Palindrome Poetry

“Llewd did I live, and evil I did dwell.”

Sotades, ancient Greek poet

I spent most of my summer break traveling between Seoul, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Warsaw and Almelo. You have heard of the first four cities, but the fifth one might be a little obscure. Almelo is my hometown. The days I spent there were generally the same. I would go to work from 9 to 5, have dinner, take a nap, and watch TV from 8 to 9-ish. During this second specific time slot, there was a Dutch variety show on in which participants had to guess pictures from a set category.

On a random evening while watching this show with my dad, the category “palindromes” popped up, which immediately triggered my inner linguist. In case it has slipped your mind, palindromes are words that read the same from right to left and from left to right: word sequences like “mom”, “evil olive”, and “spacecaps”. To my sadness, the participant never chose this category to play, which left me in a slightly bad mood. I say slightly, because once I did some research after 9, I found something even more fascinating: palindrome poetry [(1)].

A palindrome we are all probably familiar with is Scottish poet Alastair Reid’s (1926 – 2014):

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad; I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet.

While not a palindrome poem, this linguistic gem is a masterpiece. The line is very obscure and funny at the same time, invoking different associations and for some, even memories. I found this adorable article from the Los Angeles Times which describes how a young girl managed to memorize this palindrome after meeting Reid on a boat. Famous, intricate palindromes themselves such as this one are more common than complete palindrome poems, but there are some intricate pieces I would like to discuss.

Chinese poet Su Hui (304-439) took palindrome poetry to a whole new level by creating a poem that can be read in a total of 2848 different ways [(2)]. Many of her poems were lost, but “Star Gauge” survived. The poem is said to be about her husband, then emperor, who left her and went to live with his concubine. The poem is an expression of Su Hui’s sorrow and was considered so beautiful that the emperor came back to live with her. Unfortunately, as a result of ancient Chinese sexism, the revolutionary poem was never accepted into the canon. 

There is also a poem by James Albert Lindon (1914 – 1979) called “Doppelganger” which I find very eerie and captivating at the same time. The poem goes as follows:

Entering the lonely house with my wife
I saw him for the first time
Peering furtively from behind a bush –
Blackness that moved,
A shape amid the shadows,
A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes
Revealed in the ragged moon.
A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have
Put him to flight forever –
I dared not
(For reasons that I failed to understand),
Though I knew I should act at once.

I puzzled over it, hiding alone,
Watching the woman as she neared the gate.
He came, and I saw him crouching
Night after night.
Night after night
He came, and I saw him crouching,
Watching the woman as she neared the gate.

I puzzled over it, hiding alone –
Though I knew I should act at once,
For reasons that I failed to understand
I dared not
Put him to flight forever.

A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have
Revealed in the ragged moon
A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes
A shape amid the shadows,
Blackness that moved.

Peering furtively from behind a bush,
I saw him, for the first time
Entering the lonely house with my wife [(3)].

As you can clearly see, the poem starts to reverse after the 16th line. The first half of the poem is about our narrator feeling the eyes of an unknown man on him while he arrives home from a night out with his wife. In the second half, the roles are reversed, as our narrator watches an unidentified man entering his house with his wife. Lindon beautifully uses the palindrome technique and opens up the possibility to interpret the poem in a dozen more ways. 

My favorite interpretation of this poem is that of the main character being an elderly, ill man who is grieving the loss of his wife. The “blackness that moved / a shape amid the shadows” would thus perfectly represent the grim reaper in the first half of the poem, and death itself in the second half, where the order of those two sentences is switched around. The main character who does not act “for reasons that I failed to understand” hints at the man being ill or physically unable to do something about his wife passing. Where it is implied that the house that is entered at the beginning is the property of our main character, the last line shows that this property, together with the wife, is lost to this “him”, to earlier identified death. This reading of the poem is heartbreaking to me, as the palindromic effect mimics tidal waves that increase in strength when they return to the beach: the main character has lost everything he had.

A less emotional and gloomy reading which does not involve death is the interpretation of the wife cheating with a stalker who happens to be a werewolf. Yes, that is right. “A shape amid the shadows, / a momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes” makes the stalker-characteristic evident, but also hints at the supernatural. The next line mentions the moon, which is known to be the natural trigger for certain people to turn into werewolves. Our predator also seems to present only at night, even “night after night”, which emphasizes the fact that he is a stalker and supports the claim that he is also a werewolf. This supernatural presence seems to be the reason why, on the flip side of the poem, the main character claims: “I dare not / Put him to flight forever”. The roles reverse and now the main character watches, for the very first time, how his wife enters the house with the stalker-werewolf. 

