Constrained writing is fun; moreover, sometimes it’s seriously impressive. This post is a tour of some of my favorite examples of constrained writing and wordplay.
Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames
Listen to this recitation of the French poem Un petit d’un petit, by Luis d’Antin van Rooten.
Sound familiar? Indeed, this poem is a homophonic translation of Humpty Dumpty. It’s a French poem which sounds almost identical to someone reading Humpty Dumpty in a French accent.
Sat on a wall.
Had a great fall.
And all the king’s horses
And all the king’s men
Can’t put Humpty Dumpty
|Un petit d’un petit|
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit d’un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.
|A child of a child|
Is surprised at the Market
A child of a child
Oh, degrees you needed!
Lazy is he who never goes out
Lazy is he who is not led
Who cares about a child of a child
Like Guy of Reguennes
This is just the first of forty homophonic translations of nursery rhymes, together comprising van Rooten’s book Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames (literally: “Key words: Pods, Oars”; homophonically: “Mother Goose’ Rhymes”).
This is just one example of homophonic translation. Here’s another impressive-looking one, which goes between Hebrew and Italian.
“Cadaeic” is one of my favorite “words” in the English language. It means “of or relating to pi”, and its etymology becomes apparent when you consider the placements of C, a, d, a, e, i, c in the English alphabet:
The Cadaeic Cadenza is a 4600-word masterpiece by Mike Keith, in which the first word has 3 letters, the second word 1 letter, the third word 4 letters, and so on. The first chapter — called “A Poem” — begins:
Midnights so dreary, tired and weary,
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap – the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber’s antedoor.
“This”, I whispered quietly, “I ignore”.
It goes on to rewrite all of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven“, all the while obeying this insane constraint. (When a 0 appears in the decimal expansion of pi, the corresponding word has 10 letters. There are also a couple of other rules.) And that’s just Chapter One. Chapter Two begins:
My customary bedtime reading book hastily shelved, I sat, bewildered, pondering Allanpoe’s poetry. “Something’s wrong”, I murmured. “Despite Ravenesque timbres, so mesmerizing (the echo
survives, for example), my intellect detects wrongful alteration. This imitation, simulated Raven!…”
This is how Mike Keith deals with the six consecutive nines in pi occurring at the 762nd decimal place.
The word for writing with this particular constraint is called Pilish (though I think it should be called Cadaeic). There are several other prominent examples, but this is by far the most impressive one I’ve seen.
Consider the sentence
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
You’ve probably heard this sentence before. It’s prominent for using every letter of the alphabet, right? Wrong: it doesn’t use ‘s’. But even if you fix “jumped” to “jumps”, it’s not a very impressive pangram, as it requires 35 letters (9 extra on top of English’s 26-letter alphabet). You can also change one of the instances of “the” to an “a” to make it 33 letters. A slightly better, less cliché pangram is
Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. (32 letters)
I ran into this one when reading Ella Minnow Pea, a novel where the characters scramble to try to find a shorter pangram than the aforementioned 33-letter one. But it’s still not that impressive. Let’s try a bit harder.
The five boxing wizards jump quickly. (31 letters)
Can we do better?
How vexingly quick daft zebras jump! (30 letters)
Now we’re talking. Maybe we can do even better?
Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow! (29 letters)
This is my favorite pangram. Like wow, I can totally imagine that as a quotable line in a fantasy novel. Or as one Twitter user put it:
This is my favorite pangram, but it’s not the shortest pangram. Here’s a shorter one:
Waltz, bad nymph, for quick jigs vex. (28 letters)
If you’re willing to get creative with the English language, you can come up with some perfect pangrams. Here are a few that kinda sorta make sense:
Mr. Jock, TV quiz PhD, bags few lynx.
JFK got my VHS, PC and XLR web quiz.
Quartz glyph job vex’d cwm finks (This means: “The act of carving symbols into quartz irritated ruffians from a Welsh river valley.“)
Dwarf mobs quiz lynx.jpg, kvetch! (This means: “Crowd of midgets question picture of wildcat, then complain.“)
The last two came from this blog post resurrecting a Wikipedia page, and has a bunch more, including pangrams in many other languages.
Shī-shì shí shī shǐ
“Shī-shì shí shī shǐ” — which translates to “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” — is a Chinese poem by Yuen Ren Chao. Here’s a recitation of this poem:
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
Okay but this poem couldn’t possibly have a coherent meaning, right? As a matter of fact it’s totally coherent! Here’s what it means:
In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.
This is really impressive, and is also a great demonstration of how important tones are in Mandarin. Apparently there are several other examples of this, although I haven’t been able to track down any translations to English.
An ambigram is — well:
More examples on this wonderful Wikipedia article.
