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

Poets and writers are forever 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” // 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!

Granted it’s not the greatest poem ever written, and 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 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 taster:

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, officially, blown.

This story originally appeared in 2017.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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11 Thoughtful Gifts For Word Lovers

iStock.com/Jelena Danilovic
iStock.com/Jelena Danilovic

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It’s easy to spot the logophiles in your life: They’re the people who are addicted to word games, have full libraries at home, or who are always quick to provide you with the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. This holiday season, indulge your loved one’s passion for words with a gift they’ll appreciate.

1. Book Couch; $25

Gifts for Readers & Writers Store/Amazon

The better the book, the more exhausting it is to hold up. Give a rabid reader’s tired arms a rest with the Book Couch, a plush lap rest that props up books, e-readers, and tablets so they can gorge on words with minimal effort. It’s available in blue, grey, red, diner booth, and hot lips.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Moleskine’s Book Journal

Moleskine

The new year is a great opportunity to start a book journal. This one from Moleskine is specifically designed for documenting someone’s reading history, with sections for recording general information about the title as well as jotting down impressions and memorable quotes. Like other Moleskine products, this notebook comes with useful features like ribbon bookmarks and an expandable inner pocket.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Shakespearean Insults Chart; $25

Uncommon Goods

Give this chart to someone you know and instantly add color to their insult arsenal. The poster not only list dozens of scathing jabs from the works of Shakespeare, but it also breaks them down into categories like “body qualities” and “personal attributes” and subcategories like “knaves” and “dunghills.” The chart measures 24 by 18 inches and comes with a magnetic birch frame for an extra $30.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

4. KenzaPad; $60

Scott MacMillan, Kickstarter

Smartphones are convenient for taking notes on the go, but it’s hard to beat the tactile sensation of jotting down a thought with a pen and paper. The KenzaPad combines the best elements from both mediums into one handy tool. The pad looks and acts like a wallet on the outside, with pockets for holding keys, cards, and pens. Flip open the magnetic seal and it transforms into a notepad you can hold with one hand and write in with the other. And no thicker than a smartphone, the KenzaPad neatly slips into a purse or pocket.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Book Darts; $9

Amazon

Book darts give book lovers ultimate control over their reading experience. Instead of putting down a book mid-paragraph, or rushing to the next page before adding a bookmark, these tools let readers save their place down to the line. With 50 metal tabs per package, they’re also a great, reusable alternative to highlighters or sticky notes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Flexilight Xtra Booklight; $9

Flexilight/Amazon

Got a young reader to buy for? Grab one of the Flexilight Xtra booklights. Unlike most booklights, this LED-powered light is flexible enough to conform to most any book and comes in fun designs like penguins, dogs, and owls for kid word buffs. It’s also thin enough to double as a bookmark.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Novel Teas; $14

Bag Ladies Tea/Amazon

Few things go better together than a good book and a cup of tea. Now readers can elevate their cozy book appointments with Novel Teas, a set of 25 individually-wrapped teabags that each have literary quotes on them. The product also has one of the great slogans in advertising history: “Read ‘em and steep.”

Buy it: Amazon

8. William Shakespeare Engraved Inspirational Quote Pen; $20

Inkstone/Amazon

Keep the wisdom of the Bard close at hand with this engraved pen sporting the classic Shakespeare line: “To thine own self be true.” The ballpoint pen is compatible with G2 ink refills.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Other-Wordly; $13

Chronicle Books/Amazon

Take a trip through an assortment of arcane and delightful words in this sumptuous book by Yee-Lum Mak and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley. Discover words in multiple languages that express all things beautiful.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Retro Series Scrabble; $20

Amazon

Scrabble has been updated several times since its debut, but the original edition remains a classic. This Retro Series-edition of Scrabble is the same version of the game that appeared on shelves in 1949, complete with vintage wood tiles and racks. Whether or not the players stick to words that were dictionary-official 70 years ago is up to them.

Buy it: at Amazon

11. Punderdome: A Card Game for Pun Lovers; $14

Clarkson Potter/Amazon

No true word lover can resist a good pun. Punderdome makes a game out of wordplay, tasking players with taking two prompts from the deck and making one terrific (i.e. awful) pun out of them. You can even play virtually for socially-distanced game nights.

Buy it: Amazon

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