The double-back nature of reverse poems plays tricks on their audience. These poems mean one thing when read from top to bottom, but the meaning or sentiment changes when you read each line from bottom to top. Reverse poems can be hard to pull off, but their effect on the reader can be powerful.
Reading Reverse Poems
Before attempting to write your own reverse poem, look at some examples to get an idea of how other writers pulled off the style. First, read the poem from top to bottom. You might notice a particular theme or mood in the poem. Next, read the poem, line by line, from the bottom line to the top line. You should notice a shift or complete opposition of the mood when you read the poem forwards. For example, Jonathan Reed’s famous reverse poem “Lost Generation” shows a depressing outlook on society when read forward; however, when read in reverse, it sends a positive message. Take a look at the end of the poem. A few ending lines read, “My generation is apathetic and lethargic / It is foolish to presume that / There is hope.” When read backward, it states, “There is hope / It is foolish to presume that / My generation is apathetic and lethargic.”
Forming a Concept
Reed’s poem shows a stark contrast between pessimistic and optimistic thinking. To create your own reverse poem, think of a concept that has opposing viewpoints or emotions. Reed’s poem is about his generation and his peers. You might choose to write about your classmates in school. You could also write about something as weighty as world politics, or even as simple as a family pet. Write your subject down in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it.
Print out a copy of a reverse poem and highlight phrases you think make the poem work read from both top to bottom and in reverse. You might notice that every other line tends to be a generic statement, such as “I tell you this.” Also take a close look at the end of lines. Many of them end with words like “that” or “and,” which forces you to look at the next line to get the whole picture of the statement. This tool is called enjambment, which means the sentence continues to the next line. Enjambment is useful in reverse poems because when the poem is read forward or backward, one line feeds into the next line. On the paper where you wrote your topic idea, write down complete phrases about that subject and circle each one. Find words like “that” or “and” and place a “/” slash mark after those words to indicate where you can create enjambed lines. Think of phrases that can show either a negative or a positive outlook about your subject.
Writing the Poem
Since the reverse poem can be a tricky form to write, use a few tricks to organize your phrases. Write each phrase on a note card or small white board. Write phrases you broke out with the slash mark on separate cards. Now, arrange the cards so that it means one thing when you flip through the cards from top to bottom; the poem should have the opposite meaning if you read the cards in the reverse order. For example, three cards could read, “People are cruel,” “It is impossible that,” and “The world will change.” In that order, the poem sounds pessimistic. In reverse, however, the three lines read: “The world will change / It is impossible that / People are cruel.”
Write your poem on a piece of paper to ensure it makes sense. Revise it if necessary. Reed, for example, had some lines in his poem that were just one word -- “family” and “work.” If it makes sense to move a word or two onto its own line, create the extra line. Re-read the poem again to see if it is clear both forward and backward.
Once you've tried writing a reverse poem, you can also attempt a palindrome poem, also called a mirror poem. It's a similar style to the reverse poem, but you use the same words in the first half of the poem as you do in the final half, but you reverse the word order.