Eunoia, by Christian Bök, is possibly the most impressive example of constrained writing I’ve run into. It has five chapters — Chapter A, Chapter E, Chapter I, Chapter O, and Chapter U — and in each chapter Bök uses only one vowel. Chapter A begins:
Here’s the start of Chapter I:
This is really hard. (It took Bök seven years to write!) I could barely put five words together to title this post. But an even more remarkable constraint is that nearly every univocalic word is used. Sure, you could probably sit down and write a univocalic sentence or two; but Bök uses 98% of all univocalic words in the English language! He also tries to repeat words as infrequently as possible. (Notice also that both pages I’ve shared — and indeed every page in the book — has equally long lines, another constraint that seems nontrivial to satisfy.)
There are some other univocalic works. Les Revenentes is a French work by George Perec that only uses the vowel ‘e’. (Notice that even the title doesn’t really work, as “revenentes” is a misspelling of the French word “revenants”.) Perec translated the work into English as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex, though the translation is kind of disappointing, as he frequently misspells words to fit the constraint:
The fetters stretched, then sqweezed the Emeenence’s neck. Vertebrers wrenched, veyns reddened, the end seemed neyegh. Yet, the sqweeze’s effects were the Reverend Excellence’s meek member’s reberth: he swelled, stretched, then erected.
When she’d seen the expected effect, Estelle spred her legs then held the Reverend Excellence between them, wheyele the Reverend Spencer severed the fetters. The Emeenence’s fresh sceptre, well-fleshed, sheer steel, entered her!
And I’m not saying that to throw shade on Perec, who is one of the all-time greatest masters of wordplay! On the contrary, this shows how insanely difficult Bök’s task was.
“Twelve-halves tongue”, invented (I think) at Canada/USA Mathcamp, is constrained English in which you may only use six-letter words. It shouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that speaking in twelve-halves tongue is ridiculously hard. Below is Aaron Landesman, a 2018 Mathcamp mentor, giving a ten-minute talk on finite fields in twelve-halves tongue. This one will be particularly amusing if you’re a math person, but should be impressive regardless.
Douglas Hofstadter (creator of two of the ambigrams featured earlier in this post) writes:
Only the fool would take trouble to verify that his sentence was composed of ten a’s, three b’s, four c’s, four d’s, forty-six e’s, sixteen f’s, four g’s, thirteen h’s, fifteen i’s, two k’s, nine l’s, four m’s, twenty-five n’s, twenty-four o’s, five p’s, sixteen r’s, forty-one s’s, thirty-seven t’s, ten u’s, eight v’s, eight w’s, four x’s, eleven y’s, twenty-seven commas, twenty-three apostrophes, seven hyphens and, last but not least, a single !
Call me a fool but I did check, just to get rid of the nagging feeling that Hofstadter could’ve been pulling a fast one on us all. You can get more creative; courtesy Wikipedia:
|The right-hand sentence contains four a’s, one b, three c’s, three d’s, thirty-nine e’s, ten f’s, one g, eight h’s, eight i’s, one j, one k, four l’s, one m, twenty-three n’s, fifteen o’s, one p, one q, nine r’s, twenty-three s’s, twenty-one t’s, four u’s, seven v’s, six w’s, two x’s, five y’s, and one z.||The left-hand sentence contains four a’s, one b, three c’s, three d’s, thirty-five e’s, seven f’s, four g’s, eleven h’s, eleven i’s, one j, one k, one l, one m, twenty-six n’s, fifteen o’s, one p, one q, ten r’s, twenty-three s’s, twenty-two t’s, four u’s, three v’s, five w’s, two x’s, five y’s, and one z.|
Simplifying somewhat, finding an autogram is kind of like finding a solution to a system of linear equations. You include a variable, for integer n of reasonable size, of the number of letters which appear n times, and have 26 equations (one for each letter of the alphabet). The twist, though, is that you’re looking for a solution over the integers, and this is an NP-hard problem. In many cases there’s no solution; but one thing that works to your benefit is that you have freedom over the start of the sentence. Who knows how many things Hofstadter tried before he found “Only the fool would take trouble to verify that his sentence was composed of” as a way to start his autogram.
For more on autograms, see autograms.net.
A palindrome is a text that reads the same forwards and backwards. Here are some really good well-known ones:
A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!
I like this one a lot because it makes sense as a poetic description of the Panama Canal. But if you want to sacrifice sense in favor of ridiculousness, you can have some fun adding on random things:
A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal – Panama!
Here’s one that has some sentimental value to me, as my second grade teacher (one of the best teachers I’ve ever had) told me about it:
Able was I ere I saw Elba
The context is that Napoleon could have accurately said this, as he was a powerful conqueror until (ere) he was detained on the island of Elba.
There are also much longer palindromes, including some palindromic poems: see here and here (h/t Matt Tyler). There have apparently been two palindromic novels, titled “Satire: Veritas” and “Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo”, though I can’t find a copy of either one. (If you go to UCLA you might be able to get ahold of the second one!)
