Monday, February 8, 2010

Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis

Have you ever tried to write a palindrome that made sense?  You know, one of those sentences that is identical when read forward and backward. Everyone knows “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” which Napoleon would have said if he had thought of it and had been speaking in English.  My new book, Words Gone Wild (which will be at a book store or junk shop near you in the spring) has a section on palindromes, including a few of my own, which are mostly gibberish.

There are lots of nifty ones by other folks that do make sense:  “Dennis and Edna sinned”; “Madam, I’m Adam”; “I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas, no melon.  Distressed was I”; and the inevitable “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama!” James Thurber mastered the art form with “He goddam mad dog, eh?”  One short, simple, plainspoken palindrome asks and answers a question: “Did Mom poop?  Mom did.”  (It would also work with Dad.)

Will Thomas has written a 5,000-word palindrome called “A Gassy Obese Boy’s Saga”; Lawrence Levine, penned a 37,000-word novel called “Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo”; and David Stephens’ “Satire: Veritas” is reputedly 50,000 words (but who counted?).

The problem with most long palindromes is that, in order to keep the letters in the right sequence, they begin to wander away from coherence. Demetri Martin, an American comedian and actor who has been seen frequently on The Daily Show and other late-night TV venues, likes to play around with palindromes.  He’s famous for his 223-word creation “Dammit, I’m mad,” which makes pretty good sense, and he also came up with this one, a mere 113 words, which borders on the fringe of intelligibility:

Wow. O.K.
A still animal sits afoot. Tones I ring.
I sing (i.e. ride it, nuts open). On or off, I riff.
Uh… I, to lasses, say, "Oh aha, hah, all!"
It's tops. It is a Tao, bro, to my baby demo.
Can one poet arise so rosy?
As "D" I star. Comedy, baby. My my, a show.
Oh say "my my," baby.
Democrats? I'd say so. (Roses irate.)
Open, on a comedy baby motorboat. As "it"
I spot still a "ha hah!" ahoy. Assess a lot.
I huff, I riff, or on one post untied, I reign.
I sign. I rise, not too fast.
I slam. In all, it's a K.O. wow.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who thinks of himself as a palindrome, since he never knows whether he’s coming or going, writes:

            To write a palindrome I fear is much too hard:
            Drab am I. Mood dim. Ah! Amid doom, I’m a bard.


  1. Hello Jim,

    David Stephens is my grandfather. Since he had "Satire: Veritas" published in 1980, he has added to it fairly considerably over the years. I hope to one day transcribe this new edition for him.

    You are right that many of these longer palindromes aren't very coherent at all. My grandfather worked around this a bit by having much of "Satire: Veritas" take place in an Irish pub -- this and some of the difficult, stream-of-consciousness prose remind me much of James Joyce.

    I'll be in touch if I can ever get the new, longer "Satire: Veritas" in order.



    1. Hello Daniel,

      is it somehow possible to get a copy of your grandfathers novel "satire veritas"??? I'm a german writer of palindromes and would be utterly pleased to own satire veritas.

      Please answer me, if it's possible. Greetings, Titus

  2. Thank you;
    from Northeast Ohio's poets