What’s Hidden Within

The former Amer­ic­an Poet Laur­eate Billy Collins once played a trick on me. I inter­viewed him for a BBC Radio 4 books pro­gramme about his lumin­ous poetry col­lec­tion Tak­ing Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. But one of the poems, ‘Paradelle for Susan’, seemed to occupy the embar­rass­ing ter­rit­ory that sits between the exper­i­ment­al and the dis­astrous:

Paradelle for Susan’

 I remem­ber the quick, nervous bird of your love.

I remem­ber the quick, nervous bird of your love.

Always perched on the thin­nest, highest branch.

Always perched on the thin­nest, highest branch.

Thin­nest love, remem­ber the quick branch.

Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.


It is time for me to cross the moun­tain.

It is time for me to cross the moun­tain.

And find anoth­er shore to darken with my pain.

And find anoth­er shore to darken with my pain.

Anoth­er pain for me to darken the moun­tain.

And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.


The weath­er warm, the hand­writ­ing famil­i­ar.

The weath­er warm, the hand­writ­ing famil­i­ar.

Your let­ter flies from my hand into the waters below.

Your let­ter flies from my hand into the waters below.

The famil­i­ar waters below my warm hand.

Into hand­writ­ing your weath­er flies you let­ter the from the.


I always cross the highest let­ter, the thin­nest bird.

Below the water of my warm famil­i­ar pain,

Anoth­er hand to remem­ber your hand­writ­ing.

The weath­er perched for me on the shore.

Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.

Darken the moun­tain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

What kind of poem ends with the words ‘to to’, for good­ness sake? Billy explained that the ‘paradelle is one of the more demand­ing French fixed forms, first appear­ing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the elev­enth cen­tury. It is a poem of four six-line stan­zas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stan­zas, must be identic­al. The fifth and sixth lines, which tra­di­tion­ally resolve these stan­zas, must use all the words from the pre­ced­ing lines and only those words. Sim­il­arly, the final stanza must use every word from all the pre­ced­ing stan­zas and only those words.’

So it wasn’t bad poetry, it was fixed form. I was entranced, hav­ing nev­er encountered this elev­enth-cen­tury form before, and launched a poetry com­pet­i­tion, ask­ing for the finest paradelles that listen­ers could cre­ate. They sent in their best efforts, some more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers, and a win­ner was chosen. It was only much later that Billy admit­ted that he’d made the whole thing up. He’d inven­ted the paradelle. But the odd thing is that the paradelle now has a cult fol­low­ing, with poets all over the world chal­len­ging them­selves to cre­ate verse fol­low­ing rules that were inven­ted by an Amer­ic­an poet hav­ing a laugh. So when I gave a lec­ture recently about the role that num­bers, topo­logy and math­em­at­ics play in the cre­ation of lit­er­at­ure, Billy Collins’ par­od­ied paradelle had to make an appear­ance. I admire his cre­ativ­ity and his chutzpah, even if it made me look slightly daft.

My themes for the lec­ture were demand­ing ones — and I also planned to ask every­one to write a fixed form poem as part of the exper­i­ence — so I cal­cu­lated that bis­cuits would help. The rules were that every­one would have to write either a son­net, a vil­lan­elle, an acrostic poem, a paradelle, a piece of chain verse or a ron­deau redoublé. And their instruc­tions would be found inside a for­tune cook­ie of their choos­ing. I wrote a list, feel­ing sorry for the poor per­son who got saddled with the paradelle.

List of fortunes

You may think that writ­ing lit­er­ary for­tunes, and bury­ing them inside bis­cuits, is way too com­plic­ated for a lec­ture about poet­ic form. But it enter­tained me to do it, and per­haps stu­dents who’re fed bis­cuits con­tain­ing Mis­sion Impossible instruc­tions may just remem­ber the rules gov­ern­ing a vil­lan­elle for a little longer than stu­dents for whom the cup­board is bare.

Cut up slips for fortune cookies

And quite aside from all that, I love the idea of a hid­den clue, a bur­ied instruc­tion, like the best kind of hand-writ­ten diary that con­tains shreds of secret inform­a­tion only avail­able to some, or per­haps to no-one but the writer. The Private Life of the Diary, by Sally Bay­ley, being pub­lished next year, will cel­eb­rate exactly that instinct. It’s what’s hid­den with­in that usu­ally counts, and a diary can often be the place to find it. As Billy Collins so wisely put it: “I think ‘find­ing your voice’ is a false concept. It leads you to believe that it’s out there some­where, like it’s behind the sofa cush­ions. I think your voice is always inside of you, and you find it by releas­ing things into your work that you have inside.”

