Palindromic poems and related wordplay

As a child I was very taken with anagrams and palindromes and similar wordplay. The interest waned or mutated over the years, but not fully, so when I stumbled upon Howard W. Bergerson’s book Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover Publications, 1973) in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, available for all of €2, I quickly picked it up.

palindromes and anagrams - howard w bergerson, book coverThe book contains most or all of the well-known palindromes, like Madam, I’m Adam, Able was I ere I saw Elba, Live not on evil, and (maybe most famously) A man, a plan, a canal – Panama; to which, incidentally, J. A. Lindon wrote a parody: A dog, a pant, a panic in a Patna pagoda. Other enjoyable one-liners include:

Drab as a fool, as aloof as a bard.

Hell! A spacecraft farce caps all, eh?

Did I do, O God, did I as I said I’d do? Good, I did!

I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas no melon. Distressed was I.

The next three invited combination into a cryptic mini-narrative:

Enid and Edna dine.
Too far, Edna – we wander afoot.
Never a foot too far, even.

The author, who is also a poet, discusses various types of poetic experiments, among them “vocabularyclept” poems where a poem’s words are scrambled, then rearranged by different writers into new poems; the results are then subject to literary and linguistic cross-analysis. This practice and its name were new to me.

Palindromes and Anagrams also features several ingenious palindromic poems that work either through each of a poem’s constituent lines, as in Leigh Mercer’s ‘Four Palindromes of the Apocalypse’:

An era, midst its dim arena
Elapses pale.
No, in uneven union
Liars, alas, rail.

Or through the poem entire, as in Graham Reynolds’ ‘Hymn to the Moon’:

Luna, nul one,
Moon, nemo,
Drown word.
In mutual autumn
I go;
Feel fog rob all life;
Fill labor
Go, flee fog
In mutual autumn
I drown
Word; omen; no omen.
O, Luna, nul.

Another term I learned was charades with the particular sense of duplex lines whose letters appear in the same order but whose words are broken differently. Apparently they have “very little history behind them, and not much has been done with them”. A couple of examples:

Flamingo pale, scenting a latent shark
Flaming opalescent in gala tents – hark!

Oft woman’s laugh, terse as esthetic-offish, yowls
Of two manslaughters – eases the tic of fishy owls.

Bergerson lists almost 1200 anagrams whose pairs relate aptly to one another (e.g., Muttering ↔ Emit grunt; and Hibernates ↔ The bear’s in). He says they contain “moments of rare and incredibly delicate beauty”, but if so those moments are lost on me, though some of the anagrams are undoubtedly clever.

Circular reversals, he writes, are “a curious type of word which, when written clockwise in a circle, may be read counter-clockwise – starting at a suitable point – to yield another word, phrase, or sentence.” For instance: Dmitri ↔ I’m dirt; Ungarbed ↔ Brag, nude!; and Mayonnaise ↔ I annoy Ames.

The challenge in many of these diversions is to reduce arbitrariness. Bergerson says the palindromic poet must strive for sense, even if it’s not readily apparent: readers have “a right to the assurance that there exists a meaning to be discovered”. If the poet succeeds, the work may then “achieve the exalted status of ‘exposition fodder’ for the students and critics of his time”.

Won’t lovers revolt now?

16 Responses to Palindromic poems and related wordplay

  1. richardsmyth says:

    Nice post, Stan. Have you seen this epic effort by the comedian Demetri Martin?

  2. ucronin says:

    Wow, Bob, wow!

