Monday, November 16, 2009

One Poem Please, Scrambled

The online literary magazine Narrative has a weekly Puzzler contest, which can involve anything from geeky multiple choice questions to word games to minor acts of weird, Oulipian composition.

Last week's task was to write—or more accurately, to rewrite—something called a "pied poem". I hadn't heard of this before, but a pied poem is created by taking an existing poem (or part of one) and rearranging the words to make a new, quasi-original piece. Punctuation can be changed, words can be capitalized or hyphenated but, as far as I understand the rules, every word must be accounted for. Call it the Law of Conservation of Poetic Matter.

I decided to take a crack at it, submitted two entries, and ended up getting third place. The process was fun but actually quite difficult, kind of like grabbing a handful of magnetic poetry tiles and trying to organize something coherent on the fridge. For content I used a four-line poem by A. E. Housman, one of the best short poems that I know of:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

I came up with one pied poem that uses only the last two lines of Housman's poem (19 words), and another that includes all 38 words:

To be young:
lose much, and think
nothing is sure
to men but young
life. Is it? Were we?

Sprung from dead
life, we choose nothing
and lie, young and not sure,
because we live
here. The land did it
to young men? Shame
to think. We were to be,
which is—is!—much,
but we lose.

The latest Puzzler, for anyone interested, can be found here. As it happens, I get nothing for placing in the contest, except whatever bragging rights are owed to someone who's written a third place poem using another person's words and which only sort of makes sense.