poetry causes the best kind of headache.
November 17, 2012 12:23 PM   Subscribe

When you rearrange the lines of this poem from ABC DEF to ACE BDF, it goes from being complimentary to critical about this... king? Maybe? What poem am I thinking of?

I was a lit major and I work in a bookstore so I honestly can't pinpoint when/where I read about this. All I remember was that it was about a king/prince/some male ruling figure and when you rearranged the lines to put every other line in its own stanza, it took on a hidden critical meaning.

Something like...

Richard was
A great king and hero
Among lesser men
Who hated England.

And then when you rearranged it, it read...

Richard was
Among lesser men

A great king and hero
Who hated England.

...Of course the actual poem is longer and better written, but you get what I mean. Ringing any bells?

Oh, and what is this kind of poetry/device called?
posted by wintersonata9 to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds a bit like something that might happen in Pale Fire.
posted by cogat at 12:35 PM on November 17, 2012

A long shot, but it wasn't something like "Lost Generation" was it?
posted by procrastination at 12:47 PM on November 17, 2012

Response by poster: It was in a work of nonfiction, either a book on writing/poetry or an online article... maybe? Sorry to be unhelpful on that front.

And thanks for bringing Lost Generation to my attention! What a neat work! Alas, not what I was thinking of. But it was that same sort of thing where the work takes on a different meaning when the lines are rearranged. I do remember that the one I read about had you read every other line.
posted by wintersonata9 at 1:22 PM on November 17, 2012

Are you thinking of Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought from Africa to America" as interpreted in Henry Louis Gates' Jefferson Lecture? (The "subversive anagram" idea is floated at the very end; Wheatley also had poems about George Washington and other famous men of the age.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:42 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: These are called steganographic poems.
posted by paperback version at 1:46 PM on November 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Darn it, I do know what poem you're talking about and I think I even reread it recently, but I can't remember where I would've bookmarked it. I thought I initially saw it at Futility Closet, and came across these cool examples of the same type of poem (1, 2), but will have to keep looking for the one you're talking about. You did a good job describing it, by the way.
posted by artifarce at 4:01 PM on November 17, 2012

Is it this poem? It mostly matches your description--a straight read-through praises King George; reading down the left clauses of the lines, then down the right clauses slams the King & supports General Washington/the revolution. The rearrangement isn't quite what you describe...but it's close.

This thread about a poem George Sand wrote where the meaning goes from chastely romantic to dirty if you read every other line isn't what you were looking for...but I though it was charming, so I'm pasting a link here.
posted by neda at 4:48 PM on November 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I couldn't find it here (swore this is where I'd read about it), but you'll probably enjoy the poetry section of Futility Closet. He posts clever poetic tricks like this from history all the time.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:10 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a whole family of these poems, which were very popular in the seventeenth century. The best known example is the following, which reads Protestant if you take it horizontally and Catholic if you take it vertically:
I hold as faith / What England's church allows
What Rome's church saith / My conscience disavows.
Where the King's head / That church can have no seam
That flock's misled / That holds the Pope supreme.
Where the altar's dressed / The worship's scarce divine
The people's blessed / Whose table's bread and wine.
He's but an ass / Who the communion flies
Who shuns the Mass / Is Catholic and wise.
The term 'steganographic poetry' can refer to any kind of poetry with a hidden message, not just this particular kind. I don't think it has a special name in English, but E.M. Wilson, writing about Spanish examples, called them 'coplas contradictorias' or 'double-edged verses'.
posted by verstegan at 5:22 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ohhhh all those ones from Futility Closet are soooooooo close (adding to my RSS feed immediately), but not it! *pulls hair* They are super fun to read, though, so keep 'em coming.
posted by wintersonata9 at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2012

Best answer: Here's another one, from the American War of Independence:
I love with all my heart / The Tory party here,
The Continental part / Most hateful doth appear.
For their encouragement / I rightly have denied,
My conscience gives consent / To be on King George's side.
Most righteous is the cause / To fight for such a King,
To fight for nature's laws / Would certain ruin bring.
This is my mind and heart / In this opinion I
Though none should take my part, / Resolve to live and die.
According to the Folger First-Line Index, these poems are known as 'equivocal verses'.
posted by verstegan at 2:55 AM on November 30, 2012

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