Changing Subjects

When a man dies
His portraits change.
His eyes look at you
Differently and his lips smile
A different smile. I noticed this
Returning from a poet’s funeral.
Since then I have seen it verified
Often and my theory is true.

— Anna Akhmatova, 1940

The Star Gauge

Chinese poet and palindromist Su Hui lost her husband to a concubine in the fourth century. To console her grief and to lure him back, she composed an ingenious array of 841 characters that can be read forward, backward, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally:
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Each seven-character segment corresponds to a poetic line, and can be read in either direction. At the end of each segment, “you encounter a junction of meridians and can choose which direction to go,” explains anthologist David Hinton. “You can begin anywhere, and the poem ends after four lines have been chosen. This structure generates 2,848 possible poems.”

It’s said that Su Hui’s husband was so moved that he sent away the concubine and rejoined her.


It’s a very odd thing —
As odd as can be —
That whatever Miss T. eats
Turns into Miss T.;
Porridge and apples,
Mince, muffins and mutton,
Jam, junket, jumbles —
Not a rap, not a button
It matters; the moment
They’re out of her plate,
Though shared by Miss Butcher
And sour Mr. Bate;
Tiny and cheerful,
And neat as can be,
Whatever Miss T. eats
Turns into Miss T.

— Walter de la Mare

In a Word

adj. fearless

There was a young fellow named Weir
Who hadn’t an atom of fear;
He indulged a desire
To touch a live wire,
(‘Most any old line will do here!)

— Anonymous, quoted in Carolyn Wells’ Book of American Limericks, 1925

“Owen Kerr vs. Owen Kerr”

From the Western Jurist, November 1878:

Two cousins, each claiming that the other was indebted to him, were in court litigating the matter. During the trial, a member of the bar, possessing a somewhat poetical turn of mind, composed the following lines on the merits of the case:

If the strife in this case is extremely perverse,
‘Tis because ’tis between a couple of ‘Kerrs.’
Each Owen is owin’ — but here lies the bother;
To determine which Owen is owin’ the other.
Each Owen swears Owen to Owen is owin’,
And each alike certain, dog-matic, and knowin’;
But ’tis hoped that the jury will not be deterred
From finding which ‘Kerr’ the true debt has incurred;
Thus settling which Owen by owin’ has failed,
And that justice ‘twixt curs has not been curtailed.

Divine Mystery

A poem on transubstantiation by Luis de León, quoted by Robert Southey in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal:

If this we see be bread, how can it last,
So constantly consum’d, yet always here?
If this be God, then how can it appear
Bread to the eye, and seem bread to the taste?
If bread, why is it worshipp’d by the baker?
If God, can such a space a God comprise?
If bread, how is it, it confounds the wise?
If God, how is it that we eat our Maker?
If bread, what good can such a morsel do?
If God, how is it we divide it so?
If bread, such saving virtue could it give?
If God, how can I see and touch it thus?
If bread, how could it come from heav’n to us?
If God, how can I look at it and live?


L is for lovable Lena,
Who met a ferocious hyena;
Whatever occurred
I never have heard;
But anyhow, L is for Lena.

— Anonymous, from Carolyn Wells’ Book of American Limericks, 1925


There once were some learned M.D.’s,
Who captured some germs of disease
And infected a train,
Which, without causing pain,
Allowed one to catch it with ease.

— Oliver Herford

At Sea

Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 nonsense poem “Fish’s Night Song” manages to be both charming and incomprehensible:

That’s it. Jeremy Adler and Ulrich Ernst list the interpretations that have been suggested:

The symbols signify the metre of silent song; the alternation of symbols indicates a fish mouth opening and closing; together, they resemble the frontal view of a choir of fish; they represent water; they resemble the shape of a fish without head or tail. These as well as other interpretations of the poem are quite permissible. Thus we have, in the framework of ‘nonsense literature,’ a new type of visual poetry: a poem of figures that does not imitate any particular form, the abstract figure poem.

“Or, expressed differently,” writes Heinrich Plett in Literary Rhetoric, “the referentiality of this isographemic configuration is polysemous.”


Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
Oh how that glittering taketh me!

— Robert Herrick, 1648

Whenas galoshed my Julia goes,
Unbuckled all from top to toes,
How swift the poem becometh prose!
And when I cast mine eyes and see
Those arctics flopping each way free,
Oh, how that flopping floppeth me!

— Bert Leston Taylor, 1922