Lex poems

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “poetry = the best words in the best order”. Now lexicographers believe they know the best order for words, to put them in their dictionaries. So one could consider a lex poem to be one where the words are in lexicographic order. Then poets only have to choose the best words.

There are two ways that one can play this game. One is simply to write a poem in which the words are in dictionary order, like this:

A bold fanfare for his lex poem?
Quit, rather, reaching the very worst!

The other is to try to improve on an existing poem by sorting its words into dictionary order. Here is an example by e e cummings:

a a an arse everyone except
has is man politician sat upon which

If you don’t know the poem, you may enjoy trying to guess the sense of it, and then to re-sort the words into cummings’ order. There is a slightly serious purpose behind this: to investigate the amount of meaning in English text which is independent of word order.

A less demanding form is a poem whose lines are in dictionary order. In fact, this has already been done. In many books of poetry, especially anthologies, there is an “Index of first lines”. I remember seeing in the 1970s a poem which was simply a block of consecutive lines from such an index. Here is an example, from Q’s Oxford Book of English Verse:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back
Love guards the roses of thy lips
Love in fantastic triumph sate
Love in thy bosom like a bee
Love is a sickness full of woes
Love is and was my Lord and King
Love is enough: though the World be a-waning
Love is the blossom where there blows
Love not me for comely grace
Love, thou art absolute, sole Lord
Love wing’d my hopes and taught me how to fly
Lully, lulley; lully, lulley

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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6 Responses to Lex poems

  1. Yemon Choi says:

    The first of those lines took me by surprise, since there is a Madonna song containing the lines

    “love tried to welcome me, but my soul drew back, guilty of lust and sin”

    On Googling, I see that the lyricist was stealing from George Herbert – that at least shows some good taste.

  2. Yemon Choi says:

    This reminds me: did you by any chance read the Independent on Sunday in the early 1990s? I vaguely recall that they ran a poetry competition, and on one occasion the task was to take a well known line of a poem, call it L, and then form a new poem, each of whose lines consisted of a subsequence of the letters of L (in order).

    The winner used as his seed the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses but unfortunately I have long since lost the newspaper clipping with this tour de force

  3. oscilor says:

    I tried re-writing a couple of nursery rhymes and the results are not bad if you miss out the odd the etc.

    Baa Baa Black Sheep
    Any have wool
    Sir, sir, yes, yes
    Bags full three
    For master one
    Dame for one
    And boy for little one
    Down lane living

    A ring ring roses
    Full of pocket posies
    A-tissue A-tissue
    All down fall

    At blue bottom deep down sea
    Catching fishes for my tea
    A-one A-three A-two

  4. Yemon Choi says:

    Having a go with last verse of This Be The Verse:

    hands man man misery on to
    a coastal deepens it like shelf
    can get it of out still while you
    and any don’t have kids yourself

    In Memoriam fares less well:

    Befall hold I it true whate’er
    Feel I it most sorrow when
    And better have lost loved ’tis to
    All at have loved never than to

    I’m tempted to say something like Gerald Manley Hopkins would work just as well when line-lexed, but perhaps that’s uncharitable.

  5. Pingback: Poetry words | Fitoimage

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