5 Poems With Amazing Wordplay

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze // Public Domain; Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze // Public Domain; Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla / Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze // Public Domain; Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla

Poets and writers are always playing around with words and their meanings—but some take that linguistic jiggery-pokery to the next level. The five poems listed here are each an extraordinary example of wordplay, from those that can be read in more than one direction to those that can be reimagined as works of visual art.

1. “I Often Wondered When I Cursed” // (Maybe) Lewis Carroll

Although this poem is typically credited to Lewis Carroll, it didn’t appear in print until several decades after Carroll’s death. Nevertheless, "I Often Wondered When I Cursed"—which is also known as simply "A Square Poem"—has all the hallmarks of Carroll’s love of wordplay.

Its six lines each contain six words that together form a word square that can be read both horizontally and vertically: reading downwards, the first word of each line reads the same as the first line itself, the second word of each line reproduces the second line of the poem, and so on.

I often wondered when I cursed, Often feared where I would be— Wondered where she’d yield her love, When I yield, so will she. I would her will be pitied! Cursed be love! She pitied me …

2. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” // David Shulman

The American lexicographer David Shulman wrote the sonnet "Washington Crossing the Delaware"—inspired by the famous painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze—in 1936, when he was just 23. As a sonnet, the poem contains 14 lines, divided into four four-line stanzas and a final rhyming couplet, which follow a strict rhyme scheme AABBCCDDEEFFGG:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene. Strong tide was washing hero clean. “How cold!” Weather stings as in anger. O Silent night shows war ace danger! The cold waters swashing on in rage. Redcoats warn slow his hint engage. When star general’s action wish’d “Go!” He saw his ragged continentals row. Ah, he stands—sailor crew went going. And so this general watches rowing. He hastens—winter again grows cold. A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold. George can’t lose war with’s hands in; He’s astern—so go alight, crew, and win!

If you find some of those lines a little clumsy or tough to read, there’s a very good reason: Astonishingly, every single line in Shulman’s poem is an anagram of the title.

3. “A Lowlands Holiday Ends in Enjoyable Inactivity” // Miles Kington

The British humourist and journalist Miles Kington wrote the bizarre two-line poem "A Scottish Lowlands Holiday Ends in Enjoyable Inactivity" in 1988—and then promptly forgot all about it. Then, for a column on wordplay written for the Independent in 2003, he apparently rediscovered it and brought it to an entirely new audience’s attention:

In Ayrshire hill areas, a cruise, eh, lass? Inertia, hilarious, accrues, helas!

(Helas is an exclamation of woe or disappointment dating from the 15th century, apparently; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's related to the world alas.) "A Scottish Lowlands Holiday" is an example of a holorime, an extraordinary feat of wordplay in which not only the last syllable of a pair of lines of verse rhyme with one another, but the entire lines themselves. Put another away, both lines are pronounced pretty much identically (for example, "In Ayrshire" is pronounced roughly like "inertia").

4. “A Dozen A Gross and A Score” // Leigh Mercer

Astonishingly, this calculation:

((12 + 144 + 20) + (3 × √4)) ÷ 7 + 5 × 11 = 9² + 0

… can be rendered as a limerick:

A dozen, a gross, and a score, Plus 3 times the square root of 4, Divided by 7, Plus 5 times 11, Is 9 squared, and not a bit more.

That poem is most commonly attributed to Leigh Mercer, a British mathematician and wordplay expert best known for inventing the famous palindrome “a man, a plan, a canal—Panama!” in 1948 [PDF]. As both a limerick and a mathematical equation, "A dozen, A Gross and A Score" is perfectly sound—as, for that matter, is this:

Integral z-squared dz, From 1 to the cube root of 3, Times the cosine, Of 3 π over 9, Equals log of the cube root of e.

Mathematician Joel E Cohen and author Betsy Devine included that verse in a collection of mathematical jokes and anecdotes, Absolute Zero Gravity, in 1992. Incredibly, it, too, works both as a limerick, and as a mindboggling bit of calculus (assuming that the log in question is the natural log).

5. “Nine Views of Mount Fuji” // Mike Keith

The American mathematician and inventor Mike Keith is the author of dozens of astonishing poem and prose works that fall under the heading of constrained writing—namely, works written to fit a strict brief or rule dictating their structure. Among his most remarkable are a poem where each tercet (set of three lines) uses only the 100 tiles in a standard Scrabble set and a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven" written using words whose length corresponds to the first 740 digits of pi. But perhaps most astonishingly of all (and seriously, this is amazing) is his "Nine Views of Mount Fuji."

Inspired by the 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai’s series of prints Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, you can read Keith’s entire "Nine Views" (and more on the incredible constraints behind it) here, but for now here’s a taste:

Fuji’s perfect outline points heavenward near the river’s mouth. The firm peak in the tan sky paints across the lake an odd reflection, with dirt draped in snow rather than brown land almost up to the top. Perhaps the elder pedagogue of Edo is making a subtle point. The old boatman of Kai rowing to the tranquil village there And the middle-aged Buddhist who once pined for youthful times Endorse this bitter truth: Seen on reflection, things are often changed.

The nine “views” in Keith’s poem correspond to the poem’s nine sections, each of which, like this one, contains, precisely 81 words. Now, imagine putting all of those words into a 9 by 9 grid, filling up the rows in order from left to right and top to bottom one word at a time. Then imagine stacking all nine of those 9 by 9 grids of words one on top of the other to form a 9 by 9 by 9 cube. Now imagine doing that again, so you’ve got two cubes of 729 words each.

In the first of these cubes, imagine blocking out all the squares containing a word the sum of whose letter values (if A = 1, B = 2, C = 3 …) is a multiple of nine. In the second cube, imagine blocking out all the squares containing a word of exactly nine letters. Now get rid of all the non-blocked out squares, to leave two matrices of blocked out squares, which then get converted to individual tiny cubes. (Still with me? Good.)

Now imagine suspending those matrices from a ceiling and shining lights at them from the sides and from above: The shadows cast on the floor and walls behind would form the Japanese Kanji characters representing fire, mountain, wealth, and samurai, which put together spell “volcano” and “Fuji.” Mind blown.

A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.