59 Across: Gandhi Punched Him

Dean Olsher, whom you may know from public radio, has written a book: From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords. The book’s publication coincides with my own burgeoning interest in crosswords. (I ignored them for forty years; now I’m mildly addicted.) So I’ve been muddling through The New York Times puzzles and zipping through those printed in The Berkshire Eagle (an example of which an Olsher informant calls “this dopey Eagle puzzle, which a chimpanzee could do with its eyes closed”). And I’ve been thinking, as I sometimes do, about connections between the arts — in this instance, between puzzle-making and poetry.

But before that, a bit of history. The first puzzle appeared in 1913 as part of the New York World‘s Fun supplement; Nabokov constructed the first Russian-language crossword puzzles during his 1920s exile in Berlin. Simon & Schuster’s first title, published in 1924, was The Cross Word Puzzle Book. Today, Olsher estimates, 64 million Americans occasionally solve crossword puzzles, including such figures as Bill Clinton, Ed Asner, Jon Stewart, Jack Kevorkian, Lou Piniella, Bill Griffith, and Joan Rivers. Puzzle constructors — like poets — don’t make a lot of money. The Times pays $200 for a standard daily puzzle.

Olsher himself is ranked in the top ten of the D division of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He calls crossword puzzles the “universal symbol for Stay Away from Me” and casts doubt on the notion that puzzle-solving may help to prevent Alzheimer’s. But he also waxes lyrical about the subject, saying that we solve puzzles to become, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, “unstuck in time.” He has a particular enthusiasm for cryptic crosswords, which involve an extra level of wordplay and which Olsher connects to this marvelous passage by Lewis Carroll:

“I’m a poor man, your Majesty,” the Hatter began in a trembling voice, “and I hadn’t but just begun my tea — not above a week or so — and what with the bread-and-butter getting so thin — and the twinkling of the tea — ”

“The twinkling of what?” said the King.

“It began with the tea,” the Hatter replied.

“Of course twinkling begins with a T!” said the King sharply.

Cryptic crosswords were first introduced to Americans in 1943 in the pages of The Nation. (An especially elegant cryptic clue: HIJKLMNO. Click here for the answer.) In the forward to a puzzle collection he created for New York magazine, Stephen Sondheim writes:

To call the composer of a crossword an author may seem to be dignifying a gnat, but the clues in a “cryptic” crossword have many of the characteristics of a literary manner: cleverness, humor, even a pseudo-aphoristic grace. In the best puzzles, styles of clue-writing are distinctive, revealing special pockets of interest and small mannerisms, as in any prose style.

And even better (a few lines down):

Railway coaches, undergrounds, lunch counters and offices in England hum with the self-satisfied chuckles of solvers who suddenly get the point of a clue after having stared at it for several baffled minutes. Bafflement, not information, is the keystone of a cryptic puzzle. A good clue can give you all the pleasure of being duped that a mystery story can. It has surface innocence, surprise, the revelation of a concealed meaning, and the catharsis of solution.

Sondheim’s theory of puzzles tracks nicely with Freud‘s theory of jokes. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud writes of “bewilderment and illumination” — that state of being pleasantly perplexed until the light bulb switches on. As with jokes and crosswords, so with poetry. In his essay “Bottom’s Dream: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes,” Howard Nemerov notes that poetry and jokes both find “fault in this world’s smooth facade,” and they do so with an “economy of materials,” a “sudden reversal of the relations of the elements,” and “an apparent absurdity [which], introduced into the context of the former sense, makes a new and deeper sense.” It all sounds a bit like the best crossword clues.

In Carroll’s masterwork, Alice asks that we not waste time making up riddles that have no answers. Max Beerbohm published a crossword in a 1940 issue of The Times of London that had no answer — “an itch,” writes Olsher, “that could never be scratched.” (Michael Gerber and Jonathan Schwartz riff wittily on the possibility here.) In Weldon Kees‘s “Crime Club,” the sleuth Le Roux winds up “incurably insane,”

And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

Which is all to say: be careful.

But not too careful, as the urge to construct and solve puzzles, to write and read poems, can improve our lives immeasurably. As Olsher writes, “The New York Times crossword is one of the more difficult puzzles in American newspapers. It is also the most joyful. Those two things go together.” That equation of rigor and joy can be found (at least as subtext) in Ezra Pound‘s second “Warning” in ABC of Reading: “Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man.” In the same work, Pound writes, “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient.” Again, the crossword connection leaps out.

Olsher’s associative leaps, at times, give pause. He compares the death of his radio show The Next Big Thing to the death of a child. He connects a weirdly large number of things to sex. (“We want to get inside things — crosswords, music, lovers.”) He can be guilty of over-sharing. (“I looked around the table and realized I was surrounded by America’s crossword royalty — Shortz, Hinman, Sanders, as well as former champion Ellen Ripstein — and I felt my testicles retract.”) But head-scratchers like these make up part of the book’s odd charm. And digressions, after all, are promised in the subtitle.

Olsher will be reading this Thursday, July 16, at 7 p.m. at one of my favorite places on earth, The Bookstore in Lenox. Stop by, if you can. And a final heads-up: Merriam-Webster recently added about 100 new words to its Collegiate Dictionary. Look for “locavore,” “frenemy,” and “webisode” in future puzzles.