Those are two very different readings of the same poem. I am more than sure that you had another interpretation, possibly even a Lacanian one. The identity of the unknown man is what is up for debate here. By flipping the poem and making it a palindrome, Lindon makes all these interpretations possible. As the poem comes back full circle, we can give it whatever meaning we want to. That is what makes this poem so eerie and fascinating at the same time: Lindon holds up the mirror for us and we decide what it is that we actually see, making it possible for our wildest fantasies to run wild.  

Another big name in this genre of poetry is the Russian Dmitry Avaliani (1938 – 2003). He was a revolutionary in Russian visual poetry, as he invented the listoverten (type of ambigram [(4)]). Avaliani wrote poems that were readable when turning it either a quarter or a half. Alexander Cigale has a paper published in which he has translated some of Avaliani’s poetry. One of the poems from this paper goes as follows:

nagi, g/oli
mi v /yame.
Rv/ota z/alila.
z/ato vr/emya
g/igan/tov [(5)]

As I do not read any Russian, and you possibly do not read any Russian either, it might seem a little silly to discuss this poem. However, what I find striking about it is the construction. This untitled poem is one of Avaliani’s palindrome poems. As you can see, it is not an obviously mirrored poem as Lindon’s “Doppelganger”. The mirroring here happens in the fourth line, with the ‘i’ in ‘alila’. In that sense, its palindromic character is on a lower level, namely morphological rather than syntactical. What I find compelling about this poem is how its palindromic nature is of the conventional type, as was evident in Reid’s example. The poem is visually appealing and linguistically challenging, regardless of it being in Russian. I think Avaliani has done something special here that deserves more recognition and praise.

Palindromes are fun and interesting in themselves, which makes palindrome poetry even more fascinating. It is a type of poetry that requires much more focus and discipline to write. I think it is a special genre which is not as widely explored or discussed. Writing a palindrome poem is an intricate puzzle, so I think it is even more beautiful that different poets from different periods in different languages have been able to produce these pieces of writing. 

As of late, I have been dabbling in the art of poetry, too. My adventures led me to palindrome poetry and my further research into them made me realize how cool poetry itself is. I think the charm of this specific genre of poetry is the boomerang effect it creates. These poets play around with sentence order, word order, letter order and make sure it becomes mirrored once the poem reaches its final form. It creates a push-and-pull effect and shows the actual importance of order in general. An even bigger pool of interpretations is created, especially with Lindon’s poem. “Doppelganger” is an amazing poem that is overly conscious of its doubleness and takes us along while making sure we are aware of its reflective characteristics. 

Just like the variety show that I watched all summer made its contestants reflect on image sets, palindrome poetry is supposed to make you reflect and think. It adds yet another layer to a poem, forcing you to consciously engage with a poem rather than write or read it only to forget about it. I do not think everyone should start writing palindrome poetry now, but it is important to become aware of the reflection aspect that, in my humble opinion, should be invoked in any poetry. 

Is a poem really a poem if it does not make you think?

[(1)] Palindrome poetry is poetry that reads the same from the top down and from the bottom up
[(2)] See header image
[(3)] First published in Dmitri Borgmann’s Beyond Language (1967)
[(4)] An ambigram is a word or sentence that reads the same upside down and downside up
[(5)] Translation:
So bare so naked
we are in a hole
awash with vomit.
Still the giants
Are rinsed clean.
Time washes them.


1 Comment

  1. adventde says:

    Julia Copus in Britain is a queen of this type of poetry as well – if you care for further reading or examples. I’ve tried them in my own body of work but always failed to make them bend (excuse the play on words). I think some of the odd grammatical features irk me as well – I know it is a self-imposed limitation! This is a lovely compilation and evaluation of some of this type of work. Hats off to anyone that can make them work. I find it’s like meeting yourself coming back!

    There is no segue at all other than a love of poetry and self-discovery, but if you like a prompt for a list poem (much easier if you only have a few minutes to write in your day) there is a little prompt for one here:

    Reverse the list and count back down and you might get a palindrome, who knows?!

    Good luck guys and let me know if you stop by at adventdemoi – part of our strand of work is stimulating creativity for self-discovery and knowledge.

    Spread the joy!

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