Here’s another selection from the longform.org archives, this time about a “master palindromist.” I started to think the guy was nerdily admirable right up to the point where I realized he was a horse’s ass. (Note to remember for myself: Being self-aware does not magically transform ego into charm.)
So, being a palindrome myself (RemmahAnanab?), I had an early introduction to the form. Little J and I used to spend spare minutes in 10th-grade history class making palindromes on the blackboard: “Traffic if fart.” “Mary bred a derby ram.” Start with a friend’s name or a random word; spell it backwards next to itself and see how it might be broken down and what words and their reverses can be added to make a sentence.
Or, more often, a “sentence.”
The article’s Master Palindromist—a self-imposed title—produced, in fact, some amazing, word-reversing wizardry; his palindromes can be a hundred words and more, perfectly reversible. The thing is, because of the concrete, mathematic-like confines of the palindrome form, he’s gotta be a goddamn contortionist with punctuation, syntax… spelling. He takes some liberties with the language. And, like, coherence. The Greenward Palindrome mentioned at the beginning of the article has more explanative annotations than a page from Ulysses—and it’s a lot less lyrical. [Although the shorter “No Gas in Age?” deserves credit for being more coherent.]
That’s why I was proud enough of “Mary bred a derby ram” to remember it all these years. It’s a fairly natural sentence—a very common subject/verb/object structure, and a concept (breeding racing sheep instead of horses) that’s not too much of a stretch, in an Ogden Nash kind of way—and oh, hey: It’s the same backwards as forwards.
When you try to make a palindrome make sense with 50 words instead of five, it’s a lot harder. And I have to wonder if it’s worth it to be a master of something that winds up being so esoteric that you then have to explain it to people. Does it really count as an accomplishment?
One of the less-talked-about reasons that Shakespeare was great—a Master Iambic Pentameterist—was his ability to write naturally within the confines of the meter. Professional actors know that often all you have to do with Shakespeare is say the lines according to the meter—“da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA”—and you’re most of the way to a reading that makes sense: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” Shakespeare could’ve flubbed the meter and put the emphases on the wrong syllables—god knows many of his contemporaries did, and pop music does it all the time—but it wouldn’t have been as impressive, or even as moving. It wouldn’t have worked as well.
Meter is more forgiving than palindromes, of course, which are like mathematical equations: either they work or they don’t. But I wish that this palindromist fella would try smaller numbers and more music. And also, stop being such a jackwagon. Then maybe I’d call him master.