The notorious anagram competition

I’m an obsessive entrant of competitions, and have been since my twenties. The two kingpin weekly comps are in New Statesman and The Spectator, both of which I first entered in 1978, and both of which I have entered every consecutive week, not one break, for 31 years, a disturbing statistic. But what the hell, I like challenges (the particular challenge was when I went on holiday in Crete in 1985, before the internet and email. I was saved by a tourist office fax). I expect there is a posh word for competitive obsession, with Latin derivations, but I don’t know what it is.

The Spectator competition (results published this morning) set a couple of weeks ago by its incumbent judge, Lucy Vickery, caused a bit of a stir, since it appeared to ask for a poem of 16 lines, entitled ‘The Name’, each line of which was the anagram of a poet. It turned out that – as announced the next week – that Lucy V. had meant each line should include an anagram of a poet. But by that time, I’d sent two entries (I sent a third under the revised rules). To say it did my head in is an understatement. I thought I might die during its composition. Because the thing is, you see, I hate doing anagrams. Ironically, I used to enter Spectator competitions under anagrams of my name, changing them every year for over a decade, so I have in my time been Will Bellenger, Ellen Brigwell, Nell. L. Wregible, Belle R. Welling, Llewellin Berg, Gill Breenllew, and some others I have temporarily mislaid in my posterior lobe (or wherever). ‘Will Bellenger’ has a claim to fame, in that it was coined by Julian Barnes, when he was the competition-setter at New Statesman – bizarrely, another intrepid competitor, Gerard Benson (best known as the joint begetter of Poems On The Underground) pointed out to me that there is an extant poem in the third volume of The Penguin Book of Comic and Curious Verse which is about a party in which there is a line, ‘You’ve heard about the Bellengers and Will.’

One of the no-longer-seen competitors, Ernie Cox (‘V. Ernest Cox’) once helped me with my anagram misery by pointing out that you could use a Scrabble board (I’d been doing them on paper – incidentally, I hope I’m not giving the impression that there are anagram competitions every week). But this competition, the competition from hell, as originally framed, was way beyond a Scrabble board. A few moments thought, and I realised that you needed a poet’s full name to get some decent words. So, for instance, Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc looked promising.

There are four tricks to doing a competition like this. The first is to keep the title of the poem, i.e. ‘The Name’, in your head, because otherwise, you’ll get distracted by the anagrams, and to look for poets whose names might yield some link to it, discarding the others a.s.a.p. The second is to go for a rhyming structure like abab, and put that in place before you backfill the lines. The third is probably to make the first and last verses work first, because they are the ones which will stand out to the reader. And the the final trick is to get some repetition and assonance or even internal rhyme into the poem, which is going to sound a bit weird, however hard you try, although I have to say that Frank Mcdonald’s winning entry is amazingly clear. The second version  of the competition allowed you to try to do something extra: hence, the grizzled veteran, John Whitworth, made his poem an acrostic as well.

I did win. I was up early to see (the online version of the Spectator pops up on a Thursday morning, early). You can see my bizarre argument between me and a nameless other about whether I am best known as Bill or Will here. But now I have two unpublished anagram poems called ‘The Name’! So… I will add them in here. Knowing that I couldn’t win twice (one can dream), I used the same line in each (first by the original rules, then by the second set) – since my smug delight at finding that ‘Andrew Motion’ is an anagram of ”I’m not now read’ was almost unbearable. The ‘answers’ are underneath each poem.


The Name


The name is a lost stereo          

of fury and clan –

ferret-clever, pink-red élite, pro 

hot dramas. A silly man?


A woman, her jet all red?

Names tell why I reel, in  

awe, drawn, fertile-words-led.

Gentler craft! I wheel in                      


names, drink holy grape,          

to cry poet-god-thinker’s very name!

Proud, I halt; shape

his lorded jaw; end: ‘fame’                 


Be rum, tell it, say, wail

‘I’m not now read.’

Hear: a name eludes time; don’t spoil, rap, rail –

Ergo – On sir, oneself! – as I said.

Thomas Stearns Eliot, Carol Ann Duffy, Peter Frederick Neville Porter, Dylan Marlais Thomas, Walter John De la Mare, William Ernest Henley, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore, Ruth Sophia Padel, John Edward Masefield,William Butler Yeats, Andrew Motion,Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine, Siegfried Loraine Sassoon.

Here’s the other one (in which I was actively looking for poets with the letters n,a,m and e):  


The Name

Your name is? None. I’m idly sick,

And so, anon., rot sped;

Afflicted by verse-borer tic,                 

Nameless, I’m not now read.


Unnamed, the telephones let up:

Time’s thief won’t rob. Greet birds.

With no names, curl or snuggle up:

And fuck old care for words.


Those readers liking ruddy rap

Can keep their gruesome rot.

Name-rid, I’ll chat, or take a nap;

Type tripe? Truth is, I’ll not.


No hunting an adorable pun:

Nor the old lie, cash in fame.

A name is like a dud lung, son:

Always cry, ‘Hold it – a name!’


Emily Dickinson, Don Paterson, Robert Service, Andrew Motion, Penelope Shuttle, Robert Bridges, Carol Rumens, Fleur Adcock, Rudyard Kipling, Sturge Moore, Adrian Mitchell, Ruth Pitter, Pablo Neruda, Felicia Hemans, Douglas Dunn, Michael Draycott

Apologies to Fleur Adcock! I would just like to add that ‘Philip Arthur Larkin’ had parents with no consideration for anagrammatists.


One Response to The notorious anagram competition

  1. John Whitworth says:

    Grizzled? Grizzled! Jesus, I shall have to invest in Grecian whateveritis. That Andrew Motion anagram gave me such pure joy I had to thank you from the bottom of my grizzled heart.

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