In my many years of researching poetic forms, I have found that two or more forms will often share the same name, which can become pretty confusing. This definitely is the case with the square poem. One version often referred to as the ‘classic’ square poem is simply a poem in which the number of syllables per line is equal to the number of lines (my invented form the streetbeatina which has eight lines of eight syllables would certainly qualify as one).
In the other variation, which we will be discussing today, the line length is counted not in syllables but in words (isoverbal prosody), the amount of words in each line being the same as the number of lines. What makes this form attributed to the popular writer and poet Lewis Carroll really unique is its almost magical quality of being able to be read the same vertically (from top to bottom) as well as the conventional way from left to right. If you want to see an example of this form perfectly executed, you cannot do better than reading the original poem consisting of six lines of six words apiece thought to be written by Carroll:
A Square Poem
I often wondered when I cursed,
Often feared where I would be—
Wondered where she’d yield her love,
When I yield, so will she.
I would her will be pitied!
Cursed be love! She pitied me …
Not nearly as eloquent or clever, but here is my take on the 6×6 square poem:
What I did not admit then,
I do not remember that well.
Did not you once say “please
not remember”? Once you would not
admit that. Say, would you believe?
Then, well, please not believe me.
Theoretically, one could write a ‘Lewis Carroll’ square poem of almost any length, but I personally would not recommend writing one longer than a 6×6. Even at the length, I found it difficult to maintain both the meaning and grammar of the poem without it becoming convoluted and strained. I feel shorter ones are much easier to do, and even a 2×2, the shortest possible with a mere four words, can be effective if you choose an appropriate title to provide exposition and set up the poem’s premise like I tried to do in the following examples:
The Stuttering Clock
These are a couple of my attempts at writing 3x3s:
Dachshund Depressed About Being Fed a Daily Diet of Frankfurters
Forced to eat,
to endure “dog
eat dog” blues.
What Do I See When I Gaze Upward?
Indigo sky? Not
sky blue? Maybe
not. Maybe turquoise…
Of all the variations I tried, my favorites would undeniably be the 4x4s:
I am not perfect.
Am I absolutely sure?
Not absolutely. Are you
perfect? Sure, you are!
Instructions on Grieving
Don’t mourn the dead.
Mourn the love lost,
the love left unclaimed,
dead – lost, unclaimed possibilities.
I love all poetry,
love these wonderful poets,
all wonderful wordsmiths reimagining
poetry, poets reimagining themselves.
So what do you think of the ‘Lewis Carroll’ square poem? Like many of the forms I previously introduced on this blog, I think it is obviously more suited for the fanciful than the serious. It is also a bit tricky to write, but its puzzle-like aspect maybe its greatest appeal. Creating a successful one feels like pulling off a feat of verbal legerdemain.
If you do try your hand at writing one (and I hope you do), bear in mind each word will be repeated in the poem with the exception of the first word in the first line, the second word in the second line, the third word in the third line, and so on. My advice to make sure your square poem will read the same both across and down is to compose it in a grid. For example, if you are writing a 4×4, sketch a square and divide it into 16 equal smaller squares, and pencil in your first four words across the top row, and then repeat them down the first column. Just keep plugging words into the appropriate squares, and checking that it seems to make some kind of sense and it reads both ways. If it doesn’t, just try new words. I must confess I had a terrible time when I started writing my first L. C. square poem until I stumbled upon this technique, and I hope it will work for you too.