Acrostical Enigma

On September 23, 2007, Tril Asked:

Maybe I'm weird, but it turns out AE's are my favorite puzzle type, ever. They even beat out themed cryptics, which were what originally attracted me to the NPL. I savor the 1-3 of them in each issue and wish there were more. So I'd like to put my money where my mouth is and submit some.

And…I'm stumped. Any advice on how people go about creating these gems? How do you fit into so many constraints and still end up with a coherent poem? (I'm thinking of July 56 in particular. I mean, that is just *genius*.)

Tril (new member, heretofore blending quietly into the woodwork)

The Guide to the Enigma

Satyr Eyes

What a great question! I'd like to ask that replies be sent to the list, because I'd like to hear this too. I'm another AE lover; I especially love how they contain no cue words, meaning that they can be an example of pure poetry in addition to a flat. I've written a few, and a couple have even been published, but those weren't especially good AEs.

I still remember the advice I got from the Krewe the first time I asked for advice on how to solve AEs: “Start at the beginning!” I think the same goes for writing AEs – at least, once you've decided what the solution will be. I picked “role-playing” as the base for my first AE. (It was also the first flat I ever got published, putting me in what I suspect is a small class of composers who started with an AE.) With no real idea in mind for what I wanted the verse to be about, I looked at how I could split up the base into parts. I could start the first stanza's answer word with “RO” or “ROL.” For some reason, the word that suggested itself to me was “roach,” which ends with ACH. Aha! This flat will be about Acheron. Now I needed to clue “roach.” I imagined that being in Acheron, the Greek underworld, would be fairly unpleasant; hence,

A. Acheron, the underworld, would bug you were you there.

That takes care of the RO of “role-playing.” Next, LE, or perhaps LEP, which I prefer because it spans the hyphen in the base. LEP suggests “leprosy;” how hard can that be to clue in a flat about the underworld?

B. Rosy skies are quite unknown where flesh falls off in gobs.

And so on and so on. Mind you, very often in writing an AE I've had to abandon what I thought the solution word for a line was going to be and try another one. Don't force it! I cringe when I reread the flats I forced into shape, including parts of the Acheron flat. The best flats – aesthetically, anyway – are unforced and feel like real poetry.

I'll leave you with this fairly forced AE, which I'm nonetheless proud of because it's the closest I've ever come to a “found AE.”

ACROSTICAL ENIGMA (6) (11C but somewhat obscure; B = + = not 11C)

A. Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
  Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

B. Remember me to one who is there;
  She once was a true love of mine.

(Romantic love, now stripped and lain bare,
  Its scale reduced to nothing in rhyme.)

Satyr Eyes


Hello, all -

I am new and like the AE as well, especially from a compositional standpoint since you can really “grind” at it. My experience is similar to Satyr Eyes' - the final product often bears little resemblance to the initial plan, and I also find that the AEs take me much longer to compose than do normal flats. For me, there are clearly three steps in the process (here is an example):


A.    Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cream, Selena,
    Cheap Trick, Turner (Ike and Tina).
B.    Anthrax, Beatles, Fatboy Slim,
    Prince, Nirvana, Tiny Tim.
C.    Velvet Underground, Heart, Ramones,
    MC Hammer, Rolling Stones.
D.    Dexy's Midnight Runners, Sting,
    Pointer Sisters, Carole King.

Soft Cell, Prince, Big Country, Bread,
Twisted Sister, Grateful Dead.

(1) The initial concept (e.g., “I like those list-y AEs that Newrow writes. Maybe I'll write one about rock music - it's cool and has lots of weird names”). This is usually rapid.

(2) The moment of love. I throw around clue possibilities that I like until I hit one or two that I particularly like (C in this case).

(3) The convergence to a final product. This is by far the dominant component of the process in terms of time and effort. I had C at position A for a long time, then tried some other things, and then hit on the current A to work for the eventual answer, which broke the words at a clue break but otherwise had good letters and allowed the thing to come together. Note that in the case of the list style, there is the fourth step of filling in the unused spaces in the verse with appropriate members of the list. My wife wanted me to get “Modern English” in there, preferably before “Prince,” “Queen,” or “King Crimson,” to give something like “English King,” maybe with TUdor or TUDor as the answer, but it never quite worked.

I am not sure that my way is the best way to compose an AE since it tends to produce an unbalanced product, with some clues much better than others. On the other hand, you have to start painting a room somewhere, and when you can't see the whole room in advance, sometimes you end up in a corner. I have a couple of great clues lying around that I just can't seem to fit into anything worth while.

I am not sure that I entirely agree with the “begin at the beginning” philosophy. I would probably say that once you have a plan, hit the hardest parts first (if you were going to make the answer TOMB RAIDER, you would be restricting yourself severely if you started with a first clue that gave TO - “A baneful Moroccan habit'll exhaust your African capital” - now what?). For the ROLE PLAYING example, I would probably have started with the YING at the end. ING is not too bad (INGot, INGrate,…), which means that you would probably need LAY or AY for the previous clue.

Finally, I encourage you to find a composing partner. I have found a couple of combiflattists whom I like (for non-AE flats). They are more experienced and better poets, and my composing has improved tremendously from the interaction with them. It's fun and helps a lot with the creative process.

I have, in my usual style, run on too long. Best to all.

Scarab / VB



I agree with you that AE's are among my favorite flat types (maybe tied for the lead with letter banks). I generally am a base provider for combiflats rather than a full flat constructor, since I have a terrible time with mete. But the one flat I ever composed by myself was an AE! I consider this a relatively easy flat type to compose–and easier to solve than some, e.g., rebi. You mention constraints, but consider this:

Any word or phrase whatsoever can be the base of an AE. You are under no constraint regarding the relationship of multiple words.

There is ample space within AE verses to include a (possibly oblique) synonym for the partwords and the solution word.

Many of the resulting poems are rather loosely coherent, but seem to get published anyway. There has been a recent trend to compose AE verses consisting only of lists.



compose/ae.txt · Last modified: 2007/09/23 15:13 by kite
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