Crab Canon Poetry

When I first came across a type of poetry called a "crab canon," I was blown away. I can't imagine writing something this tricky. 

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

Crab Canon Poem

My cousin Pam, who's a teacher, sent me a link to an amazing YouTube video, called the Lost Generation which was created for an AARP contest. What makes the poem so interesting is that it makes sense forward and backward but means opposite things. For example here are the last three lines read forward. 

My generation is apathetic and lethargic

It is foolish to presume that

There is hope.

Pretty negative, right?

But when you read it starting at the end and working toward the beginning, it means something very positive.

There is hope.

It is foolish to presume that

my generation is apathetic and lethargic.

You can find the whole poem on YouTube by searching for Lost Generation. People have told me it's based on an Argentinian political ad which you can find if you search for Lopez Murphy on YouTube.

After marveling at the poem, I started wondering what to call it. Some people suggested palindrome, but I wasn't convinced that was the correct. There is something called a line palindrome in which you read lines forward and backward, but a palindrome is supposed to read the same forward and backward, and this poem means something different when read forward and backward. 

The best name I've seen is "crab canon": The term comes part of Bach's “A Musical Offering” called canon 1 a 2, which can be played by two people with one playing the music forward and the other playing the music backward. I had trouble grasping how it would work until I found a video demonstrating how the canon could be played.

So Bach's crab canon can be played forward and back providing different melodies that complement each other. The first example I could find of writing that was called a crab canon was in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. 

In it, Hofstadter wrote a dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles that he called “Crab Canon” after Bach's music because the dialogue is presented in one order, and then repeated in reverse order. Although it doesn't have such opposite meanings forward and backward as the “Lost Generation” piece, it does make sense in both orders. 

If you want to try your hand at it, I'd love to see the results. You can leave short crab canon examples in the comments.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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