Cross Examining Words: The Similarities of Poetry and Crosswords with David Ben-Merre

By Leslie Peterson

David Ben-Merre, “The Poetics of the Crossword.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 64.2 (2022): 115-143.

Office block windows

Your essay connects crossword puzzles and poetry. For those who haven’t yet read it, could you briefly summarize your findings?

Yes, the essay is a basic attempt to connect crosswords and poetry.  There have been one or two things written about poetry but not as much about that other cultural institution—crosswords. The first hurdle is arguing that we can study the crossword in a serious manner, like we do poetry, that the crossword can tell us something about historical and socio-cultural relationships.  There are so many different ways to approach the topic.  For my part, I consider similarities between crossword and poetic forms and between their experiential processes, like construction and the readers’/solvers’ attempts to make sense of each.  I’m also very interested in how crosswords and (many) poems grapple with the arbitrariness of language—how it, as an unseen agent, pushes us to consider paths of experience and expression we might not have considered on our own.  We might have a sense of where we want to go, but don’t readily know how we’ll get there.  Reference to our world is crucial, of course.  But the similar formal constraints of interlocking networks (say of rhyme/rhythm or crossing words or “tradition”) often push language beyond initial intentions and reveal new patterns and possibilities.  For example, the “meat” of the essay brings together the poet (James) Merrill with the crossword constructor (Patrick) Merrell—an unintentional accident of language giving rise to a new path forward.

Man doing a crossword by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

What about your findings excites you most, whether through scholarly implications or personal interest? 

I’m tempted to say, two loves I have of comfort and despair… but I think you’ve hit on it with the word “excitement.”  Not all projects have been as much fun to put together, and it feels like there might be something worthwhile underneath.  It wouldn’t be fair to say that most people approach poetry with a crossword sensibility, but it’s important not to forget that the real emotions and experiences behind poems are constructed through language.  There’s a moment in one of Merrill’s early poems “Mirror” (a dramatic monologue featuring a speaker that’s an aging mirror), where this mirror (its own “agency” dependent on what it can reflect in the world around it) says: “This much, you see, would never have been fitted / Together, but for me.”  This, for me, is the paradoxically liberating sense of linguistic imprisonment.  Patterns in language allow us to get out of our own heads.

A courtesan sees herself reflected in the mirror as a skeleton, by Yoshitoshi, 1870s.

Can you remember when the light bulb went off? That is, what was the first similarity you noticed, and how did that evolve into your further discoveries?

It’s these “aha” moments of language almost speaking for itself.  Take your idiomatic phrase “when the light bulb went off,” for instance.  It means the opposite of what it means.  When the light bulb goes off literally, it goes off.  But, idiomatically speaking, it is when that cartoon bulb in the clouds above my head turns on.  It’s a quirk of language—a wonderful quirk—one that both poets and crossword enthusiasts often share a love of.

Glowing light bulbs.

You mention leisure time as one reason for crosswords’ growth in popularity. Two years into a pandemic, we have seen similar trends with such online word games as Wordle and the NYT crossword app. Do you sense any poetic connection within these word-related trends, even if they’re just something people do to pass the time?

Let me answer this by breaking the question in half.  Thankfully, we’re not at the stage where we need a “defence of crosswordsy”… yet.  I imagine one of the reasons there hasn’t been a flood of academic work on crossword puzzles is that they’re deemed not serious, just something people do to pass the time.  But isn’t that what life is… figuring out how to meaningfully pass the time?  And oughtn’t we look at that?  There’s also the sense that such a “leisure” activity exists wholly in a space of privilege, that it is an avoidance of social responsibility.  But it needn’t be.  Toward the end of the essay, I take up (albeit all-too briefly) the ideological guises of cultural dissemination in which crosswords play a part.  It’s important to be aware of the politics behind the knowledge that a crossword expects of an audience.

In terms of media experiences, the touch-screen phone crossword leads to very different interactive experiences than the print copy.  It’s not something immediately on my radar, but it might be worth looking into.  As to Wordle—it’s fascinating to rethink five-letter words as a marketplace of sorts for individual letters.  I don’t know the crossword app (I’m of the age that thinks “apps” are the mozzarella sticks I can no longer consume), but I imagine it would have some of the same puzzles that are in the print editions, such as cryptograms or anagrams or acrostics, which all make us see word and letter patterns in very different ways.  Another recent favorite treat has been Nancy Coughlin’s short fill-in-the-blank anagrammatic verse, which, like rhyme, indulges its own forced metaphor.  How can we bring “cellar,” “caller,” and “recall” together in four perfectly pentameter-ed rhyming lines?  Well, let’s see where language wants to take us.

People using smartphones, by Rawpixel Ltd.

Your essay touches on the art of creating poetry–how it’s messy at times but ultimately contributes to an end product. Do you feel the formalities or rigidness of crosswords take away from their ability to be “messy” and free-flowing?

We tend to celebrate the freedom of “poetic license” quite well, especially in pedagogical contexts, even if, in our own romantic ways, we pretend the process isn’t messy.  I think some of the best crosswords can give the appearance of messiness in that, like poetry, they break the expectations of the form.  That said, depending on the publication editor, there are often a lot of rules constructors are expected to follow (or have a good reason for not doing so).  Expectations might include particular types of symmetry or minimum word length or maximum number of black squares.  It’s important to think of the audience here, giving up its time too.  But there does end up being a lot of freedom, even given the constraints.  Some of the best sonnets in the English language bemoan the sonnet form.

