Wordplay is an embellisher. It prettifies poetry’s architecture. If rhyme and meter are its beams and joists, wordplay is the artfully chiseled balustrade, the pillowed window seat, the foliated mantel frieze, the coordinated hues adorning the interior walls. Choice of paint is a crucial decision—potentially elevating a room from the merely functional to the inviting and comely. But it won’t keep your walls and ceiling from coming down.
Still, poetry is a tricky enterprise, routinely upending generalizations that would contain or confine it. It turns out there are moments when wordplay, taking on a structural element, does hold things together. These occur mostly within light verse.
Because the modern-day limerick belongs so firmly to the comedian, especially the bawdy comedian, we’ve come to expect the delivery of a (wink, wink) double entendre at its close. This wasn’t always the case. When Edward Lear published A Book of Nonsense, in 1846, the final line of his limericks usually repeated the first. The denouement wasn’t simply unsurprising; it was wholly predictable. Lear wasn’t angling to startle or shock. Rather, he sought to leave us with tremolos of wistful eccentricity. He’d lead you to marvel at the upthrust oddness of the world:
There was a Young Lady of Norway,
Who casually sat in a doorway;
When the door squeezed her flat, she exclaimed, “What of that?”
This courageous Young Lady of Norway.
There was an Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs, and ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia.
These constructions are miles away from the modern-day “dirty limerick,” the sort one used to encounter with dependable regularity on the unwashed walls of public men’s rooms.
(To speak of men’s room graffiti is to raise a nettlesome inquiry: where on earth did they go? These days, unlike the days of my youth, you very seldom find a men’s room stall darkly scribbled with lubricious verses. I suspect the cause is—somehow—the internet. But this does raise the distressing question of whether our computers have become our toilets.)
Some of my favorite limericks are those that are meant to be doubly provoking, transgressing not merely decorum but also grammar or spelling or, in this case, pronunciation:
To his friend, Ned said, rather blue,
“My wife Edith just told me we’re through
For she says I’m too fat.”
And his friend told him that,
“You can’t have your cake and Edith too.”
But back to the sad and self-exiled Edward Lear, one of my great heroes, whose fertile imagination sprang from an overfertile mother. (He arrived at the tail end of her twentyone children.) Lear was the unquiet possessor of a shameful secret (a gay sensibility) and, to him, a yet more shameful secret (epilepsy). Some of his creations strike me as just as assured of immortality as those of his great hero, Tennyson. I feel as confident about the lastingness of Lear’s owl and pussycat as I do of Tennyson’s kraken or eagle, of Lear’s Uncle Arly as of Tennyson’s Ulysses. Yet I take little interest in Lear’s limericks. Much more is lost than gained with that final repetition.
Wordplay is perhaps best understood as one of the tools that make possible poetry’s extraordinary concision.
Repetition in comic verse works best when what’s repeated isn’t quite the thing repeated. Consider the charming, nubile Nan from Nantucket of an anonymous American limerick that first appeared in The Princeton Tiger in 1902. The poem plays wittily on a Learlike repetition. As in a Lear limerick, we begin and end with a place name, but the final Nantucket is a different locale from the first:
There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
This pawky little gem plays games with our expectations. Given the raw materials here—a limerick, a spirited young girl, and Nantucket serving as a rhyming word—we naturally assume we know the down-and-dirty precincts where it plans to venture. But the obscene rhyme fails to materialize. Light-fingered Nan remains virginally untouched. The poem might belong to some old-fashioned, run-down pantomime show, with a brilliantined emcee wagging an extended index finger at his squirming middle-aged male patrons: “Ooh, you naughty boys, what were you thinking?”
The unspoken obscene likewise animates “Verse for a Birthday Card,” by Wendy Cope:
Many happy returns and good luck.
When it comes to a present, I’m stuck.
If you weren’t far away
On your own special day,
I could give you a really nice glass of lager.
These are verses where wordplay infiltrates structure. It’s built right into the poem, so that a failure to pun, or to arrive at a particular bawdy rhyme in a particular place, feels less like a thematic and more like an operational failure.
