(Notes for a speech delivered by Gary Heidt on the occasion of the publication of Infinity’s Kitchen #6.)
Thank you for coming out in this terrible weather. This is truly a meeting of titans and I am honored to be among such enlightened people.
In the essay “The Wordsquare” which you will find in Infinity’s Kitchen #6, I talk about a form of poetry that I thought I invented but which turned out to have been a popular craze in post-Civil War America. Correspondence groups and newspaper puzzle pages helped enthusiasts share these gemlike poems, which they called “forms” with full knowledge of the Platonic overtones. The most popular of these forms was what I called a wordsquare, a sort of grid of letters which could be read across or down.
Show Example 1. (Tea will be a theme tonight.)
T E A
E A T
A T E
In the essay I talk about the history of this form, the form. Rather than move into the literary mainstream, it passed into the cryptanalitic subculture, and was of great interest to folks who pioneered computer science and cryptanalysis from institutions like Air Force Intelligence, Bell Labs and the NSA.
I note in passing that the interest in forms also led to a craze in the nineteen-teens that’s still with us: the crossword puzzle.
Tonight I thought that rather than read the essay, which you can read in print if you like, I thought I might show you some wordsquares from the word-mines.
I don’t think it’s proper to say that word-squares, or forms, are written; I think they are discovered, or mined. They are linguistic objects that exist whether or not we find them; they are implicit in the written language.
One of my oldest friends, John Cerkan, mined the poems I will be reading tonight with the help of a computer; at first he wrote his own program but ended up stealing the code of Doug McIlvoy, who was the head of the team that developed Unix. Anyone know what Unix is? Created by formists.
Anyhow, let’s look at some square forms, or wordsquares as Cerkan and I called them. We’ll start with the smallest and go up to eight-letter squares.
All one letter words are automatically wordsquares.
Here’s a two-letter wordsquare:
Show Example 2.
Does anyone know Greek? This one is better in Greek.
I already showed you a three-letter wordsquare, so let’s skip to four-letter wordsquares.
All the squares we’ve looked at so far have been symmetrical. They read the same across or down. The formists called an asymmetrical square a “double,” because you could potentially have twice as many words with the same number of letters. I like doubles a lot. They are rarer, and they offer twice the poetry in the same space.
To read these doubles I would like to bring up the legendary but probably real word-wizard Kirk Bromley to the stage. Give him a hand, ladies and gentlemen.
I’ll read across and he’ll read down. We’ll do the first one twice. I want to read the words simultaneously the first time and then stagger them the second time, and you can vote as to which way you like better and we’ll do it that way the rest of the time.
W O R D
I D E A
F O A M
E R R S
Which way did you like better? (Take vote)
OK, here we’ll put two four-letter forms next to each other, so that it makes a poem of four two-word lines going across and eight one-word lines going down.
Show Example 4.
I D E A I D E A
D E A L N E A R
E A S E T E S T
A R T S O R E S
So you can take these and combine them into bigger patterns, which is fun too.
Now let’s move on to some five letter squares.
Show Example 5.
L U N A R
A N I S E
S I G H T
E T H E R
R E T R Y
This is a sweet five letter square. It makes me think of some kind of follow-up to the Michelson Morley experiment which failed to find the lumiferous ether.
Show Example 6.
Now if you’re familiar with Genesis, it’s part of a popular religious anthology called The Bible, this next five-square sounds like the humorous aftermath of Genesis 6:4, “There were giants in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them.”
Molal, by the way, means having as a quantity one mole.
H U M A N
E L O P E
A T L A S
T R A C T
S A L E S
Show Example 7.
Now, extending the concept of arranging forms in groups, Kirk and I will do a little fantasia on the word “canon.” That’s canon with one “n,” meaning originally “law, rule or decree of the Church,” but which is also a musical form in which the different parts are in strict imitation of each other, but at a different time or pitch, and which finally most familiarly means a group of books that are accepted as the fundamental literature of a religion or a civilization.
I’ll arrange these four five-squares in a square. They can be arranged many different ways because each one can be flipped.
C A N O N C A N A L
A B O V E A L I C E
R O S E S N I C H E
A V E R T O C H R E
T E S T S N E E D Y
C A B I N C A N O N
A L O N E O Z O N E
N I N E S N U R S E
O V E R T A R M E D
N E S T S N E S T S
Thanks, Kirk, for helping out with that.
It is harder to find asymmetrical squares the larger you get, and we’re going to do a few big symmetrical ones now. Thanks. Everyone give a hand to the great Kirk Bromley. He is doing really important work in verse, you should all remember his name.
Here’s a six-square, I’ll just read across, you’ll see it reads the same down.
Show Example 8.
A B A C U S
B E G O N E
A G E N D A
C O N D O M
U N D O N E
S E A M E N
That one’s kind of racy.
The next one is even worse, I can imagine it being the headline for a story about a daughter who says her molester father is hung like a horse:
I N C E S T
N E L L I E
C L A I M S
E L I C I T
S I M I L E
T E S T E S
Okay, enough of those dirty sixes. Let’s get on to some deep sevens.
