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Samuel Peralta here…

About a month ago, my article for Form for All, “Poetry as Semaphore“, posed the challenge of using Twitter – with verses containing at most 140 characters – in poetry.

In that piece, I included a verse as follows:

A Saint-Saëns concerto, La Muse et le Poète.
Over the mother-of-pearl inlay on the cello,
your fingers decipher the sphinx’ second riddle.

Great Sphinx at Giza

Great Sphinx at Giza

The Sphinx – if you didn’t know it – was a legendary creature, one with the body of a lion and the head of a human being.

The image of the Sphinx has been immortalized on the expanse of the Egyptian landscape – its lion body fashioned in stone,  its human head adorned as a pharaoh.

In Greek tradition, there was only one Sphinx, a merciless entity with the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and a woman’s face.

Greek Sphinx

Greek Sphinx

According to tradition, she was the daughter of monsters – some say of Echidna and Typhon, or Orthus and Echidna.

Whatever her ancestry, the Sphinx of ancient Greece sat on a rocky ledge near the city of Thebes.

There, she posed – to all who sought passage – what is perhaps the most famous riddle in history:

What is that which in the morning goes upon four feet
upon two feet in the afternoon,
and in the evening upon three?

Those unable to answer she tore apart and devoured.

Most passersby chose to make their way around this merciless obstacle.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

The riddle was solved by Oedipus, who answered: Man—who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks on two feet as an adult, and then must use a cane in old age.

Upon hearing the correct answer, the Sphinx is said to have cried out in despair, and dashed herself upon the rocks below.

Apart from the use of riddles in classical texts, riddles have a strong foundation in Old English poetry.

The tradition is based on an Anglo-Latin literary tradition whose principal exponent was Aldhelm, the Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, Bishop of Sherborne, and a Latin poet and scholar.

One of his most celebrated works was Enigmata, a collection of 100 metrical riddles, included in his Epistola ad Acircium as a treatise on poetic meter.

Aldhelm was inspired by the Latin poet Symphosius, who in the 4th or 5th century collected his works in the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles written in tercets of hexameters.



Riddles thus can trace an imposing literary ancestry, although contemporary puzzles now known by the name of “riddle” obscures this fact.

In another set of Twitter poems I composed, Riddles with Fruits, I attempted to revive the the tradition of the riddle, and bring it into a more contemporary literary framework.

For example:

Riddles with Fruits – 1

Naranjita, I strip away your
navel-blush veneer of zest and peel;
your pithy heart falls apart,
yields to me a citrus kiss.

The answer to this riddle, also a possible title: Orange.



Often a riddle poem can be written by thinking of an object (the title), composing the poem as describing the object, and then dropping the title.

You can think of the riddle technique as an unnamed or hidden metaphor – the answer to the riddle being, of course, the metaphor.

Of course, the craft is in balancing the poem so that the answer is not too obvious but not too difficult either.

The reader needs both the intrigue of having to think through the poem, and the aha! moment of discovery and realization.

The poetic riddle, as I have it, is a subtle transformation of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative – the encapsulation in a symbol or object of a particular emotional response or state of being.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

See if you can find the answer – the hidden metaphor – to this one:

Riddles with Fruits – 2

Sunday afternoon’s best savoured
like a ripened fruit, halved, scored,
turned inside-out into an exquisite,
aromatic sun. 

Which brings us to the Sphinx’ second riddle.

Some ancient accounts report that – had you been able to answer the Sphinx’ first riddle correctly – you would have been given a second riddle:

There are two sisters:
One gives birth to the other,
And the other, in turn, gives birth to the first

The answer, which would presumably lead to the ultimate triumph of the traveler: Night and day.  

This brings us to the third, and greatest, riddle of the Sphinx:

If Oedipus answered the first riddle correctly, and the Sphinx then took her own life, how did the Ancients know what the second riddle was?

Statues of Night and Day at Chicago Union Station

Statues of Night and Day at Chicago Union Station


Tonight, I am inviting you to write your own poetic riddles.

We’re looking for a short verse – of any structural type, but as brief as a non-literary puzzler (think of “St. Ives”, as a maximum – or keep to 140 characters if you like a challenge), which poses a riddle to be guessed.

The object, the title of the verse, is the answer to the riddle.

Or leave out the object, if you want your reader to guess the answer (as I did).

Post the whole poem on your blog and and link to it here, so that others can come and visit your poetry journal. 

And by the way, the answer to Riddles with Fruits – 2, above, is: Mango.

Samuel Peralta – on Twitter as @Semaphore – is the award-winning author of five titles in The Semaphore CollectionSonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, Tango Desolado and War and Ablution – all Amazon Kindle top five best sellers in poetry. The Semaphore | Art & Craft newsletter shares useful observations on writing, giveaways, and book news.

Copyright (c) Samuel Peralta. All rights reserved.

Images public domain / via WikiMedia Commons or as attributed.