Most anagrammaticians satisfy their urge with the rearranged name of a celebrity (Marshall McLuhan = Malls launch harm) or perhaps, if more adventurous, a familiar aphorism (The Medium is the Message = The Media is the Muse’s Gem). The true devotees of the clan turn to games like Scrabble and Humbug. Gregory Betts’ If Language takes this one-time parlour game to its evolutionary extreme, constructing 56 paragraph-long perfect anagrams of an original seed-text. Each poem is exactly 525 letters; the same letters that echo throughout the book in radically different forms. These poems test the endless possibilities of the constraint. They tell the mystical history of anagrams, from its use by early scientists to escape Christian zealots to Rosicrucian symbology to Greek mythology to Kabbalism. They explore how individualities happen in words and limited vocabularies. If Language asks the question: what are the limits of individuality within a closed system? Betts uses his own experiences, relationships and uncertainties to explore this question with humour, with intellect, and with a manic obsession capable of turning a simple game into this wildly original exploration.
If Language was a short-listed finalist for Rhode Island’s Fitzpatrick O’Dinn Award for constraint-based writing in 2004.