I was prepared for Wendy Cope when she arrived in my adulthood, because in my elementary school days some literary sophisticates among my chums introduced me to Miss Susie, whose adventures can be found in nineteen variant episodes in Wikipedia. A young woman of questionable character but undeniable verve, Miss Susie got around, clearly. Wikipedia’s Michigan version, dated 1950s, differs slightly from the account I learned in Detroit a few years later, perhaps now set into type for the first time:
Miss Susie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
And when she pulled upon it
She led us all to
Give me number nine
And if you won’t connect me
I’ll kick you right in the
Behind the ’frigerator
There was a piece of glass
Miss Susie fell upon it
And hurt her little
Ask me no more questions
I’ll tell you no more lies
Miss Susie told me all this
The day before she died.
What binds together Miss Susie’s escapades isn’t, Lord knows, meter or rhyme, but wordplay in a structural sense; a naughty play on words staples each stanza to the next. A firm prosodic contract governs here, no less than if this were a sonnet or a sestina.
This is likewise true of the goofy, pun-overrun quatrains of a number of light-verse poems by Thomas Hood (1799– 1845). An idiosyncratic contract is quickly drawn up, whereby the reader is promised a pun—the more flagrant the better—in the last line of each quatrain. (Others may materialize—the more the merrier—but the contract all but guarantees a concluding pun.) Here’s the final stanza of “Faithless Sally Brown,” whose fickle heart drove a poor sailor to his end:
His death, which happened in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton tolled the bell.
And here’s another unfortunate military man, this one a soldier, once more done in by a femme fatale:
Ben Battle was a soldier bold
And used to war’s alarms
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms.
Now as they bore him off the field,
Said he, “Let others shoot;
For here I leave my second leg,
And the Forty-Second Foot.”
Though many will groan at a bad pun, the existence of wordplay—punning in the broadest sense—is unavoidable, inextinguishable. It seems to exist independent of us. Punsters often have an inkling that their creation was present from the outset, waiting for them. (Samuel Beckett: “In the beginning was the pun.”) The gestation can be lengthy. In the 1200s, in northern Italy, along the Arno, an ambitious tower was steadily erected on unsteady ground. From that moment on, it was inevitable that, many centuries later, scattered across a sprawled continent utterly unknown to the medieval artisans of Pisa, various Italian American restaurants would spring up called The Leaning Tower of Pizza. This had to be. Unbeknownst to anyone, once the tower began to lean, the creative ovens were fired.
Puns are pushy, pullulating in a fen of ambivalence. By definition, a pun says two things at once. Much legal writing, especially the writing of contracts, is devoted to stripping language of ambiguity, uncertainty. The attorney’s aim is to arrange a desired result (as defined by his client, however undesirable societally) in the face of every conceivable contingency. And of course such attempts to craft a language free of ambiguity, rendering a contract’s terms incontestable and inescapable, and hence immune to all vagaries of interpretation and intervention, are invariably doomed; even the most straightforward words, set out in the most straightforward fashion, engender mist and smoke, shadings and concealments. What perhaps most sharply separates the poet from the lawyer is an embrace of, rather than a frequent struggle against, linguistic squishiness.
Anybody who has ever taught a poetry class has encountered the exasperated student inquiring, “Why can’t poets just say what they mean?” Or: “Why all this double talk?” It’s easy to dismiss such questions as naïve, but the truth is that everyone, poets and poetry lovers included, occasionally entertains the feeling: a gathering annoyance with poetry’s indirection, its saying while not quite saying.
So you’ll sometimes behold the poet expressing through words (the only trusty tool she has) an impatience with words. You feel this powerfully in the closing lines of Bishop’s “One Art.” The poem, a villanelle, begins with a confident nonchalance:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
But the tone has shifted dramatically by the last few lines:
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The concluding injunction may be parenthetical, but it is doubly emphatic, both italicized and exclamation pointed. Say what you mean! the author is enjoining herself. Life’s losses are catastrophic, and any whitewashing of the tragedy is a cowardly evasion.
But while bewailing poetic artifice, Bishop has kept her poetic house in tidy order: The line is regularly iambic and the rhyme scheme is preserved. What’s more, even in this plainspoken moment, doublespeak may have insinuated itself with a buried pun: (Right it!).
The poem stirs the ghost of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586), who closed a sonnet with a similar self-injunction:
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”
In Sidney, too, we find a cry for simplicity housed within an elaborate construction: an exactly rhymed sonnet in iambic hexameter. Even as his Muse’s words reproach him, they respect and embrace the form’s prosodic requirements. Keep it simple, the poem says explicitly. Keep it complex, the poem says implicitly.
