Verse in Reverse

Verse in Reverse

Alan Sondheim
Drawn Inward and Other Poems.
Drawn Inward and Other Poems.
Spineless Books, Providence 2003.

On the occasion of the 2003 Fitzpatrick O’Dinn Award publication, Alan Sondheim asks some questions of formally constrained literature. The more strict the constraints, the more open, free, and plentiful the questions.

Well, Drawn Inward is palindromic, and the work as a whole won the “Fitzpatrick-O’Dinn Award for Best Book-Length Work of Formally Constrained English Literature, judge Christian Bok.

And there are four sections as follows:

I Word Palindromes

the words of each poem run in the same sequence backwards as they do forwards


each poem is spelled the same as the one next to it

III Palindromes

the letters in each poem run in the same sequence backwards as they do forwards

IV Poems about trains

IV is poems about trains which of course are linear and track-confined. II is of great interest in relation to line break-up:

Scar City

The iron echo reaches
the mage’s ear.

Chests of industrial shards.

Admissions in juries.


Their one chore aches them.

Age searches to find us.

Hard, sad missions.

Now these are wonderful which brings up all sorts of questions, - they’re sad and almost classical (Greek Anthology) poems, haiku-like, as they would be with a grammatology that collapses phrase and structure.

Why would one write in such a manner? Is the formal constraint external or internal? Need one be aware of the constraint to appreciate the work? Does the restraint hinder?

In general, what is the purpose of the palindromic or formally constrained literature? For one thing, there is the verve of it, the cleverness and what appears to be clearly obsessive production. There is the interaction at times between the constraint and the content - and there is the aesthetics of doing something of interest, something even moving, given the constraint. It’s as if the constraint possesses a diacritique of its own, a meaning-supplement to what might otherwise be considered fill. In other words, meaning is filtered through this process, which, through condensation and displacement (ab -> c, ab -> ba etc.) touches on the dream and its stuttered enunciations.

But there are no satisfactory answers, just as there are no satisfactory answers to what constitutes any poem, and all those forms from sonnet to free to langpo are in themselves constraints - as is the political economy of poetry and poetics in general. (And perhaps there are no satisfactory answers to any question.)

All of that being said, what a wonder that this book is moving, that it is a joy to read and re-read, as if in spite of (to spite) the constraint, as it it’s actually about the freedom that constraint can, in some circumstances, open up in terms of subjectivity, language, the murmur. This relatively slim work deserves close attention; the poetics are kenning-bound, and just as rewarding.

Same Nice Cinemas

Same nice cinemas,
same nice cafe.

We talk late.

We face cinemas.
Same nice cinemas.

Read this book, buy this book!

References: Bok of course, Oulipo, George Trakl perhaps, haiku/waka, and on and on, perhaps.