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.

7 Massage Guns That Are on Sale Right Now

Jawku/Actigun
Jawku/Actigun

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Actigun massage gun.
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Massage gun from Stackcommerce.
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10 Fascinating Facts About Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

In just two short seasons, British sitcom Fleabag has made a lasting mark on television. The series centers around Fleabag, a 30-year-old Londoner—played by the effortlessly funny Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also created the show—who is caught up living a life of late nights filled with booze and promiscuity in the wake of her mother’s death.

At first Fleabag appeared to be a simple half-hour comedy following the often naughty exploits of its quirky main character. Yet, as the series progressed, it quickly proved itself to be a truly masterful piece of work with each episode adding more complicated layers and darker themes to which many viewers can relate. Here are some facts about the groundbreaking comedy.

1. Fleabag began as a one-woman stage play.

It’s hard to imagine what Fleabag might look like if it were stripped of all its chaotic characters and performed as a solo show, but that’s exactly how it started. Before there was a TV show, creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge staged Fleabag as a one-woman play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2013. The title character addressed the audience in an hour-long, sexcapade-filled monologue, which was generally met with praise by theater critics. The TV show was created soon after, and originally premiered on BBC Three in July 2016.

2. The title of the show refers to more than just the main character.

The title Fleabag comes from a nickname given to Phoebe Waller-Bridge by her family. “It was my family nickname as far back as I can remember,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. Speaking to This Morning in April 2020, Waller-Bridge also revealed a deeper meaning for the name choice (which is never actually spoken in the show).

“A fleabag motel is something that's a bit rough around the edges,” Waller-Bridge explained. "I wanted to call her that because I wanted her persona and her outside aesthetic to give the impression that she was completely in control of her life, when actually, underneath, she's not."

3. Phoebe Waller-Bridge co-founded a theater company before penning Fleabag.


L to R: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Vicky Jones, and Tuppence Middleton at London's Soho Theatre.
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

In 2007, several years before Fleabag was born, Waller-Bridge was fed up with not being able to find work, despite having graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art two years earlier. So she co-founded her own theater company, DryWhite, with her best friend Vicky Jones. DryWhite paved the way for Waller-Bridge’s 2008 debut stage performance in Roaring Trade at London’s Soho Theatre, which led to two other successful plays—Crashing and, of course, Fleabag—both of which were created by and starred Waller-Bridge, and both of which were turned into television series. DryWhite is still going strong today, bringing fresh talent out in new productions every year.

4. Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe's sister, composed the Fleabag soundtrack.

The badass guitar chords played after every episode of Fleabag are composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe’s very talented sister. Isobel earned a bachelor's degree in Music at Edinburgh University followed by a master's degree at King's College London then additional study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Isobel has firmly established herself in the music world. Like her sister, Isobel has received several awards, including Best Composer at the Underwire Film Festival. She also composed the chorused background music for Fleabag’s second season, which perfectly fit the religious theme. Her impressive work can be heard on her SoundCloud.

5. The fourth wall breaks in Fleabag aren’t just there for comedic effect.

Fleabag’s hilarious fourth wall breaks actually serve a deeper purpose for the character, which is realized by the end of season 1. Fleabag, who is deeply suppressing grief from the loss of her mother and best friend, uses these breaks to escape her troubled reality.

By season 2, the fourth wall breaks became less of a crutch as the character became more engaged in her real life and even fell in love. By the end of the show (spoiler!), Fleabag retires from the audience altogether as she decides to face her reality going forward.

6. The “Hot Priest” role was written specifically for Andrew Scott.

Waller-Bridge worked with Irish actor Andrew Scott years before she cast him to play the role of The Priest—a.k.a. “The Hot Priest”—in Fleabag’s second season. Speaking to IndieWire in 2019, Waller-Bridge praised Scott’s acting style, saying, “there’s something really dangerous about how truthful he is as an actor … he just comes with so much complexity that your characters instantly become interesting.” Waller-Bridge wrote the part once Scott agreed to it and their perfectly tragicomic love story was born.

7. Had Andrew Scott turned the part down, a second season of Fleabag might never have happened.

Waller-Bridge was so set on getting Andrew Scott to sign on to play The Priest that she admitted a second season might not have happened if he had said no. She told IndieWire:

"Religion was already a theme in my mind from very, very early on, but I didn’t know how to distill that until I had decided on The Priest. I worried it would be too much of an obvious sort of comedy idea, that Fleabag, who you can’t imagine has ever stepped foot in a church before, that she should come up against a man of the cloth. It seems almost too comedic, too sitcom.

"But then the moment I imagined Andrew Scott in that role, and making this man complex and three-dimensional, and sort of a match for Fleabag, then I was like ‘I’ve got the show now.’ It’s all about these two and how they affect each other’s lives. I called him up before I’d even written it to see if he’d be interested in doing it, and I pitched him the idea because I think if he’d said no, I don’t know if I would have actually been able to write that part."

8. The Priest notices something about Fleabag that no other character in the show is able to see.

Andrew Scott in Fleabag (2016)
Andrew Scott stars in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

Fleabag often breaks the fourth wall mid-conversation with characters to address the audience, until she is eventually caught in the act of doing it by The Priest—much to her, and the viewer's, surprise. Whenever things get too intense for Fleabag, she switches off, which is something the Priest notices almost right away. In a 2019 interview with IndieWire, Waller-Bridge discussed the significance of this moment between the two characters: “[S]peaking to the audience concerns the theme of loneliness, and I think that he’s able to recognize that because he’s actually able to see her.”

9. Fleabag had an alternate ending.

In 2019, Waller-Bridge revealed to The Guardian that there was an alternate ending for Fleabag, but she remained tight-lipped on what it was. At the beginning of season 2, Fleabag tells audiences this is “a love story” which, despite ending rather tragically, remains hopeful by the end as Fleabag leaves audiences behind to move forward in her own life. So Waller-Bridge can keep her alternate ending—the one viewers saw was perfect.

10. No, there will not be a third season of Fleabag.

Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 'Fleabag'
Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
Hal Shinnie/Amazon Studios

Though Fleabag dominated the most recent awards season, winning two Golden Globes (including Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy) and six Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Comedy Series), Waller-Bridge has made it clear that there will not be a third season. Even after the second season won so many awards, Waller-Bridge said, “I haven’t changed my mind about season 3. It feels more and more about being the right decision. [These awards shows] are just beautiful goodbyes."