Growing up, one of my favorite book series was A Series of Unfortunate Events. Each of the thirteen novels chronicled the misfortunate lives of three orphaned siblings trying to survive being hunted by a mysterious villain, a spy attempting to steal their enormous fortune. I became quickly obsessed with this series not only because of the sarcastic, dark humor present in the writing and its portrayal of a strong, independent young girl, but because of the author’s inclusion of secret codes and messages hidden throughout its novels and ephemera.
Like many novelists, poets often infuse their work with a set intention or meaning; this may be blatant or obvious from the onset, or the writer may use literary tools to purposefully conceal it. Some may attempt to hide other messages within their poems to build upon the text’s inherent meaning.
Steganography, or the act of concealing messages inside images, text, or a physical object, has long been in use by writers, artists, and cryptographers alike. Steganographic art tries not to attract attention to itself so that its message can only be found by those who know what they are looking for.
The Practice of Steganography in Poetry
One way that poets can hide a message inside their verses is through acrostic poetry. This means that either the first letter or first word of every line spells out a word, name, or message. A famous example is "An Acrostic” by Edgar Allen Poe:1
Elizabeth it is in vain you say "Love not" — thou sayest it in so sweet a way: In vain those words from thee or L.E.L. Zantippe's talents had enforced so well: Ah! if that language from thy heart arise, Breath it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes. Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried To cure his love — was cured of all beside — His follie — pride — and passion — for he died.
Poe’s title makes his acrostic obvious, and is less of an example of pure steganography. If you don’t tell your reader there is an acrostic, the more likely your message will remain hidden, save for the lucky few who notice the pattern you’ve created.
Acrostics have often been a ‘dangerous’ tool. One poet received a lifelong ban from publishing in Poetry Magazine for an acrostic that name-dropped another poet and called him an “ass”. Top Gear’s James May was once fired from a publication for using an acrostic to spell out the message: “So you think it's really good? Yeah, you should try making the bloody thing up. It's a real pain in the arse."2 I suppose the real message here is maybe don’t use the word “ass” in your acrostic if you’re attempting to publish it. Or do, and let me know how it goes.
There are other variations of an acrostic that a poet can utilize to conceal a word or phrase. A telestitch is when the last letter or word of each line forms a message, and can be used alongside an acrostic to form a double-acrostic. A mesostic poem hides each letter of a message within the middle of a line, arranging the text so the word can be read vertically. Here’s an example within this poem, “KITCHEN”3:
let us maKe of thIs modesT plaCe a room Holding tons of lovE (&, Naturally, much good food, too)
So for this week’s fresh poem, I decided to take a line that I wrote a couple weeks ago and hide it within a new poem. I won’t tell you which technique I used, but I hope you enjoy finding it.
Some nights I’m lying beside you
hear the vessel of my body. listen to the veins to the tenor of the throat— are we under the influence of oxygen? the pulse of lips, song in the shape of your lungs, all the nerves of our hearts in a chorus, your harmony alive in my hands
Write your own
What sort of message would you want to conceal? Maybe you want to share a secret with a friend, or profess your love for someone within a letter. Using an acrostic, telestitch, or a mesostic, I’m challenging you to hide a message this week within your poetry.
Choose your word or hidden message. Write it out on the page vertically so you can see how many lines you will need to write around the letterforms.
Choose your form - do you want to create a typical acrostic, where the first letter or word spells out your message? Do you want to write out each word, or only use each beginning or ending letter? If you’re writing a mesostic, do you want to capitalize each letter or leave them lowercase, only giving certain readers the “instructions” for how to decipher it?
For an additional challenge, write a double-acrostic where both the first letters of each line and the last letters of each line form a message. Or, you can choose a certain spot in each line — maybe the third letter, or the sixth letter — and have your reader search your text or poem and circle the letters to read your message.
Like always, please feel free to share your poetry with me. That is, if you’re okay with me deciphering your hidden message…
Better late than never — normally these newsletters come much earlier in the week, but it’s not unusual for me to lose track of time. I hope my words are finding you well, wherever you are.
This weekend, I did manage to enjoy the warmer weather and get outside. Of course, “warm” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean “without snow”. I’ll leave you with a couple photos from our latest hike to Benham Falls in the Deschutes National Forest: