"It seems very pretty," she said when she finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand."

Adam’s Task

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field” – GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
  Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
  Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
  Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
  Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdie; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
  Thou; thou; thou — three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
  Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
  Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
  Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
  Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
  Naming’s over. Day is done.

— John Hollander

There are five types of names at play here and we can divide the animals into each category. There is the onomatopoetic: paw-paw-paw, glurd, flisket, grawl; the eponymic: McFleery’s pomma; the ones that sound borrowed from other languages: implex, awagabu, mashawok, kabasch—though one has to wonder what languages came before Adam’s; the descriptive: lily-eater, whitestap, greater and lesser wherret; and the completely arbitrary: sproal, pambler, verdie. Curiously, the McFleery’s pomma suggests that there is another man besides Adam walking around Eden.

Ferdinand de Saussure might delight in witnessing how the animal’s names came about; some sound more arbitrary than others, and they all spawn from Adam’s whim, but I’d like to think there are reasons behind each name. A paw-paw-paw seems like it must be a mammal, a rivarn would perhaps be a stripy antelope-like thing, a whitestap a nervous bird, and the glurd either an oafish ungulate or a big stupid fish.

A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture or the psychology of an individual; it can be a biography, a cultural history, a lexicon; it speaks to the sociology, psychology, and biology of its creator and its audience, and of course to their geographical location; it can be a way of knowledge, a path, an inspiration, a Tao, an ordering, a shaping, a manifestation, a talisman, an injunction, a memory, a fantasy, a consolation, an allusion, an illusion, an evasion, an assertion, a seduction, a prayer, a summoning, an incantation murmured under the breath as the torchlights sink lower and the forest looms taller and the wolves howl louder and the fire prepares for its submission to the encroaching dark.

— John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure


— Ottar Ormstad

This sort of visual poetry—closer to Vasarely than Voznesensky—is usually not my thing, which is to say that I prefer when concrete poems include traces of traditional literary conventions (sound, narrative, punctuation). But I was delighted at the unexpected discovery, halfway down, of a Mediterranean archway of Ns and its reflection in the dusky waters below.

Centipede Sonnet


— José García Villa

Other playful sonnets of Villa’s include a ‘Polka-Dot Sonnet’ made of zeroes and an ‘Emperor’s New Sonnet’ which is a blank page. This one investigates the relationship between pedal and metrical feet—there are 34 comma-feet per line, which, if we divide them into pairs of legs (or into iambic distinctions (two comma-feet equal one metrical foot)), identifies each line as the common house centipede (with 15 or 17 pairs of legs) or as iambic heptakaidecameter (just slightly longer than Swinburne’s ‘Nephelidia’(!)).

However, there is the problem of perspective: each centipeded line may have 68 comma-feet but we can only see half of them when in profile. In this case, each line is probably a soil centipede (order Geophilomorpha with 27 to 191 pairs of legs) or iambic triacontakaitetrameter.


This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sprung rhythm, a metrical system based on the number of stresses per line, was popularized and discovered by Hopkins, who thought it resembled the rhythm of natural speech, but which runs through this poem like the language of a brook. Along this brook are patches of tangled syntax parsed only through a second read, a second glimpse into the underbrush. It is a bubbly and twisty poem, a miniaturized version of the vast natural world it describes.

If I should answer with a patch of aspen,

it is not because I am an aspen.
If I should speak of dream,
or smoke,
or eternal weather,
it is not for lack of flesh
and matter. You who are stone,
or cottage, or grove
or given to the mother star
needn’t name yourselves.
We know who you are.

— Wendy Videlock

Sometimes poems needn’t make direct sense. I feel that if I were forced to explain this poem, my explanation would be a poem itself.

