Scrabble Poem by Mathematician Mike Keith

Jane McGonigal, in her fascinating book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Books), makes explicit what game players know implicitly: it is the obstacles in a game that make it interesting. The more obstacles, the bigger the challenge, the greater the excitement (one reason there will never be a Candy Land tournament.) Think of the obstacles as restrictions: in Scrabble we’re restricted to seven tiles. We’re also restricted by the word our opponent has played, etc.

Poetry, especially poetry written in traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, also works under a set of restrictions, specifically rhyme scheme and stanza length. For example, sonnets have fourteen lines, villanelles have five tercets followed by a quatrain, etc.  I was surfing the web for Scrabble poems and came upon Mike Keith’s wonderful poem. It’s kind of a double-restriction poem. Keith restricts himself to iambic pentameter and an ABA rhyme scheme. More interestingly, he restricts himself to using one set of Scrabble tiles for each stanza of the poem.

Keith is a mathematician but also, I think, a very good poet. Check out his website:  The poem below reminds me of something Pulitzer Prize winning poet John Ashbery might have written (, if Ashbery wrote in iambic pentameter using an ABA rhyme scheme.


Here’s the poem in normal text with punctuation.  You can see that it’s written in tercets. The three-line stanza isn’t evident in the Scrabble tile poem above because the page would be too wide—tiles take up more space than type!

Through sentient, gauzy flame I view life’s dread,
quixotic, partial joke. We’re vapour-born,
by logic and emotion seen as dead.

Plain cording weds great luxury ornate,
while moon-beams rise to die in Jove’s quick day;
I navigate the puzzle-board of fate.

Wait! Squeeze one hundred labels into jibes,
grip clay and ink to form your topic – rage;
await the vexing mandate of our lives.

I rush on, firm, to raid my aged tools,
but yet I touch an eerie, vain, blank piece,
as oxide grown among life’s quartz-paved jewels.

Once zealous Bartlebooth, a timid knave,
portrayed grief’s calm upon a jigsaw round;
yet now he lies, fixed quiet in his grave.

Just so we daily beam our pain-vexed soul
with fiery craze to aim large, broken core
and quest in vain to find the gaping hole.

Below you’ll find the poet’s notes about the poem:

Who is “Bartlebooth”, you might ask? Ah, this strikes at the very core of the poem. Bartlebooth is the jigsaw-puzzling main character of Georges Perec’s massive constrained novel “La Vie mode d’emploi” (“Life A User’s Manual”). Perec’s novel consists of 100 chapters with one blank (missing), modeled after a Paris apartment building with 100 rooms. The theme of missing things constantly reappears (e.g., Bartlebooth dies as the puzzle he is working on has a single piece-shaped hole.)

Scrabble® has 100 tiles with two blanks, an almost exact replica of the structure of Perec’s novel. Hence the desire to allude to “La Vie” in stanzas 4 (“blank piece”), 5 (Bartlebooth and his puzzles), and 6 (“gaping hole”). “Puzzle-board” of stanza two is also a reference – to the 10×10 knight’s tour involved in Perec’s work.




2 thoughts on “Scrabble Poem by Mathematician Mike Keith

  1. I was finally able to get caught up on my “pleasure reading” and I must say that reading all of your blog entries provided me with much needed laughs while stuck here in the hospital. Tonight when insomnia strikes I’ll try to unscramble the word pneumonia into useful scrabble plays

    • Well, man pun come to mind. Thanks for the nice comment, Melissa. You must be exhausted. I hope you can get some sleep and that your beautiful daughter gets well very soon. Keep us posted.

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