Writing on blackboard, by Alegri/

Your essay suggests that certain crosswords display a beauty that isn’t overwhelmed by linguistic cleverness. Where do you think poetry can be similar or different in this regard?

Many of Merrill’s early readers and contemporary poets acknowledged his exquisite poetic skill and intricate linguistic play but accused him of missing what they saw as the whole point of the poetic enterprise—the humanistic project of capturing authentic experience.  This is a mistaken reading of Merrill (I would argue), notwithstanding the work one needs to do to see it.  At the heart of whatever language games he’s playing or forms he’s working with, there’s always a sense of why it all matters, and this, despite formal properties, includes many social justice issues too.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the cleverness of a crossword (be it in a witty theme or a cunning clue)—much more so than in a poem.  For both enterprises, it’s important to remember that these aren’t just Scrabble™ letters we’re playing with.

Scrabble by thebarrowboy/ Flickr.

Were you to teach a course on crossword poetics, which elements of them would you call out for further discussion?

This is a wonderful idea, and I will be sure to cite this publication when trying to make the case to the dean!  Honestly, this would be such a wonderful interdisciplinary venture, which could link diverse historical and cultural knowledge to artistic arrangements to computer algorithms to communication theories.  More serious discussions might focus on how cultural knowledge systems are tied to historical and social politics.  Why, for example (in most states still), can “bra” or “gay pride parade” now be “acceptable” answers?  What does that tell us about past prejudices and a changing socio-cultural landscape?

Crossword by Craig Sunter

Crosswords often use puns or heavy wordplay, which in some contexts might seem decidedly subliterary. Does this aspect necessarily discourage serious academic attention?

“Object Lessons”—one of Merrill’s book reviews on Francis Ponge—tells us a lot about Merrill’s poetics.  Here, he describes the pun:

A pity about that lowest form of humor. It is suffered, by and large, with groans of aversion, as though one had done an unseemly thing in adult society, like slipping a hand up the hostess’s dress. Indeed, the punster has touched, and knows it if only for being so promptly shamed, upon a secret, fecund place in language herself. The pun’s objet trouvé aspect cheapens it further—why? A Freudian slip is taken seriously: it betrays its maker’s hidden wish. The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter) ‘merely’ betrays the hidden wish of words.

The simile is dated (and incongruous, given Merrill), but does seem to describe the unseemly sense of the congruous pun.  Supposedly, linguistic accidents can’t be important or meaningful, because everything must go back to the human agent.  After all, that’s where feelings reside.  Hence, crosswords are often deemed sub-literary as in not serious enough and thus not worthy of study.  What is worthy of study?  Philology and Dr. Johnson.  (I forget the other one.)  But there’s also a more serious (less elitist) sense of this all, and this goes back to your earlier question.  The problem is not that crosswords fail to deal with important things like life and death and love and being itself, but that they aren’t socially engaged enough.  This is, after all, a leisure activity for those with leisure time, an escape from the difficulties of a world that we need always to be more engaged with.  One thing that Merrill and puns and crosswords and an arbitrary linguistic code teach us is that it needn’t be either/or.

Giant Crossword and Word Search Puzzles by the ASU Department of English

What, in your opinion, makes the perfect crossword?

Maybe a fun theme or unexpected rule bending.  Something open (not too many black squares) with longer answers.  The fill wouldn’t be too tedious.  The answers would be clued in an unexpected way.  Sometimes, an answer will be filled in (because of the crossing squares) before the hidden pun of the clue is revealed.  Here was one from Robyn Weintraub’s puzzle the other day (NYT 06/03/2022): “Buildings with many wings.”  Museums? Annexes?  Mansions?  It was “bird houses.”  (Groan if you need to, but hopefully something turned a little bit.)

For people who frequent crosswords but perhaps don’t often read poetry, what would you recommend as a starting point? 

George Herbert and Emily Dickinson.  Helen Wilcox’s edition of Herbert is magnificent and shows us all of the wordplay and formal play behind his deeper theological questioning. Cristanne Miller has a wonderful new edition of Dickinson.  Just make sure to unlearn everything you learned about Dickinson in middle school.  The playfulness of Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens (and Eleanor Cook’s books about his works) are also very suited to the crossword mind.  If you have ten minutes or ten years to spare, pick up any paragraph from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

2015 art for Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake [in its Whole Wholume]. Inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Similarly: crossword recommendations for poetry lovers?

This one is tougher.  People like (and dislike) poetry in so many different ways.  I think the other half of my essay was trying to articulate (as so many before have done) that so much is to be gained by understanding the play of language and sounds in a poem—even in a serious one that wishes our experiences with the world weren’t mediated as such.

Do you feel crosswords will continue to resonate with people through changing circumstances such as the death of newspapers and fast-paced online environments?

My Magic 8 Ball says: “reply hazy, try again.”

Do you have anything on the horizon or other pieces we should look out for?

This essay was a bit of a one-off… but everything always seems to relate.  I’m currently completing two books.  The first is on poetic apostrophe and the graphic letter O.  A quirky chapter from this project was published in The Wallace Stevens Journal as “Xs and Os: Chiasmus, Apostrophe, and the Lyric Subject in Stevens.”  The second project is on typos and misreadings, which can be dangerous in this “post-truth” world, but are often very enlightening when taken seriously in literary contexts.  A chapter from this project (published in Arizona Quarterly) discusses actual student typos in essays on E. A. Poe’s “Purloined Letter.”  I think at the heart of both of these and previous projects is the sense that literary spaces are far, far more interesting than the stories we’ve limited ourselves to tell about them.