(via KIN)

Another abbreviation another abdomen another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another abnormal act another aboriginal another approach another absence another abstraction another abuse another acceptance another accent another accessory another accident another accolade another accomplishment another accord another account another accretion another accusation another ache another action another activity another addiction another address another adieu another adjournment another adjustment another admission another adoration another adult another advance another advantage another adventure another adverb another affair another affectation another affluence another affliction another afternoon another age another agent another aggravation another aggression another aim another alarm another alibi another alias another allegory another allotment another alteration another altar another aberrant another ambiance another ambiguity another ambivalence another ambling ant another amnesty another amount another amusement another anachronism another anagram another analogy another analysis another anatomy another ancestor another ancient answer another anecdote another anemone another anger another angle another anguish another animal another another ankle another amulet another annexation another anniversary another annotation another announcement another antelope another antenna another anthem another anticipation another anticlimax another antidote another antiquarian another antiquity another antitoxin another anxiety another apartment another ape another aperture another appeal another appendage another appointment another appraisal another Arab another arcade another archaeologist another admirer another army another arrangement another arrival another art another article another asylum another atavism another attack another asymmetry another atmosphere another attempt another attire another attraction another author another autograph another automat another autopsy another autumn another available average another avalanche another avenue another aversion another aviary another avoidance another avocation another avid avowal another awareness another awakening another awesome age another axis another Alva another Alex another Allen another Alfred another Africa another alphabet.

— Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa

On Discovering a Butterfly

I found it in a legendary land
all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
where it was settled on some sodden sand
hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.

The features it combines mark it as new
to science shape and shade—the special tinge,
akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.

My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
corroded tissues could no longer hide
that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.

Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
or scales like battledores of amethyst
cross the charmed circle of the microscope.

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer—and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

— Vladimir Nabokov

A good poem to illustrate Nabokov’s own declaration that a writer must have “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” If the first three stanzas take a scientific approach to language—with scientific descriptions of the “checkered fringe,” “dingy underside,” “sculpted sex”—then the tone turns with the turning of the screw in stanza four to romanticized description: “battledores of amethyst,” the microscope’s “charmed circle,” the “ambered hooks” peeking from the mist. The poem ends with my favorite list in all of poetry.


the Waste Land Limericks

In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me–
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many question,
I make few suggestions–
Bad as Albert and Lil–what a pair!

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep–
A typist is laid,
A record is played–
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business–the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he’d met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.

— Wendy Cope

This poem works brilliantly because it reduces Eliot’s high modernist slab to the most unserious of poetic forms—the limerick—while conveying a deep understanding of the original. The last line is nothing less than a back-handed slap to what sometimes seems like a pretentious, overly complicated piece of literature.

To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

— Wallace Stevens

A mysterious little poem susurussed and shhhh’d.

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,
  Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
  Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this
  One of you is lying.

— Dorothy Parker

Parker was a master of the surprise ending, and here, after four lines of Harlequin romance fluff, she deflates love’s bloated promises with the pointed wit of the last line.

I Wish You a Wave of the Sea

Fretting my heart as you pedal your bicycle,
Perdita, once I called, Perdita, twice I called.
Pretty as paint and as cool as an icicle,
Perdita Simmons!

Shall I tell how we met under fortunate auspices?
Presuming a bottle of Spanish Don Horsepiss is
Fortunate… This is not one of my coarse pieces,
Perdita Simmons.

Syllables shimmy as sonnets assemble
Themselves in a shadowless summer a-tremble –
A ten-guinea ticket for Merton Commem Ball
With Perdita Simmons.

Daddy’s a saurian Cambridge historian.
Mummy’s more chummy. She’s tweedy and Tory and
Hunts and what-have-you. So very Victorian
Is Perdita Simmons.

Thus Mainwaring, tall dark and rich, with a glance as much
As to say, My dear boy, I don’t fancy your chances much
I know Perdie of old, and she doesn’t like dances much,
Doesn’t Perdita Simmons.

Perdita’s hair ruffles fairer and tanglier,
Perdita’s grin makes my ganglia janglia,
Perdita’s uncle owns half of East Anglia,
All for Perdita Simmons.

Mainwaring’s plan is for getting a leg over;
Wait till she’s plastered (the bastard!), then beg of her.
No go. (Ho-ho!) Now his face has got egg over.
From Perdita Simmons.

Oh, how spiffing! (She talks like a school-story serial,
While my lexical style is down-market and beery.) All
Love is insane and remote and ethereal
And Perdita Simmons.

As we’re pounding the ground in a last hokey-cokey, dawn
Fingers to constables, hauling of chokey-borne
Mainwaring, pissed as a rat on the croquet lawn.
Sweet Perdita Simmons.