Single fortune cookie strip

In the mak­ing of my for­tune cook­ies, some cook­ies were harmed. But so much the bet­ter — I got to eat the duds as I went along. As did my daugh­ter, who wasn’t in any way sup­port­ive of my plan to teach poet­ic form via bis­cuits. She said she’d far rather none of the bis­cuits left the premises, so she could eat them all her­self.


Ingredi­ents — makes about 40 bis­cuits

  • 3 egg whites
  • 150g caster sug­ar
  • 100g melted but­ter, cooled
  • 1 tea­spoon vanilla extract
  • 150g flour
  • 3 table­spoons water

Pre­heat the oven to 190 degrees C, or 170 degrees C fan. Pre­pare your for­tune slips in advance and roll them up into tight bundles.

Fortune cookie message

Whisk the egg whites and sug­ar in an elec­tric mix­er on high speed for a couple of minutes. Slow the mix­er down and add the fol­low­ing ingredi­ents, one at a time: but­ter, vanilla, flour, water.

The next part can be a high-octane pro­duc­tion line, or a long, slow relaxed kind of busi­ness; it all depends on your mood and your pro­cliv­it­ies. I like the high-speed kind of approach, but take your pick. Take two large bak­ing tins and line them with bak­ing parch­ment. Take a scant dessert spoon of mix­ture, slop it onto one corner of the bak­ing parch­ment and, with the back of the spoon, swirl it into a cir­cu­lar shape around 8cm in dia­met­er. I got around six circles onto a large tin. Pre­pare two tins, but put just one in the oven. Set the timer for six minutes — I use the clock on my ‘phone. They should be golden on top, but with a def­in­ite car­a­mel tinge around the edges. Whip the tin out of the oven, stick the second one in to start cook­ing, reset the timer and start fold­ing your first batch. You will have to work at quite a lick, oth­er­wise you’ll find your­self work­ing with bis­cuits that are as hard as roof tiles. With a spat­ula, slide the first bis­cuit off the paper, stick a bundled-up for­tune inside, fold the bis­cuit in half, and then in half again. They’ll turn rigid inside five seconds flat, so be quick. Repeat the pro­cess with the next one and, with any luck, you’ll fold up six and slop anoth­er six dol­lops of mix­ture onto the tin, before the second batch is ready to remove from the oven. The quant­it­ies in the recipe should allow you to make around forty bis­cuits. But the thing to remem­ber is that some bis­cuits will shat­ter before you have time to fold them up — the only rem­edy is to devour them.


* Billy Collins, Tak­ing Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Lon­don: Pic­ador, 2000)








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15 thoughts on “What’s Hidden Within

  1. All I can say is that for­tune cook­ies are easi­er to make than paradelles are to write — and quick­er too.

    • Thanks so much Jakey — you’re a much appre­ci­ated and very loy­al read­er. I’m delighted you enjoyed the latest post.

  2. As beau­ti­ful and joy giv­ing as always, I will def­in­itely be attempt­ing to make those for­tune cook­ies!

  3. It’s def­in­itely true Charlie that the best way to make a les­son or lec­ture more inter­est­ing is to add your own inter­est­ing and fun touch, and these for­tune cook­ies are a bril­liant idea! If only I’d had you as a lec­turer at uni­ver­sity, I would have learnt so much more!!

    • Lovely of you to say to. I’m not sure there’s been a con­trolled tri­al, but it makes sense to me.

    • Thank you Mary — you’re extremely kind. And yes, the son­nets and vil­lan­elles etc. were very impress­ive.

  4. I love that story and that the paradelle has become a form that people try to write. It wasn’t be any chance April Fools Day, was it? Going down along­side spa­ghetti trees and such like in journ­al­ist­ic his­tory? These for­tune cook­ies sound a fant­ast­ic idea for a kids party, if only I could be patient enough to make them.

  5. Pingback: Cioppino - fisherman's stew | Eggs On The Roof

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