Two months ago, I posted a Christmas present for this site's readership which featured a crossword poem by setter Axiom. The poem will form the centrepiece of this blog post and so, for those who'd like to read it uninterrupted before we get down to the nitty-gritty contained within, you can find it here. For those who've already read it, click read more ...
This blog post will go through the poem verse by verse and talk about the people or ideas mentioned within, as well as pointing out the clues, too. The idea behind this is to help the novice solver get to grips with some of the central ideas in cryptic crosswords and provide the more seasoned solver with a few 'I didn't know that' moments too.
So, with all that said, onwards to the first verse!
I am a cruciverbalist, I am a crossword setter,
I play with words all night and day, and ponder every letter,
I break them down and build them up and shove them in a grid,
Then write a set of clues of which the meanings are well hid.
In the verse's last line we are given an insight into a central component of cryptic crossword clues: making it hard for the solver to see what they are supposed to do to unravel a clue. New solvers should always keep in mind that things are not what they appear to be in a cryptic crossword clue. To find out more about this, it is worth visiting the following pages of my cryptic crossword solving guide to learn more:
Surface Reading & Cryptic Reading
Misdirection & Deception
When numbers can anaesthetise and flowers can be rivers,
The cruciverbal way with words can give the layman shivers,
But once they look more closely and find nothing’s contradicted,
They see beyond the obvious and soon become addicted.
If you don't, lets take the root of the word: NUMB to help us understand how it works.
As a verb, numb can mean to anaesthetise so, when we take the root of the word as NUMB and add an ER onto the end to nominalize it, we get the noun NUMBER - something that numbs. It works well as a deception because it is likely to be read with a hard B, rather than silent.
Having dealt with how numbers can anaesthetise, I'm sure you can see the same sort of deception with regard to how FLOWERS can be rivers. In this case, there is no silent letter, but a change in how the first syllable is pronounced: FLA-WUR to FLO-WER. This exposes the root word: FLOW (meaning of water to run) and again, we add the ER suffix to nominalize and create a noun for 'something which flows' to define a river.
Each clue, of course, has wordplay and some sort of definition,
A surface reading that makes sense is every setter’s mission,
I sometimes follow Azed, and at times I’m Araucarian,
I’m sometimes Ximenean and at times I’m libertahrian.
For more information about this, head to the following sections of my cryptic crossword solving guide.
Concise Vs Cryptic Crosswords
The second line touches, obliquely, on another important part of cryptics: the difference between surface reading (the reading of the clue on the page) and cryptic reading (how the clue is meant to be read to make the answer word). This can be complex to get one's head around, but reading the following section of my cryptic crossword solving guide should help you to get to grips with it.
Surface Vs Cryptic reading
Finally, the last two lines give us some of the big names in cryptic crosswords, and the style of cryptic crossword writing they created. Presently, I have only touched on the subject of crossword schools of thought, and I am going to write more in-depth pieces on it in the future so I won't go into it now as it is an extensive subject. But, if you are thirsty for more, the following pages found on the excellent Alberich Crosswords and Crossword Unclued will give you some great insight.
Sometimes a grid will be a pain, and hardly will be fillable,
I struggle to get words to work with every single syllable,
But when it’s done, now comes the fun, I have to write the clues,
So then I look again at all the words from different views.
For instance, if the surface of a clue is all about food, you can be reasonably certain the setter is trying to make you think of food exclusively and not a second meaning which is totally separate from food. For example, the word BEEF, followed by a sentence talking about food will seek to make the solver miss the meaning of beef as in GRUMBLE.
For more information on misdirection, check out the following page in my cryptic crossword solving guide.
I don’t mean what I say but I say always what I mean,
I lead my solvers down the garden path or way upstream,
I try to misdirect them but I’m scrupulously fair,
It’s really not my fault if they start tearing out their hair.
"You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean"
At the heart of this paradoxical statement are ideas about fairness and deception. The sentence tells us that yes, it is ok for the setter to deceive the solver by not meaning what they say in the surface reading of the clue, but it is far from ok for the setter to inaccurately define or clue a word beneath all that deception.