Half-asleep, climbing from Headington Hill, at the crest of it
Sickle moon, scatter of stars and the rest of it,
In my hand one small hand (and this is the best of it)
Of Perdita Simmons.

Perdita murmurs, You’ll do for a poet.
And kisses me carefully twice, just to show it.
Nobody knows what love is. But I know it.
It’s Perdita Simmons.

— John Whitworth

The title comes from a line in The Winter’s Tale spoken by Florizel and addressed to Perdita. A different Perdita, the poet’s Perdita, goes to Oxford parties and socializes with naughty boys and must be very pretty to inspire such lyrical lines with rhythms very much like a wave of the sea.

Perdita, Mainwaring, and the narrator may have their own love triangle, but my favorite ménage à trois is the rhymed-trifecta of “auspices/Horsepiss is/course pieces” from a poem stuffed with inventive rhymes.



— Ernst Jandl

Ernst on “Film” on paper:

"This poem is a film. There are two actors, i and l. The action starts in line 5 and ends in the 5th line from the bottom. i is alone, changes position three times, disappears, l appears disappears, i appears disappears, both appear together changing position, like dancing; then i disappears for a long time, which, after stunning l, makes l restless, then immobile, like resignation; when at last i reappears, the dancelike jumping about and out of the picture and back again is resumed for a longer stretch than the first time. This state is final. It is the happy ending of the film. (flim, if you like, is the weightier half of the German flimmern, to flicker.)” Anthology of Concrete Poetry, pg. 160


There was an old woman from Szechwan
Who worked in the suitably Brechtian
Town of Stettin
Where she ran a canteen.
Or was it a woman from Szczecin?

No, this was a woman from Szechwan.
She went around kvetching in Quechuan.
Philologists think a
Lost tribe of the Inca
Reside as high lamas in Szechwan.

They came to the mountains of Szechwan
To study Du côté de chez Swann
And Melchior’s question:
What time is the next one?
And Leda’s: why don’t we go chase one?

Should Yeats have attempted to hatch one?
Should Christ have turned left at Saskatchewan?
The track of Big Bird
Is erose and absurd
The trackers morose and Masaccioan.

— George Starbuck

Here names and places from across the centuries clash to form a metaphysical mystery. An annotated Ondioline:

Gastarbeiter: The title is German for “guest worker,” workers who came to West Germany after the war. How this connects to the rest…

Szechwan: A Chinese province. The first line plays off the standard limerick opening (“There was an old man with a beard…”) and Bertolt Brecht’s play “Good Person of Szechwan.”

Stettin: A town in Poland as spelled by the Germans. The Polish spelling is Szczecin, so to answer the narrator’s question, the woman is, indeed, from Szczecin. Curiously, Brecht makes no mention of the town in his play.

Quechuan: A language spoken by the Quechuan people of South America, primarily in the Andes. How an Incan tribe arrived in China is one of the poem’s many mysteries. (Did they do it for the rhyme?)

Du côté de chez Swann: Volume I of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Melchior: One of the Three Wise Men. One assumes his humorous question relates to Jesus’ birth. He may have been expecting twins. Theologians still debate over whether or not Christ had siblings.

Leda: Slept with her husband and Zeus on the same night, the latter while he took the form of a swan. Out popped several children in eggs. Presumably, her question relates to Melchior’s baby question in the preceding line. Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ explains his [Yeats’] appearance in the following line. What any of this has to do with Proust, however, remains unknown.

Saskatchewan: A Canadian province.

Big Bird: This probably refers to Christ in the preceding line. His track would be “erose and absurd” to followers—difficult to comprehend, swerving to no logic, sublimated, and, like the zigzagging between geographic points mentioned in the poem, impossible to predict. One imagines his trackers saddened by their inability to keep up.

Masaccioan: Masaccio was an Italian Renaissance painter of religious works, and one of the first painters to use linear perspective and chiaroscuro. Perhaps the Masaccioan trackers can see their trail vanishing in the distance?

None of these items seem to relate to each other, but their appearance together suggests something just beyond the reach of the words, which, with the poem’s religious overtones, may be the point; Christ remains unknowable and supremely mysterious.