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Poetry Friday: Playful palindromes


Demetri Martin

Demetri Martin

“A Toyota’s a Toyota,” and “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog,” are palindromes that make me smile.

There is something wildly comforting about palindromes — a word or phrase that reads the same forwards as it does backwards. Neat and efficient, palindromes come full circle — literally.

The word “palindrome” is derived from the Greek words  palin (“again”) and dromos (“way, direction”) and was coined by English writer Ben Jonson in the 17th century. The first English palindrome appeared in 1614, “Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel.”

Palindromes can be short. “A man, a plan, a canal —Panama!” created by Leigh Mercer in 1948 is a famous example. Or they can be incredibly long. Some writers have written novels with thousands of words in palindrome style.

There are several different types of palindromes. There are character-by-character ones, where the letters are exactly the same forward as backwards (spacing and punctuation differences are allowed), such as “Madam, I’m Adam.”

There are also “word unit” and “line unit” palindromes. “Women understand men, few men understand women,” is an example of a word unit palindrome, where the words form the same sentence in either direction.

In a line unit palindrome poem, the poem reads the same from the first line to the last line as it does from the last to the first.

Palindrome poetry is very challenging to create. Word choice is extremely limited, so it’s tough to make the poem fit together and make sense. The palindrome poems below show great care and attention to detail, making them, in my opinion, the best of their genre.

The first poem, “Dammit I’m Mad” is by comedian Demetri Martin, who appears on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He created a clever character-by-character palindrome poem with a staggering 244 words, which reads the same top to bottom, letter by letter. Some of the words are odd, but overall it’s cohesive and STAYS on topic.

I can only imagine the amount of hours, days, and weeks it took Mr. Martin to create this palindrome. It took me weeks to create my tribute palindrome to Bob Newhart — “Bob, yay, Bob.”

That’s not just the title, that’s the entire palindrome.

Dammit I’m Mad
by Demitri Martin

Dammit I’m mad.
Evil is a deed as I live.
God, am I reviled? I rise, my bed on a sun, I melt.
To be not one man emanating is sad. I piss.
Alas, it is so late. Who stops to help?
Man, it is hot. I’m in it. I tell.
I am not a devil. I level “Mad Dog.”
Ah, say burning is, as a deified gulp,
In my halo of a mired rum tin.
I erase many men. Oh, to be man, a sin.
Is evil in a clam? In a trap?
No. It is open. On it I was stuck.
Rats peed on hope. Elsewhere dips a web.
Be still if I fill its ebb.
Ew, a spider… eh?
We sleep. Oh no!
Deep, stark cuts saw it in one position
Part animal, can I live? Sin is a name.
Both, one… my names are in it.
Murder? I’m a fool.
A hymn I plug, deified as a sign in ruby ash,
A Goddam level I lived at.
On mail let it in. I’m it.
Oh, sit in ample hot spots. Oh wet!
A loss it is alas (sip). I’d assign it a name.
Name not one bottle minus an ode by me:
“Sir, I deliver. I’m a dog”
Evil is a deed as I live.
Dammit I’m mad.

The following poems are examples of line unit palindromes:

Doppelgänger
by J.A. Lindon

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.

Miss Jenkins
by Julia Copus

More and more, lately, when absence thickened the air
at the schoolgates, in the street, first thing on waking,
she’d think of her former calling, the way it had defined her.
In the dim, sugar-paper blur of the light,
while boiling the kettle or kneeling over weeds,
many times at dusk now (the streetlights coming on)
she’d feel herself alive, transported
once again to the bright, tall-windowed classroom
chalky-fingered, cherished by her peers, and walking –
that brisk and rhythmic pace she adopted, all her working days.
Even in sleep, her breath would rise and fall with
the sharp pat pat of the children’s feet approaching and
she’d sense – in her blood – like a counterpoint beneath it,
the slap of books upon each child-size table
whenever she set up class for their arrival.

Whenever she set up class for their arrival
– the slap of books upon each child-size table –
she’d sense in her blood, like a counterpoint beneath it,
the sharp pat pat of the children’s feet approaching and
even in sleep her breath would rise and fall with
that brisk and rhythmic pace she adopted, all her working days.
Chalky-fingered, cherished by her peers, and walking
once again to the bright, tall-windowed classroom,
she’d feel herself alive; transported.
Many times at dusk now (the streetlights coming on),
while boiling the kettle or kneeling over weeds,
in the dim, sugar-paper blur of the light,
she’d think of her former calling, the way it had defined her,
at the schoolgates, in the street, first thing on waking –
more and more, lately, when absence thickened the air.

Raymond, at 60
by Julia Copus

The 185 from Catford Bridge, the 68 from Euston –
those same buses climbing the long hill into the evening.
This is what stays with him best now, this and watching,
in the ward where mother has finally died,
the way the rain has fallen on the window –
a soft rain sifting down like iron filings.
The whole of that evening he’d kept his eyes fixed on the rain,
out there in the O of the buses’ steel-rimmed headlamps.
Now I am I, he thought, his two dark eyes ablaze – as if he’d
found God
the very moment she’d left him. He took off his hat,
and he put his dry lips to her cheek and kissed her,
unsettled by her warmth, the scent of her skin
so unexpected he found himself suddenly
back on Bondway, crushed to her breast, in a gesture
that meant, he knew now, You are loved. There he was, with her
pulling his bobble-hat over his ears in that finicky way she had.
What was he? Eleven? Twelve? Too old, in any case, for her to be
holding his hand the entire short walk from the house
that first time she’d taken him down to watch the buses.

That first time she’d taken him down to watch the buses,
holding his hand the entire short walk from the house,
what was he? Eleven? Twelve? Too old, in any case, for her to be
pulling his bobble-hat over his ears in that finicky way she had
that meant (he knew now) You are loved. There he was with her
back on Bondway, crushed to her breast, in a gesture
so unexpected he found himself suddenly
unsettled by her warmth, the scent of her skin,
and he put his dry lips to her cheek and kissed her.
The very moment she’d left him, he took off his hat.
Now I am I, he thought, his two dark eyes ablaze – as if he’d
found God
out there in the O of the buses’ steel-rimmed headlamps.
The whole of that evening he’d kept his eyes fixed on the rain,
a soft rain sifting down like iron filings,
the way the rain had fallen on the window
in the ward where Mother had finally died.
his is what stays with him best now, this and watching
those same buses climbing he hill long into the evening:
the 185 from Catford Bridge, the 68 from Euston…

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4 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Playful palindromes

  1. Ellen M. on said:

    Reading and deciphering these palendromes left me with some interesting comparisons and thought waves about comprehending these reflective poems one rainy Friday…. I am enjoying your Friday Poetry days.

  2. I was just looking for examples of this kind of poem (and a name for the form!). Thanks very much for posting these.

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