In other words, when all the misdirection is seen through, what should remain is an accurate definition of the answer word and accurate wordplay to get the solver to the answer word when read in the right way.
The second line again compounds the deception and misdirection at the heart of crossword clues, whilst the third leads back to Afrit's injunction in the first line by telling us misdirection is important, but not at the sacrifice of fairness.
With anagrams I grapple, turning ochres into chores,
Or make up a trash poem just by mixing metaphors,
A compound or reverse one is the bane of every setter,
To be quite frank, my dear, the less that’s said of them the better.
This verse deals with three types of anagram - here we're only going to focus on the standard anagram (I will add sections on reverse and compound anagrams to my solving guide at a later date) which can be seen in the first two lines.
In line one, we are introduced to the idea of how anagrams work: OCHRES and CHORES are made up of the same letters, but in different order, and so one may be turned into another. It is the word 'turning' which gives a sense of movement.
The second line reiterates this by telling us we can 'make up' the words TRASH POEM by mixing (disturbing the letters of) METAPHORS. Also note here how a crossword setter will try to build a well know collocation of words into wordplay - in this case 'mixing metaphors'. By doing this, it is not only pleasing for the reader, but makes wordplay that much harder to spot.
You can read more about how anagrams work in the following section of my cryptic crossword solving guide:
Anagrams & Anagram Indicators
Charades are fairly simple, I just take the word apart,
And then define each bit anew - and therein lies the art,
I make a sentence with these bits that makes some sort of sense,
So Germany might get shut in to designate defence.
The fundamental nature of charades is to put a sentence together in which there is a definition word (usually a synonym of the word you'll write in the grid), and then follow or precede it with words which the solver has to find synonyms or abbreviations for. When the synonyms, parts of words, and abbreviations are put together they will make up the answer word.
In the case of the clue found in the above verse:
Germany might get shut in to designate defence
Here, 'Germany' has the abbreviation DE, 'might get' is a link to the next part of the clue, 'shut in' is a synonym of FENCE, 'to designate' is a definition link, and 'defence' is the word we are looking for.
So DE getting FENCE designates DEFENCE.
Of course, a little poetic licence is used here, but the idea is clear as crystal. Charades, like the parlour game of the same name, use separate parts of words to build the answer word which is then confirmed by the definition.
With hidden words the answer’s showing right there in the clue,
Another one may hide a bird – not great but it’ll do!
I can of course reverse these hidden words for change’s sake,
Just like the ham (with a question mark) found in carrot cake.
anotHER ONe may hide a bird
Here, 'another one' is the hidden fodder in which the answer word hides. 'May hide' acts as a hidden indicator to tell the solver what clue type it is and 'bird' is the definition for HERON.
The third and fourth lines show what's know as a HIDDEN REVERSE clue. This clue type is same as a hidden, but with the letters running backwards and indicated as such.
ham (with a question mark) found in carROT CAke
Here Axiom uses a little poetic licence (the question mark) to show the word is to be viewed sideways and we can see ACTOR for HAM reversed in the fodder.
For more information about hidden clues, head to the section in my cryptic crossword solving guide:
Subtractive clues are easy, though I have to say which parts
I’m intent on getting rid of, be they heads or tails or hearts,
Containers are not difficult, I just have to make it plain
That something when in something else means something else again.
As the verse tells us, there are many different types of subtraction clues depending on which part of the word is to be got rid of. For more information on subtractions and containers, please view the following sections of my cryptic crossword solving guide:
Central and End Letter Subtractions
First and Last Letter Subtractions
Odd, Even & Alternates
Containers, surrounds & Insertions
Abbreviations can be key, like adult’s A and boy is B,
And strangely party points to C, and vitamin will do for D,
And drug is E and loud is F and R’s the end of tether,
But while I can have time for T, I can’t go L for leather.
