“What’ll Be the Title?”


O to scuttle from the battle and to settle on an atoll far from brutal mortal neath a wattle portal!
To keep little mottled cattle and to whittle down one’s chattels and not hurtle after brittle yellow metal!
To listen, non-committal, to the anecdotal local tittle-tattle on a settle round the kettle,
Never startled by a rattle more than betel-nuts a-prattle or the myrtle-petals’ subtle throttled chortle!
But I’ll bet that what’ll happen if you footle round an atoll is you’ll get in rotten fettle living totally on turtle, nettles, cuttle-fish or beetles, victuals fatal to the natal élan-vital,
And hit the bottle.
I guess I’d settle
For somewhere ethical and practical like Bootle.

— Justin Richardson

Double Duty

What’s unusual about this limerick?

There was a young lady of Riga,
Who went for a ride on a tiger,
They came back from their ride
With the lady inside
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

It remains a limerick when translated into Latin:

Puella Rigensis ridebat,
Quam tigris in tergo vehebat,
Externa profecta
Interna revecta,
Risusque cum tigre manebat.

Ronald Knox found that the same is true of this one:

There was a young man of Devizes,
Whose ears were of different sizes;
The one that was small
Was no use at all,
But the other won several prizes.

Visas erat; huic geminarum
Dispar modus auricularum:
Minor haec nihili;
Palma triplici
Iam fecerat altera clarum.

“Quiet Fun”

My son Augustus, in the street, one day,
Was feeling quite exceptionally merry.
A stranger asked him: “Can you tell me, pray,
The quickest way to Brompton Cemetery?”
“The quickest way? You bet I can!” said Gus,
And pushed the fellow underneath a bus.

— Harry Graham

Sound Rhymes

Peculiarly English limericks:

There was a young lady named Wemyss,
Who, it semyss, was troubled with dremyss.
She would wake in the night,
And, in terrible fright,
Shake the bemyss of the house with her scremyss.

A pretty school-mistress named Beauchamp,
Said, “These awful boys, how shall I teauchamp?
For they will not behave,
Although I look grave
And with tears in my eyes I beseauchamp.”

There was a professor of Caius
Who measured six feet round the knaius;
He went down to Harwich
Nineteen in a carwich,
And found it a terrible squaius.

There lived a young lady named Geoghegan,
The name is apparently Peoghegan,
She’ll be changing it solquhoun
For that of Colquhoun,
But the date is at present a veoghegan. (W.S. Webb)

An author, by name Gilbert St. John,
Remarked to me once, “Honest t. John,
You really can’t quote
That story I wrote:
My copyright you are infrt. John.” (P.L. Mannock)

See This Sceptred Isle.

Six by Six

The sestina is an unusual form of poetry: Each of its six stanzas uses the same six line-ending words, rotated according to a set pattern:


This intriguingly insistent form has appealed to verse writers since the 12th century. “In a good sestina the poet has six words, six images, six ideas so urgently in his mind that he cannot get away from them,” wrote John Frederick Nims. “He wants to test them in all possible combinations and come to a conclusion about their relationship.”

But the pattern of permutation also intrigues mathematicians. “It is a mathematical property of any permutation of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 that when it is repeatedly combined with itself, all of the numbers will return to their original positions after six or fewer iterations,” writes Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. “The question is, are there other permutations of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 that have the property that after six iterations, and not before, all of the numbers will be back in their original positions? The answer is that there are many — there are 120 such permutations. We will probably never know the aesthetic reason poets settled on the above permutation to structure the classical sestina.”

In 1986 the members of the French experimental writers’ workshop Oulipo began to apply group theory to plumb the possibilities of the form, and in 2007 Pacific University mathematician Caleb Emmons offered the ultimate hat trick: A mathematical proof about sestinas written as a sestina:

emmons sestina

Bonus: When not doing math and poetry, Emmons runs the Journal of Universal Rejection, which promises to reject every paper it receives: “Reprobatio certa, hora incerta.”

(Caleb Emmons, “S|{e,s,t,i,n,a}|“, The Mathematical Intelligencer, December 2007.) (Thanks, Robert and Kat.)

Unfolding Hopes

Albert Szent-Györgyi, who knew a lot about maps
according to which life is on its way somewhere or other,
told us this story from the war
due to which history is on its way somewhere or other:

The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees.

Goodbye now.

— From Miroslav Holub, Notes of a Clay Pigeon, reprinted in G.Y. Craig and E.J. Jones, A Geological Miscellany, 1982.

