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)



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

    1. 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!!

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

    1. 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.

    1. I won’t deny that they need a little patience – but once you’re in the rhythm….

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