Image by Giuseppe Milo

‘Everywhere, at any hour of the day, people can be seen quite shamelessly poring over checker-board diagrams, cudgelling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler’…in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and in homes, and even – although as yet rarely – with hymnals for camouflage, in church.’

— 1924 editorial in The Tamworth Herald, published in the UK at the height of 1920s ‘crossword panic’

To a greater degree than any other literature, poetry is famous for going unread. Poems – and the poets who write them – can seem elite, demandingly obscure, too hard. In his essay ‘The Obscurity of the Poet,’ Randall Jarrell writes that ‘the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry’. This was not always the case: once, poetry was a public art, and poems public texts. But, Jarrell writes, somewhere along the way things changed, as, with ‘scientific zeal’, poets ‘carried all possible tendencies to their limits’. He imagines a scene, set somewhere between the romanticism of the nineteenth century and the modernism of the twentieth, in which ‘the poet and public stared at each other with righteous indignation, till the poet said, “Since you won’t read me, I’ll make sure you can’t!”’

The problem seems to be that readers have forgotten that difficulty is required for a poem to do its work; forgotten, perhaps wilfully, that difficulty is fun. In addition to its ever-declining presence in classrooms, the myth of poetry’s difficulty is often compounded by the rumour that it is and must be serious, solemn, a bearer of grave truth. But this, surely, is an error, for what is a poem if not a game? Of course, unlike a game, a poem lacks a singular motivating objective – there is no victory in poetry. But it demands the same attitude as sport, riddle, puzzle.

Of all word-games and riddles, it is the cryptic crossword to which the poem bears a special resemblance. Though there is no necessary historical relationship between the poem and the crossword, the forms are alike in at least two important ways: both are made from language, and both require the reader to intuit and associate their way to a solution. The difference is that difficulty, in the case of the crossword, is not only expected but is a prerequisite for enjoyment: the fun lies precisely in the challenge of not knowing.

A cryptic clue presents the reader with a short phrase that, although it obeys English syntax, resists comprehension; or, if it does seem comprehensible, withholds its meaning. The structure of the clue is used to further conceal its solution. A recent example, in the Guardian, reads: ‘Make light of sad performance (8)’. In order to find its true meaning, the reader must consider each word individually, looking for wordplay and possible linguistic echoes. The eight-letter answer, in this case, is ‘downplay’. The words ‘sad’ and ‘performance’ indicate the individual components of the correct word (‘down’ and ‘play’), while the phrase ‘make light of’ supplies the definition. The trick is that the narrative of the sentence – somebody making fun of a bad performance of Macbeth, perhaps? – disguises these elements. The reader is therefore required to examine the individual words, asking not ‘What does it mean?’ but rather ‘What can it mean?’

In addition to the reader’s own net of associations, most cryptic crosswords are built on a common set of mechanics. The cryptic crossword shares with the poem an attention to language at its most basic unit. As such, one of the principal tasks of the reader is that of reduction: ‘a French’ may be used to indicate the letters ‘un’, just as the phrase ‘a German’ may suggest the letters ‘ein’. Many clues also assume a referential knowledge of specialised vocabularies: ‘iron’ may be substituted for the letters ‘fe’; the words ‘love’ and ‘duck’ often signify the letter ‘o’ (as in a score of 0 in tennis and cricket, respectively). Some ciphers also betray the marks of their British origin: ‘Queen’ often implies the letters ‘er’ (as in ‘Elizabeth Regina’), just as ‘princess’ may imply the letters ‘di’ (as in, of course, ‘Princess Di’).

Prosody – the poetic mechanisms of meter and stress – and the mechanics of a crossword bear a mutual obligation: to tell the reader what to do. Cryptics and poems both depend on pattern-making, and ask to be read for their patterns. Similarly, both forms are liable to produce similar feelings of resentment because they evade immediate understanding. A cryptic clue is tedious because it appears comprehensible but isn’t. This same frustrating illegibility is encountered in all poetry; this is true, to a greater or lesser degree, of every poet from Sappho to John Ashbery. But the beauty and the fun of a poem – like that of a crossword – lie in the decryption of its secret rules.

The cryptic crossword flirts with nonsense, confusion and unmeaning; it traffics in riddles, anagrams, containers (words hidden between or within other words), homophones (usually indicated with a phrase such as ‘sounds like’ or ‘they said’) and spoonerisms (in which the first letters of two or more words are swapped, as in ‘puck dond’ for ‘duck pond’). Cryptopoetics – what else to call this? – rests on incompleteness, and rewards a readerly willingness to fill in the blanks. One peculiarly literal example is Liz Waldner’s poem ‘The Sad Verso of the Sunny ____’, whose title is itself a cryptic crossword clue. In Waldner’s case, the poem is explicitly cryptic, but it only makes plain the relationship between present language and absent meaning at work in every poem. The poem says: I don’t have the answer. It’s up to you.

To work through this, however, one has to be prepared to be unsure. A diagnosis of our contemporary dissatisfaction with poetry might be that we suffer an obsession with correctness. The anxiety of not getting it haunts our reading of poetry. As British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, ‘the wish to understand or be understood…might be a hiding place, might be a retreat or refuge.’ ‘What do you say about a poem,’ Phillips asks, ‘if the project is not to understand, if the intention is not to get it?’ To recognise confusion without fleeing from it is an act of intellectual courage. What possibilities of understanding become available if we permit ourselves uncertainty?

A disciplined crossword-puzzler is known as a cruciverbalist (perhaps even a crypto-cruciverbalist?). Despite its dubious pseudo-Latinate construction, the term is appealing for its suggestion of a language that has been crucified, brawled with, waylaid upon or otherwise wronged. The serious cruciverbalists I know solve clues in a mad looping scrawl across scrap paper – napkins, envelopes, receipts, newspapers, other crosswords – and in this they resemble Emily Dickinson, who was known to compose her poems on the backs of envelopes. As one of Dickinson’s so-called ‘gorgeous nothings’ reads, in a line that predates by about thirty-five years the emergence of the crossword in America but would nonetheless seem to describe its cryptic delivery of meaning: ‘One note from/One bird/Is better than/A million words’.