Q.What's witty, sharp and tricky?;Books

4th June 1999 at 01:00
A.This book of riddles

THE NEW EXETER BOOK OF RIDDLES. Edited by Lawrence Sail. Enitharmon pound;7.95.

In Roberto Benigni's recent Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful, the exuberant hero wins the friendship of a Nazi doctor by solving riddles with him. And when Gollum meets Tolkien's hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, they compete in riddles.

There is something about a riddle - its trickery, its duplicitousness, its winning charm and its wisdom - that is essentially human.

In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope described mankind itself as "the glory, jest and riddle of the world".

One of the oldest forms of literature is still being used in a film in 1999 as a credible image of how two different people might connect, and that is what riddles are best at: they connect things that are not really the same. And that is what gives them the status of poetry.

This book seems set to revive an Anglo-Saxon delight in riddling and bring a childlike delight in the mysteries of language on to the adult anthologies shelf.

A hundred of Britain's best poets have each contributed a riddle. The arrangement is democratic, so that Kit Wright, Michael Rosen and Michael Longley appear alongside less well known names as surprise answers to the riddle of whose riddle is whose.

Philip Gross's riddle for DNA is a perfect example of the alchemy that makes one thing mean another, leaving both of them changed forever by the contact: "Two spiral stairs we climb to bed together Each step creaks a different who-goes-there."

Sophie Hannah's riddle of a single bed in a hotel room chooses instead to bring the object into sharper focus.

These riddles are now among my favourite poems by these writers. That may not be the case for every poem in the book, but this will be a companion that I will recommend again and again.

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