British inventor Sir Robert Watson-Watt pioneered the development of radar, a contribution that helped the Royal Air Force win the Battle of Britain. Ironically, after the war he was pulled over for speeding by a Canadian policeman wielding a radar gun. His wife tried to point out the absurdity of the situation, but the officer wasn’t interested, and the couple drove away with a $12.50 fine. Watson-Watt wrote this poem:
Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot
And thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.
His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly
but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist
and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.
Oh Frankenstein who lost control
of monsters man created whole,
with fondest sympathy regard
one more hoist with his petard.
As for you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,
particularly those whose mission
deals in the realm of nuclear fission,
pause and contemplate fate’s counter plot
and learn with us what’s Watson-Watt.
The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”
The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:
I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.
“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”
J.B.S. Haldane retained his wit even while undergoing cancer treatments — he wrote this poem in a hospital in 1964:
I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.
Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.
I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour.
They pumped in BaS04
Till I could really stand no more,
And, when sufficient had been pressed in,
They photographed my large intestine.
In order to decide the issue
They next scraped out some bits of tissue.
(Before they did so, some good pal
Had knocked me out with pentothal,
Whose action is extremely quick,
And does not leave me feeling sick.)
The microscope returned the answer
That I had certainly got cancer,
So I was wheeled into the theatre
Where holes were made to make me better.
One set is in my perineum
Where I can feel, but can’t yet see ‘em.
Another made me like a kipper
Or female prey of Jack the Ripper,
Through this incision, I don’t doubt,
The neoplasm was taken out,
Along with colon, and lymph nodes
Where cancer cells might find abodes.
A third much smaller hole is meant
To function as a ventral vent:
So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.
*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.
I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy,
And hope, as soon as I am able,
To make it keep a fixed time-table.
So do not wait for aches and pains
To have a surgeon mend your drains;
If he says “cancer” you’re a dunce
Unless you have it out at once,
For if you wait it’s sure to swell,
And may have progeny as well.
My final word, before I’m done,
Is “Cancer can be rather fun.”
Thanks to the nurses and Nye Bevan
The NHS is quite like heaven
Provided one confronts the tumour
With a sufficient sense of humour.
I know that cancer often kills,
But so do cars and sleeping pills;
And it can hurt one till one sweats,
So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.
A spot of laughter, I am sure,
Often accelerates one’s cure;
So let us patients do our bit
To help the surgeons make us fit.
Donald E. Knuth composed this poem in honor of Martin Gardner. When the right-hand portions of the eight-line verse are interchanged, it becomes a seven-line verse. Which line disappears?
A carpenter named Charlie Bratticks,
Who had a taste for mathematics,
One summer Tuesday, just for fun,
Made a wooden cube side minus one.
Though this to you may well seem wrong,
He made it minus one foot long,
Which meant (I hope your brains aren’t frothing)
Its length was one foot less than nothing,
Its width the same (you’re not asleep?)
And likewise minus one foot deep;
Giving, when multiplied (be solemn!),
Minus one cubic foot of volume.
With sweating brow this cube he sawed
Through areas of solid board;
For though each cut had minus length,
Minus times minus sapped his strength.
A second cube he made, but thus:
This time each one-foot length was plus:
Meaning of course that here one put
For volume, plus one cubic foot.
So now he had, just for his sins,
Two cubes as like as deviant twins:
And feeling one should know the worst,
He placed the second in the first.
One plus, one minus — there’s no doubt
The edges simply canceled out;
So did the volume, nothing gained;
Only the surfaces remained.
Well may you open wide your eyes,
For those were now of double size,
On something which, thanks to his skill,
Took up no room and measured nil.
From solid ebony he’d cut
These bulky cubic objects, but
All that remained was now a thin
Black sharply-angled sort of skin
Of twelve square feet — which though not small,
Weighed nothing, filled no space at all.
It stands there yet on Charlie’s floor;
He can’t think what to use it for!
— J.A. Lindon
Harry Mathews devised this Möbius equivoque. Write this stanza on one side of a strip of paper:
I’d just as soon lose my mind
If your fondness for me lasts
I’d abandon all female charms
As long as I stay dear to you
One could seed one’s petunias
Among humdrum city flowerbeds
Igniting ice is likelier than
Our remaining snugly together
Turn the strip over lengthwise and write this stanza on the other side:
if your desire turns elsewhere
my dream of love might come true,
if you say I’m past caring for,
my deepest wish will be granted.
in distant regions of the skies,
the stars could make their way —
separating, whatever the pretext,
alone can keep my world intact.
Give the strip a half twist and glue the ends together. Now the poem reads:
I’d just as soon lose my mind if your desire turns elsewhere
If your fondness for me lasts my dream of love might come true,
I’d abandon all female charms if you say I’m past caring for,
As long as I stay dear to you my deepest wish will be granted.