The 'almost' bottom line here is, any abbreviation found in two of the major dictionaries may be used. However, there are some XWD standard abbreviations which are used (B for Boy as the verse shows) but, for the greater part, abbreviations will be limited and after solving for a while you will easily pick them all up.
For more information on abbreviations visit the following section of my cryptic crossword solving guide:
Some rules must always be obeyed, and grammar must equate,
There’s differing opinions that I must accommodate,
To indicate the letter M, say, some say Maidenhead,
To others this ain’t fair, demanding head of maid instead.
The other side of the coin is LIBERTARIAN clueing which is more relaxed and creates its own grammar with clues - and so, for a libertarian, the third line would work as, in a Libertarian's cryptic grammar, head can mean the head of a word without having to have a joining 'of'.
Again, I will be writing about this sort of thing in more detail future blogs, but if you want to know more now, see the links at the end of the third verse in this blog post.
Homophones are sound-alikes, they’re often overheard,
Or so it’s said, they say, we hear, by ear they’re registered,
They can be on the radio or even for the audience,
A homophonic yard I’ve heard could be two hundred and forty pence.
The second line and third lines give us a few indicators which will help the solver see a homophone of a word is required - note how they give an indication a word is to be said out loud or heard. The last verse gives us a homophone clue:
Can you spot how it works?
'Yard' is the homophone fodder for POUND , 'i've heard' is the homophone indicator, and a POUND in old money is two-hundred and forty pence. For more information on homophone clues, see the following page in my cryptic crossword solving guide:
Another type of clue to which all setters should aspire,
Is the all-in-one, or &lit, you cannot get much higher,
A bit of bare arse might provide a cheeky illustration,
But I try to avoid them as they cause so much frustration.
A bit of bare arse
'A bit of' is a hidden word indicator, and 'baRE ARse' is the fodder which contains the answer word. So the clue gives a rough definition of REAR in its surface - I say rough because some may say 'bare' is superfluous to the definition. It also gives the solver a second way to get to the answer in its wordplay as we have seen.
For more on &lit clues, visist the following section of my guide:
&lits and Semi &lits
A cryptic definition is a commonplace device,
A double definition will define a word, er, twice,
A diary on fire may be possibly a log,
And shadow boxer possibly might double def a dog.
The first is the CRYPTIC DEFINITION. In this clue type, a sentence can be read in two ways, the most obvious reading is there to misdirect you, the real definition can be seen when you view the sentence in different way. In this case, 'a diary on fire possibly' gives a play on words for a diary is a LOG and something which may be on fire is a LOG.
The second clue type is the DOUBLE DEFINITION clue. Here, there are two definitions of the same word (usually distinct in meaning to each other) and so 'shadow boxer possibly' gives us 'shadow' to define DOG (as a verb), and 'boxer possibly' to give an example of of a DOG (as a noun).
For more information on cryptic definitions and double definitions, please visit the following pages of my cryptic crossword solving guide.
When dealing with acrostics special care must be applied,
For starters and initially, they’re difficult to hide,
While pros or even mere beginners could define this verse,
I think it best that I should stop, before it gets much worse!
Pros or even beginners could define this verse
And, when we take the first letters of the words prior to the first letter indicator 'beginners' we can see the word POEM which does indeed define this excellent, informative, witty and clever verse.
For more information on first letter/acrostic clues, visit the following section of my cryptic crossword solving guide:
If you want to learn more about cryptic crosswords, I'd encourage you to read my own site's solving guide, check out the links to other crosswords sites in my link page, and start solving crosswords yourself.
So, there it is. Lots of things we can learn from crossword poetry! Of course, it is worth remembering that there is much, much more to learn and some of the clues in this poem are subject to poetic licence, but it does give brilliant insight into the nuts and bolts of clues as well as being very entertaining.
If you want to learn more about cryptic crosswords, I'd encourage you to read my site's cryptic crossword solving guide, check out the links to other crosswords sites in my link page, and start solving crosswords yourself.
Thanks for listening, thanks to Axiom for giving consent to publish his excellent poem and I hope to see you around the site soon.