To understand the next one, you have to know that an Arimasp is a kind of one-eyed Scythian. The Scythians were nomads from the steppes of Eurasia who later settled down to become Goths. Their descendents are all over Europe and North America. There were a lot of different kinds of Scythians. The Arimaspeans were legendary in a different sense from the way I say that Kirk Bromley is legendary. Herodotus, a historian from the fifth century B.C. wasn’t sure they really existed. He wrote, “The story goes that the one-eyed Arimaspians steal the gold from the griffins who guard it; personally, however, I refuse to believe in one-eyed men who in other respects are like the rest of men.” He didn’t have a problem with the gold-hoarding griffins.
An “Isamine” is a blue pigment. “Tisanes” are infusions, like teas. “Yapness” means hunger.
R E A L I T Y
E U R A S I A
A R I M A S P
L A M P M A N
I S A M I N E
T I S A N E S
Y A P N E S S
For the next one, we continue the infusion theme, but here’s it’s the lack of tea that is at issue. Also keep in mind that netsuke is a small decorative object that is also useful; and igneous is an adjective that means formed in fire. An infanta is the daughter of an Iberian king.
W R I T I N G
R E N E G E R
I N F A N T A
T E A L E S S
I G N E O U S
N E T S U K E
G R A S S E S
Now we’ll finish with two eight-squares. You may notice that we’re getting some more obscure words thrown in here. It seems like the science of chemistry has contributed a lot of long words to our language. Any chemists in the audience? Ah, the great Joe Machado, who writes poems about chemistry. Truly a meeting of titans tonight.
Joe already knows these words, but perhaps the rest of you will want to know that “avenalin” is a protein found in oats, “accretal” is a kind of buildup, and “katalyst” of course is a chemical which helps a reaction occur. Not from chemistry, but from the French comes “etatisme,” a word for the control of the state over the citizen I suspect this is a recipe for a tea that will set us free, as well as being a lovely poem.
T E A M A K E R
E X C A V A T E
A C C R E T A L
M A R I N A T E
A V E N A L I N
K A T A L Y S T
E T A T I S M E
R E L E N T E D
Finally, in honor of our current scandal, here’s one that starts with “wiretaps,” perhaps an archaic term but I feel it still resonates.
Some other words which may be unfamiliar to some of us: “aciliates” are beings without cilia– that is, little hairs– and a “timeling” is a time-server in computerese, but we can take it to mean a being who exists in time. “Sledgers” are people who ride on sleds.
Finally, a really obscure one, but maybe it shouldn’t be. “Rolamite” is a frictionless ball-bearing patented by the Sandia National Laboratories. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics were apparently reading the same press releases in 1966 when both called it the only basic machine invented in the 20th century.
For those of you who are not familiar with Sandia National Laboratories, it is an extremely interesting institution; its primary mission is to develop, engineer and test the non-nuclear parts of nuclear weapons systems. Anybody watch Breaking Bad? Walter White was employed at Sandia when he met Skyler. I’m hoping there’s more about that in the final season. Anyhow, a lot of interesting top secret research goes on at Sandia. One might wonder how some of its major fields of research relate to its primary mission; they include computational biology, alternative energy, psychology, cognitive science, and micromechanical systems– that is, very tiny machines. Sandia also hosts some of the world’s most advanced supercomputers, like the Cray-built ASCI Red Storm, known as “Thor’s Hammer.” In light of the sledgers in the final line, I want to mention that SLEDS is the acronym for Sandia Laboratories Engineering Drawing System.
W I R E T A P S
I R O N I C A L
R O L A M I T E
E N A M E L E D
T I M E L I N G
A C I L I A T E
P A T E N T O R
S L E D G E R S
In order to shed just a little more light on the meaning of this poem, (this should clear it right up) I want to quote from a scientific paper published in 1980, written by Henry Monteith PhD, a brilliant African-American physicist who was employed by Sandia at that time. Monteith’s paper is titled “The Unified Field Theory and the UFO” and it discusses a six-dimensional hyperspace as conceptualized by physicist Burkhard Heim. In a section summarizing some of the basic effects caused by gravitationally driven spacecraft, we find this interesting digression:
“A more practical method of communication, superior to gravitational waves, is communication through the X5 and X6 dimensions. In other words, the space people use mind communication. Such communication is not limited by space and time; consequently, such communication can be carried out over the farthest reaches of the cosmos.”
If a researcher at top secret Sandia Laboratories can casually say, “the space people use mind communication,” perhaps we can leave our mind open to the idea that humans are not the most intelligent beings that exist in the universe. Maybe we’re not even the most intelligent beings here on Earth. The idea that we are the smartest beings in the universe is seductive but can be stultifying.
But the idea that someone is watching us, maybe even wiretapping our brains, can be scary. But it doesn’t have to be. Maybe we’d be surprised how familiar we are with some superhuman intelligences already. Perhaps our language itself has an intelligence, and we access this intelligence and participate in it when we speak and write.
That is all.