One could seed one’s petunias in distant regions of the skies,
Among humdrum city flowerbeds the stars could make their way–
Igniting ice is likelier than separating, whatever the pretext,
Our remaining snugly together alone can keep my world intact.
See Another Equivoque.
Have no parts or joints.
How then can they combine
To form a line?
— J.A. Lindon
adj. living in exile
Homeless, exiled, I climb Sin-Ping tower.
It is late on in the dying year,
The sun is declining in the sky
And the dark river runs gloomy and slow.
A cloud moves across the forests on the mountain;
Wild geese fly off down the river.
Up here I can see for ten thousand miles,
But I do not see the end of my sorrows.
— Li Po, banished from the Chinese capital, circa 757
The earth goes on the earth glittering in gold,
The earth goes to the earth sooner than it wold;
The earth builds on the earth castles and towers,
The earth says to the earth, All this is ours.
— Inscription on the ruined gate at Melrose Abbey, Roxburghshire, Scotland
American life in 1980, as envisioned by Missouri attorney William McClung Paxton in his 1880 poem “A Century Hence”:
In the midst, at St. Louis, the Capitol loomed,
With lofty and glittering steeple —
The seat of a Nation, where freedom first bloomed,
Containing a billion of people.
“And now,” he exclaimed, “the whole Continent’s ours,
From Panama, North to the pole!
For naught but the ocean can fetter our powers,
Or give to us less than the whole!”
As we walked to the house, my companions reported,
That roads through the land were not found,
That men, on light wings, in the atmosphere sported,
Or walked, as they pleased, on the ground.
With the new motive power, one man could do more
Than fifty, without it, could do;
So people were able to add to their store,
And be generous, noble and true.
An order for supper, by telephone, now,
Had scarcely been made, by my host,
When in sprang a servant, I cannot tell how,
With coffee, ham, biscuit and toast.
He’d come from St. Louis, three hundred miles out,
With dishes delicious and rare;
There were venison, and turkey, and salmon, and trout,
With pine-apple, orange and pear.
When supper was ended, I found it still light;
I looked for a lamp, and found none;
I stepped to the door, and looked forth on the night,
And lo! every house had a sun.
Above me in splendor, surpassing the moon,
A disk, in the heavens gave light;
And neighboring orbs gave the brightness of noon,
And scattered the darkness of night.
By reflectors, the light of these beacons was cast,
On parlor, and chamber, and hall;
And candles and lamps were consigned to the past,
And light, like the air, was for all.
Now worn by the scenes of the day, I need rest,
And find it in slumber elysian;
But rise in the morning, perplexed and distressed;
‘Twas all but a beautiful vision.
Book One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise concludes with this italicized passage as Tom and Amory are taking leave of Princeton:
The last light fades and drifts across the land — the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; pale fires echo the night from tower top to tower: Oh, sleep that dreams, and dream that never tires, press from the petals of the lotus flower something of this to keep, the essence of an hour.
No more to wait the twilight of the moon in this sequestered vale of star and spire, for one eternal morning of desire passes to time and earthy afternoon. Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.
In fact this is a sonnet. Fitzgerald had written it originally in rhymed lines of iambic pentameter and decided only afterward to run it into prose. There’s a second such poem (“The February streets, wind-washed by night”) hidden in the section “Looking Backward.” See Prose Poetry.
Speaking of Princeton, I found this photo while researching art for this post — “Princeton students after a freshman vs. sophomores snowball fight in 1893″:
Goo-goo goo-goo goo-goo goo
Goo-goo goo-goo goo-goo
Googly, googly, googly goo:
That’s how we fill a column.
— G.K. Chesterton
He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
The formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
So in the end he could not change the tragic habits
This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.
— Robert Graves
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote this mnemonic poem for his son Derwent in 1807 — each line is written in the foot it describes:
Trōchĕe trīps frŏm lōng tŏ shōrt;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slōw Spōndēe stālks, strōng fōot!, yet ill able
Ēvĕr tŏ cōme ŭp wĭth Dācty̆l trĭsȳllăblĕ.
Ĭāmbĭcs mārch frŏm shōrt tŏ lōng.
Wĭth ă lēap ănd ă bōund thĕ swĭft Ānăpĕsts thrōng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Ămphībrăchy̆s hāstes wĭth ă stātely̆ stride —
Fīrst ănd lāst bēĭng lōng, mīddlĕ shōrt, Amphĭmācer
Strīkes hĭs thūndērĭng hōofs līke ă prōud hīgh-brĕd Rācer.
If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it,
With sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet —
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
Of his father on earth and his father above.
My dear, dear child!
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Coleridge.
When I was as high as that
I saw a poet in his hat.