  3. John Cowan says:

    A man, a plan, a caret, a ban, a myriad, a sum, a lac, a liar, a hoop, a pint, a catalpa, a gas, an oil, a bird, a yell, a vat, a caw, a pax, a wag, a tax, a nay, a ram, a cap, a yam, a gay, a tsar, a wall, a car, a luger, a ward, a bin, a woman, a vassal, a wolf, a tuna, a nit, a pall, a fret, a watt, a bay, a daub, a tan, a cab, a datum, a gall, a hat, a fag, a zap, a say, a jaw, a lay, a wet, a gallop, a tug, a trot, a trap, a tram, a torr, a caper, a top, a tonk, a toll, a ball, a fair, a sax, a minim, a tenor, a bass, a passer, a capital, a rut, an amen, a ted, a cabal, a tang, a sun, an ass, a maw, a sag, a jam, a dam, a sub, a salt, an axon, a sail, an ad, a wadi, a radian, a room, a rood, a rip, a tad, a pariah, a revel, a reel, a reed, a pool, a plug, a pin, a peek, a parabola, a dog, a pat, a cud, a nu, a fan, a pal, a rum, a nod, an eta, a lag, an eel, a batik, a mug, a mot, a nap, a maxim, a mood, a leek, a grub, a gob, a gel, a drab, a citadel, a total, a cedar, a tap, a gag, a rat, a manor, a bar, a gal, a cola, a pap, a yaw, a tab, a raj, a gab, a nag, a pagan, a bag, a jar, a bat, a way, a papa, a local, a gar, a baron, a mat, a rag, a gap, a tar, a decal, a tot, a led, a tic, a bard, a leg, a bog, a burg, a keel, a doom, a mix, a map, an atom, a gum, a kit, a baleen, a gala, a ten, a don, a mural, a pan, a faun, a ducat, a pagoda, a lob, a rap, a keep, a nip, a gulp, a loop, a deer, a leer, a lever, a hair, a pad, a tapir, a door, a moor, an aid, a raid, a wad, an alias, an ox, an atlas, a bus, a madam, a jag, a saw, a mass, an anus, a gnat, a lab, a cadet, an em, a natural, a tip, a caress, a pass, a baronet, a minimax, a sari, a fall, a ballot, a knot, a pot, a rep, a carrot, a mart, a part, a tort, a gut, a poll, a gateway, a law, a jay, a sap, a zag, a fat, a hall, a gamut, a dab, a can, a tabu, a day, a batt, a waterfall, a patina, a nut, a flow, a lass, a van, a mow, a nib, a draw, a regular, a call, a war, a stay, a gam, a yap, a cam, a ray, an ax, a tag, a wax, a paw, a cat, a valley, a drib, a lion, a saga, a plat, a catnip, a pooh, a rail, a calamus, a dairyman, a bater, a canal — Panama.

    This palindrome was discovered by Dan Hoey with computer assistance in 1984. There are more modern computer-generated palindromes of this type, including one with 14,382 comma-separated noun phrases.

  4. bevrowe says:

    “Is this a palindrome?”
    No, it’s a charade
    (“Is’t his Apal in Drome?”)

  5. astraya says:

    One of the CD-ROMs I got with my first computer (in the days before downloadable apps) had a program called ‘Karma manager’. I spent some time wondering how you can manage karma and why you need a computer program to do so. Then I realised what it really was …

  6. thnidu says:

    At one point in _Callahan’s Legacy_ by Spider Robinson, the patrons have a palindrome contest. Nikola Tesla addresses a lady thus:
    “I, madam, I made radio. So I dared. Am I mad? Am I?”

  7. Stan says:

    John: Impressive. Computers inevitably rewrote the rules, and the feats, of anagram and palindrome creation.

    Bev: I remember making very short charades in childhood, unaware there were serious hobbyists busying away at them.

    astraya: It took me a few moments to figure that one out!

    thnidu: That’s a good one; it holds together well. I like when they make sense, or are memorably absurd, e.g. Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas!

  8. marc leavitt says:


    “Otto” makes “toot,”
    But what follows suit?

  9. Barrie says:

    The OULIPO (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) included palindromes among their constraints:

  10. Stan says:

    Marc: Otto reminds me of Omo and Oxo, both popular palindromic brand names. (Omo for the suit, Oxo for esse, to lean on German momentarily.)

    Alex: ‘Tis u!

    Barrie: So it did; I had forgotten that.

  11. Jessie says:

    Hope you’ll enjoy Weird Al’s BOB, a palindrome song:

  12. […] If you like wordplay, you will like this post. […]

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