In a Word


v. to make wet and dirty with rain and mud

Our change climatic
We think acrobatic
And sigh for a land that is better —
But the German will say,
In a very dry way,
That the weather with him is still Wetter.

— J.R. Joy, Yale Record, 1899

“No, No, Mr. Nash”


Let us begin by saying we have nothing but the deepest aversion
Against casting an aspersion
On the beautiful works of Ogden Nash.
In fact we might say we go for his stuff like a vegetarian goes for his succotash.
But the thing that swerves us
From downright admiration is the length of his lines which sometimes look more like paragraphs than lines — frankly it unnerves us.
In fact we have it from unreliable sources
That several people have narrowly missed death by asphyxiation while attempting to read aloud one of these book-length sentences in one breath, all of which forces
Us to request that Mr. Nash please stick to a line that can be written entirely on one page, for when we see one of these endless lines looming up over the edge of the next stanza, we have been known to turn the page and start something else; while on the other hand, when Mr. Nash sticks to a briefer line with definite rhythm,
We’re whythym.

— An unnamed college humor magazine, quoted in Richard Koppe et al., A Treasury of College Humor, 1950


Ernest Hemingway published this “blank verse” in his high school literary magazine in 1916:

hemingway blank verse

Get it? David Morice followed up with this “punctuation poem” in Word Ways in February 2012:

% , & —
+ . ? /
” :
% ;
+ $ [ \

It’s a limerick:

Percent comma ampersand dash
Plus period question mark slash
Quotation mark colon
Percent semicolon
Plus dollar sign bracket backslash

(Thanks, Volodymyr.)

Math and Poetry

In 1972 the Belgian mathematician Edouard Zeckendorf established Zeckendorf’s theorem: that every positive integer can be represented as the sum of non-consecutive Fibonacci numbers in one and only one way.

In 1979 French poet Paul Braffort celebrated this with a series of 20 poems, My Hypertropes. Each of the 20 poems in the series is informed by the foregoing poems that make up its Zeckendorff sum. For example, the Zeckendorff representation of 12 is 8 + 3 + 1, so poem 12 in Braffort’s sequence shares some characters or images with each of these poems. This forced Braffort to build scenarios that would permit these relations as he wrote the poems.

Each of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13 is its own Zeckendorff representation, so Braffort related each of these to its two foregoing Fibonacci numbers (e.g., 8 = 3 + 5). This means that only the first poem, “The Preallable Explanation (or The Rhyme’s Reason),” is not influenced by any of the others. Here is that first poem, as translated by Amaranth Borsuk and Gabriela Jaurequi:

This is my work, this is my study,
like Jarry, Cyrano puffy,

to split hairs on Rimbaud
and on willies find booboos.

If it was fair or if it snowed
in Lhassa Emma Sophie Bo-

vary widow of slow carnac
gave herself to the god of wack.

Leibnitz, saying: “Verse …” What an ac-
tor for this superb “Vers …”. Oh “nach”!

He aims, Emma, the apoplexy
of those drunk on galaxy.

At the club of “spinach” kings (nay,
Bach never went there, Banach yea!)

Leibnitz — his graph ibo: not six
mus, three nus, one phi, bona xi —

haunts without profit Bonn: “Ach! Gee
if I were great Fibonacci!!! …”

Now, for example, Poem 12, “MODELS (for Petrovich’s Band),” is an alexandrine with two six-line stanzas. The Zeckendorff representation of 12 is 1 + 3 + 8, so in each stanza of Poem 12 the first line is influenced by Poem 1, the third by Poem 3, and the sixth by Poem 8, each drawing on specific lines in the source poem. The first line in the sixth couplet of Poem 1, “He aims, Emma, the apoplexy,” informs the first line of Poem 12, “For a sweet word from Emma: a word for model”; the second line of the sixth couplet from Poem 1, “of those drunk on galaxy,” informs the first line of the second stanza in Poem 12, “Our galaxies have already packed their valise”; the phrase “when I saw you / weave a letter to Elise” in Poem 3 becomes “they say from this time forth five letters to Elise” in Poem 12; and the couplet “And Muses who compose / They’re a troop they’re tropes” in Poem 8 becomes “Tragic tropes: Leonardo is Fibonacci.”

“Thus, Braffort’s collection of poems, My Hypertropes, has an internal structure provided by a mathematical theorem,” writes Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “The structure does not entirely determine these poems, but it does provide connections between the poems that might not be there otherwise.”