Why this clinging so fervently to indirection, to doublespeak, to the sort of wordplay that seems to undermine the clarity and power of every assertion? One is tempted to answer, That’s just the way poets are, and leave it at that. Or: They enjoy making things difficult. Or: They’re drunk on their own voices.
All useful explanations. But the habit of wordplay is also rooted in a love of concision, of compression. To say two things at once is potentially to double one’s efficiency. It’s also to traffic in a language of ambivalence more emotionally authentic—truer to one’s own forever irreconcilably mixed outlook on life—than any simpler utterance.
What perhaps most sharply separates the poet from the lawyer is an embrace of, rather than a frequent struggle against, linguistic squishiness.
There’s a modest brilliance at the heart of Emily Dickinson’s credo: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” For it seems the deepest truths, those of the heart that are the poet’s lifeblood, are often incompatible with straightforward expression. In other words, indirection is more direct. At the end of the day, more honest.
Marilyn Monroe reportedly once remarked that she enjoyed reading poetry “because it saves time.” I enjoy this quotation so much that I’ve never dared to confirm it; how lovely to think that words so wise, so helpful and constructive, issued from the mouth of somebody who back in the fifties was regularly referred to (without irony or self-consciousness) as a “sex bomb.”
Poetry can invest the emotions far more rapidly and potently than prose. The language of doublespeak turns out to be doubly moving.
Consider this famous “short story” of a half-dozen words:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s usually attributed—mistakenly, the evidence suggests—to Ernest Hemingway. Whoever it was who condensed it down to six words did something masterly; the little announcement speaks not merely of the heartbreak of an infant’s death but also of harrowing poverty and human resilience. The shoes weren’t buried with the child. They retained some minimal financial value, which couldn’t be overlooked; thoroughly downtrodden souls, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, cannot afford to ignore the stringencies of the everyday.
Prose has, the story reminds us, its own gorgeous and powerful concisions, but nothing to compare with the reach belonging to verse. The most haunting short short story I know belongs to Somerset Maugham:
Death speaks: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
As an illustration of the folly of anyone’s seeking to avoid his fate, how streamlined this looks. But how long-winded it appears when set beside another brief meditation on death, Housman’s “Here Dead We Lie”:
Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
Here, too, is a story. The deceased have come to appreciate that death is a trifling matter. Grown clear-sighted with time, they now recognize that life’s ultimate rewards are few and fleeting. But they once felt otherwise, wholeheartedly.
The dead are mourning not their lost lives but the loss of this conviction that life is a priceless gift of radiance and beauty and consummation. They are mourning lost youth’s lost illusions, and with this realization the poem broadens until it encompasses all of us in our aging bodies, including one melancholic elderly poet. (Housman was in his sixties when this little verse was published.) On the other hand, Housman did have the compensation (not given to the rest of us) of knowing he’d composed one of the most heartbreaking tiny poems in the language.
Wordplay is perhaps best understood as one of the tools that make possible poetry’s extraordinary concision. Partnered with meter and rhyme, it works beautifully to compress a wealth of feeling into a compact stanza. One of the reasons why the genre of the extremely brief short story in prose, the short short, interests me so little is that, to my mind, poetry does this sort of thing so much better. Here’s Frost again:
The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
A mere twenty-one syllables, and two lives illuminated! It seems the ailing dog, in all its debility, continues to own its responsibilities; it still aims to safeguard the household. And the poet, aging himself, marvels at the speed of time’s transformations: Surely just yesterday it was that this beloved creature’s energy was boundless.
The poem could hardly be simpler—so simple, indeed, that you might suppose that the murk and mirrors of wordplay have no place within it. But look once more. Consider the couplet’s one rather peculiar phrase: barks backward. Over his shoulder, yes—and perhaps we ought to leave it at that. But the throaty echoes are reverberative, and it’s hard not to hear here a sense of calling backward, across the accumulating valleys of time. I was here and I am still here, the dog is saying in the one language it knows. Don’t count me out—I’m still in the game.
This is, to modify Auden’s phrase, memorable canine speech. And our Mr. Frost was wise enough to get it down just as spoken, in all the rich brevity that it deserves.
Excerpted from Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry. Used with the permission of the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Brad Leithauser.