I think the poet must have smiled
At such a solemn gazing child.
Now wasn’t it a funny thing
To get a sight of J.M. Synge,
And notice nothing but his hat?
Yet life is often queer like that.
— L.A.G. Strong
The lion tamers wrestle with the lions in a cage,
With but a fragile whip they dare their charges’ feral rage.
They put their heads in tigers’ mouths and do not flinch a grain,
But … they never tried to take a cat five hundred miles to Maine.
You hunters who bring back alive from Afric’s roaring shore
The nilghai and the elephant, the rhino and the boar;
Who load them on a steamer and evince no sign of strain —
Let’s see you drive a cat five hundred miles to Maine.
Go cope with your rhinoceros bare-handed and alone,
Or kick a famished grizzly if for harmless fun you hone,
Or aggravate a timber wolf with pokings of a cane,
But do NOT try to drive a cat five hundred mile to Maine.
There is no word, there is no tongue, there is no ink to tell
One tenth of what one cat can raise of concentrated hell,
When after two hours’ driving to mistaken qualms you yield
And take poor puss to stretch her limbs in some adjacent field.
And if you’ve done the things set forth in stanzas two and three,
You stand a chance, when Krazy from the leash has wriggled free
(Provided you are clad in steel with hat and gloves to match),
To get her back into the car without a bite or scratch.
Ye lion tamers, naturalists, and big-game hunters eke,
When I’m around be chary of your tendency to speak.
To hear you boast your petty deeds gives me a shooting pain
For I have driven Krazy — phew! — five hundred miles to Maine!
— Baron Ireland
Grandpapa fell down a drain;
Couldn’t scramble out again.
Now he’s floating down the sewer
There’s one grandpapa the fewer.
— Harry Graham
If there were, O! an Hellespont of cream
Between us, milk-white Mistress, I would swim
To you, to show to both my love’s extreme,
Leander-like, — yea, dive from brim to brim.
But met I with a butter’d pippin-pie
Floating upon’t, that would I make my boat,
To waft me to you without jeopardy:
Though sea-sick I might be while it did float.
Yet if a storm should rise, by night or day,
Of sugar snows or hail of care-aways,
Then if I found a pancake in my way,
It like a plank should bear me to your quays,
Which having found, if they tobacco kept,
The smoke should dry me well before I slept.
— John Davies of Hereford, 1598
He never completed his History of Ephesus,
But his name got mentioned in numerous prefaces.
— W. Craddle
When a man’s busy, why, leisure
Strikes him as wonderful pleasure:
‘Faith, and at leisure once is he?
Straightway he wants to be busy.
— Robert Browning
“What is funny?” you ask, my child,
Crinkling your bright-blue eye.
“Ah, that is a curious question indeed,”
Musing, I make reply.
“Contusions are funny, not open wounds,
And automobiles that go
Crash into trees by the highwayside;
Industrial incidents, no.
“The habit of drink is a hundred per cent,
But drug addiction is nil.
A nervous breakdown will get no laughs;
Insanity surely will.
“Humor, aloof from the cigarette,
Inhabits the droll cigar;
The middle-aged are not very funny;
The young and the old, they are.
“So the funniest thing in the world should be
A grandsire, drunk, insane,
Maimed in a motor accident,
And enduring moderate pain.
“But why do you scream and yell, my child?
Here comes your mother, my honey,
To comfort you and to lecture me
For trying, she’ll say, to be funny.”
— Morris Bishop
Augustus was a chubby lad;
Fat ruddy checks Augustus had;
And every body saw with joy
The plump and hearty healthy boy.
He ate and drank as he was told,
And never let his soup get cold.
But one day, one cold winter’s day,
He scream’d out — “Take the soup away!
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day!”
Next day, now look, the picture shows
How lank and lean Augustus grows!
Yet, though he feels so weak and ill,
The naughty fellow cries out still —
“Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day.”
The third day comes; Oh what a sin!
To make himself so pale and thin.
Yet, when the soup is put on table,
He screams, as loud as he is able, —
“Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day.”
Look at him, now the fourth day’s come!
He scarcely weighs a sugar-plum;
He’s like a little bit of thread,
And on the fifth day, he was — dead!
— Heinrich Hoffmann, The Struwwelpeter Painting Book, 1900
When I loved you
And you loved me,
You were the sea,
The sky, the tree.
Now skies are skies,
And seas are seas,
And trees are brown
And they are trees.
— Charles A. Wagner
Ping to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pong with mine;
We twain may win the Challenge cup,
If ping with pong combine:
The craze, that in my soul doth rise,
Is doubtless keen in thine;
I’ll take the rôle of pinger up,
If thou’lt be pongstress mine.
— A Little Book of Ping-Pong Verse, 1902