Friday, May 5, 2017

Denise Low's writing workshop: On Whimsy in Poetry

© 2017 Denise Low,  from a forthcoming collection, How to Write Mood in Verse

Riddles are embedded in the earliest Anglo Saxon oral literatures. Webster’s defines a riddle as: “A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (3rd ed.). Beyond puzzles and questions, a riddle is, according to Edward Hirsch, “both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.” Hirsch asserts that riddles are universal contests of wits, from Oedipus Rex to the present. He describes riddles in the Sanskrit texts and the Hebrew Bible. In any case, riddles use double entendres and other circumlocutions to suggest a word or phrase. These can be instructive, but more often they are pure whimsy. They also delight as they instruct.
Wordplay, from nursery rhymes to bawdy limericks, appeals to people’s love of games. A well wrought riddle is in itself a thing of interest, if not beauty. They are verbal versions of the game “charades” and perfect for a long evening’s entertainment.
                In the history of British poetics, riddles begin with a set verse form. The mood of whimsy, though, does not limit itself to a single form. Contemporary riddles sustain the love of puzzles and solutions—in many forms.

Anglo Saxon Riddles
The two-part line, three beats each side, is a common Anglo Saxon verse form; rhyme depends on alliteration. The Exeter Book o Riddles, 1000 years old, contain dozens of riddles, some graphically sexual.


Moððe word fræt--      me þæt þuhte

wrætlicu wyrd      þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn ,
þæt se wyrm forswealg      wera gied sumes ,
þeof in þystro,      þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol .      Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra      þe he þam wordum swealg.
A moth ate songs--wolfed words!
That seemed a weird dish--that a worm
Should swallow, dumb thief in the dark,
The songs of a man, his chants of glory,
Their place of strength. That thief-guest
Was no wiser for having swallowed words.

The bookworm, or moth caterpillar, can consume velum manuscripts, yet the oral tradition of songs and chants, when held in memory, are beyond such destruction. The book reader may also be no wiser after chewing up such a “cwide” or cud.
                Here is an example of a bawdy riddle, in the same verse form in the original but lost here. It rivals any limerick, even after all these centuries:

Riddle 45, Exeter Book
I have heard of a something-or-other,
growing in its nook, swelling and rising,
pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing
a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands;
with her apron a lord's daughter covered the tumescent thing.

Here are a couple Mother Goose riddles that have simple end rhymes, and they are in modern English. They are still as old as anyone can remember; perhaps the couplets echo the early Anglo-Saxon two-part line:

A Sieve
A riddle, a riddle, as I suppose,
A hundred eyes and never a nose!
 A Star
Higher than a house, higher than a tree.
Oh! whatever can that be?

These are simpler than the Exeter riddles, designed to appeal to children. These train the imagination as well as the ear for rhythms of the English language.
 Contemporary Riddles
Emily Dickinson writes some of the first serious riddles in U.S. poetry. The riddle form gives this poem a tone of irony rather than gloom:

Under the Light yet under
Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt,
Under the Beetle's Cellar
Under the Clover's Root,

Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could
Were the Day Year long,

Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird --
Over the Comet's chimney --
Over the Cubit's Head,

Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride --
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!

The topic of the poem, the “Dead,” is held back until the end. It is indirect, repetitive descriptions of the unknown with parallel lines, alliterative like some Anglo Saxon verse. The architecture of the poem, then, creates a suspense. Dickinson also injects whimsy into the details, like the “Beetle’s Cellar.” Then the contrast to the last line is most extreme. This is an adult poem that borrows the light verse form and subverts it.

I borrow a child’s riddle form for this long, sectioned poem about “eyes.” Even though the answer is in each section, the uncovering of unexpected places for eyes is the point of the wordplay:

Eye Riddles, by Denise Low

Laser-dot red eyes among green
euonymus sheaves:
A vireo darts herky jerky
                on spliced-video film.
Looped once, looped twice:
                Tweet. Silence. Tweet. Silence.
Peony buds drip sap
                striped billiard balls
                red white green white
eyes squeezed shut.
Lookout chipmunk
                its kohl-lined eyes
                point the way
                past pine’s
                bare slash.
Tail taut
                black bead eyes
A cat’s vertical eyes
are tandem gyroscopes
level just so.
Its body circles
unmoved elliptical
twin stars.
Dog eyes are brown honey
Snake eyes
slit yellow moonlight
make two wires
tossed ivory
Kelly green poison veins
feed on plump potato flesh.

Below nubby eye bumps
Cuzco-line alien lifeforms glow.
my father
saw that night
                the door jamb
                Evil Eye
                in invisible ink.

He tells me
“The Devil is real.”

Contemporary riddles work through contrasts, accumulation of details, extended metaphor—all to lead readers to discovery. The Bible has riddle contests, literal battles of the wits (Daniel, Solomon, Samson). Hirsch dates Sanskrit riddles to book 1 of the Rig-Veda (1700–1100 BCE). Riddles are among the oldest poetic forms. They adapt from comic to serious themes; they take shape in myriad patterns.

Hirsch, Edward. “Riddle.” Academy of American
Low, Denise. A Casino Bestiary (Spartan Press, 2017).
Robinson, Fred C. "Artful Ambiguities in the Old English 'Book-Moth' Riddle," Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard, ed. L.E. Nicholson and D. W. Frese (Notre Dame University Press, 1975), pp. 355-62.
“The Exeter Book of Riddles”-Flowers of History: Incidental notes after the eclectic histories of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris. University of
“Old English Riddles.” Swarthmore College Department of English.