Two pieces of text are called anagrams if they have the same letters (just in a different order). The go-to place for good anagrams is the Anagrammy Awards. Their website is pretty bad, but you can find a lot of good anagrams by browsing the winners page. Here are the 2020 winners. Some samples:
Sort of people I rather hated? ~
The hoarders of toilet paper.Meyran Kraus, March 2020 (fittingly)
When I am in the throes of my despair, ~
a tiny shred of hope remains with me.Meyran Kraus, October 2020
Note the iambic pentameter in the last one. (Meyran Kraus, apparently, is the anglosphere’s best anagrammer.)
But my favorite anagrams are long ones (some are listed under the “special category” on the winners pages). Here’s one from January 2020; the left side is the poem “A Winter Night” by Sara Teasdale, while the right side is an anagram — a poem about glaciers. Unfortunately I don’t know who wrote this one!
|A Winter Night by Sara Teasdale|
My window-pane is starred with frost,
The world is bitter cold tonight.
The moon is cruel and the wind
Is like a two-edged sword to smite.
God pity all the homeless ones,
The beggars pacing to and fro.
God pity all the poor tonight
Who walk the lamp-lit streets of snow.
My room is like a bit of June,
Warm and close-curtained fold on fold,
But somewhere, like a homeless child,
My heart is crying in the cold.
|To Those Doomed Titans in the North Pole|
Grand like a cliff in endless realms so white,
Grim like a crypt in early rays of dawn,
Gem-like and crisply-iced, each smoothly bright,
Great lumps are crumbling, instantly withdrawn.
God’s limber arms created these to stand;
God left a wholesome spot to me and you.
Good lord! If He did it, with His two hands,
God knows that point we wish not to be true:
If those cool jewels are hit, we will be too.
Here’s another one, which modifies and adds onto two well-known mathematical limericks (which by themselves are pretty excellent wordplay!):
|I offer the following Mathematical Limerick:|
“A dozen, a gross, and a score,
Plus three times the square root of four,
Divided by seven,
Plus five times eleven,
Equals nine squared plus zero, no more.”
No good? How about the next one?
|Qualms or no qualms, a sum unadvisedly|
explained all in word form (vs. known visual aids):
“Integral zee squared dee zee
From one to the cube root of three
Times the cosine
Of three pi over nine
Is the log of the cube root of e.”
I’d be remiss not to offer one of my own, which I wrote it several years ago for a class on wordplay. It’s not as good, but I’m proud of it. On the left is Romeo’s opening line in the balcony scene; on the right is my anagram of it, which is a summary of Hamlet written in iambic pentameter.
|But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?|
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
|We venture now to regions yet unknown,|
To Hamlet, son to murdered king of Danes.
His uncle Claudius thither takes the throne;
With this begins the “when” of highest pains.1
The ghost of Hamlet’s father doth emerge.
“Kill Claudius,” he states as Hamlet’s goal.
Says Hamlet, “To redeem you, as you urge,
I will at start put on a raver’s role.”
He hires a theatre troupe at royal court,
And he doth make his toy against the king:
The thespians will show a scène de mort
And view they violet head-hues it will bring.2
The khan3 reacts with fright beyond belief,
As if he thinks, “The bee is in the room!”,4
So showing him the sinner; to his grief,
His brother’s son effectuates his doom.
While vying now to end the royal breath,
He runs; he jabs “wry oaf advisor”5 thrice!
Thus, son Laertes thinks, “How Hamlet’s death?”
His aid betrayed, yet he reworks his vise.
They duel, Laertes havin’ tainted tip6;
The watchers harakiri7: poisoned wine!
A fray ensues, with death at every sip.
And Fortinbras now takes the Danish shrine.
I wrote this by first writing a summary of Hamlet of about the right length, and then changing words and phrases to synonyms with more favorable letters until the letter counts were exactly right.
Longer anagrams may seem more impressive, but they aren’t necessarily harder. That’s because you have many more options for changing things around. (A simple model: how many letters you need to change grows with the square root of the text length, while the number of opportunities for change grows proportionally to the text length.) On the other hand, the longer the starting text the more work you need to do. So I’m pretty impressed with this “longest ever” 42,177-letter anagram, described as “a paraphrase in verse of Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books”.
As a prize for my balcony scene anagram, I won the book Never Again by Doug Nufer. This book is 200 pages (40,000 words) long — and it never uses a word more than once. The book begins
When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job. Want ads made wonderlands, founding systems barely imagined. Adventure’s imperative ruled nothing could repeat. Redirections dictated rigorously, freely. Go anywhere new: telephone boiler-rooms, midnight grocery shooting galleries, prosthetic limb assembly plants, hazardous wasteremoval sites; flower delivery, flour milling, million-dollar bunko schemes. Do anything once; then, best of all, never again.
As you might expect, it gets progressively more and more difficult to understand — though it maintains comprehensibility surprisingly far in. It ends:
Worldly bookmaker soulmates rectify unfair circumstance’s recurred tragedies, evermoving, ever-hedging shifty playabilities since chances say someone will be for ever closing racetracks.
I’d like to give a sample from the middle of the book — but alas I haven’t been able to find my copy!
What are your favorite examples of wordplay and constrained writing? Leave a comment!