a mirror or learn the trick of deciphering it. Either way it takes concentrated attention. Leonardo da Vinci did some beautiful mirror writing in his notebooks for privacy, and because he was fascinated with perspective and symmetry.
-- written by Karen Drayne, 1997
You will find references to games scattered through our Bibliography - most are in the sections on literary works, concrete & visual poetry and surrealism, dada, oulipo, &c. Please also see our special section on the Exquisite Corpse.
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