YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Take My Word!

Where's Sense of Some Long-Worded Efforts?

January 29, 1986|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

The most recent installment here dealt with a palindrome created many years ago by Alastair Reid, a very fine poet, essayist and journalist. I haven't seen Alastair since 1957 at the very latest, but my niece Elizabeth May, who is now a 31-year-old lawyer in Ottawa, told me of the time when she was in sixth grade and her teacher introduced the class to palindromes.

She had known Alastair quite well from the time when she'd learned to talk, so she had committed his palindrome to memory and recited it to her teacher and classmates: "T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad; I'd assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet." It doesn't make great poetry, but the letters do run in the same order backward and forward.

I'm glad to say that I got a large response to that palindrome, which I maintained--mistakenly, it seems--was of world-class championship length.

Marc Russell of Los Angeles and Fred Alvaro of Hacienda Heights sent identical palindromes--longer than the "T. Eliot, top bard" one. Russell says it makes perfect grammatical sense, and it does, indeed, if you're willing to stay with it to the bitter end: "Dennis, Nell, Edna, Leon, Nedra, Anita, Rolf, Nora, Alice, Carol, Leo, Jane, Reed, Dena, Dale, Basil, Rae, Penny, Lana, Dave, Denny, Lena, Ida, Bernadette, Ben, Ray, Lila, Nina, Jo, Ira, Mara, Sara, Mario, Jan, Ina, Lily, Arne, Bette, Dan, Reba, Diane, Lynn, Ed, Eva, Dana, Lynne, Pearl, Isabel, Ada, Ned, Dee, Rena, Joel, Lora, Cecil, Aaron, Flora, Tina, Arden, Noel and Ellen sinned."

It seems obvious that whoever created that one must have noticed that Dennis sinned is a palindrome and started from that realization to build his creation. It's still a very clever bit of work.

Russell ended his letter by telling me that his favorite palindrome is "Sit on a potato pan, Otis," which is brand new to me. During the first 30 or so years of my life, Otis was inseparably linked with elevators. Then along came Otis, the delightful drunk on the old Andy Griffith show, and, of course, there were prominent Otises connected with this paper. Beyond them, I am unfamiliar with Otises, and I have no idea what a potato pan is; so "Sit on a potato pan, Otis" is unlikely to come in handy as a phrase. Still, it has a certain ineffable charm.

Minas Savvas, with a palindromic surname, wrote from San Diego State's department of English and comparative literature. He says that as far as he knows, he's the only collector of palindromes in America. As far as I know, he is, too. But years of mail in response to my writings have shown me that whenever I speculate that anything or anyone is "the only . . . " I learn very quickly how wrong I am. Savvas tells me that Willard Espy, in "Another Almanac of Words at Play," cites a French palindrome of 5,000 letters.

Espy, as you know if you've read any of his books, has a quite extraordinary mind and a dazzling way with words. I opened my "Another Almanac" and was reminded that he, too, had mentioned the "T. Eliot, top bard. . . ." Of the French palindrome, he says, "I count . . . around 5,000 letters--the sense diminishes and finally dies quite away." Not surprising.

Savvas says, "I've even heard of a palindromic novel by an Australian." I suppose anything's possible. Many years ago, I knew a girl in Greenwich Village who proudly displayed the back of her left hand, which she had scarred a couple of years earlier by extinguishing a cigarette on it just to show that she wasn't chicken. On a scale of one to 10, I gave her 10 for guts and minus three for brains. I think writing a palindromic novel is comparable. If such a novel exists, its plot and character development must rank several degrees below those in the long short story involving Dennis and his companions. I suspect that "the sense diminishes and finally dies quite away" fairly early on.

Some things simply are not worth the effort.

Los Angeles Times Articles