Poetry from Wordplay

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash
Maybe all poetry is all about word play — we bounce meter and rhyme, catch line breaks and stanza breaks, model concrete poems, imagine long abecedarian poems, play dress-up with erasure poems . . .

The most famous word-playing poet may be Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, and he was also a mathematician. Here are some lines from his poem “Jabberwocky”:

 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Play is creative; wordplay is no exception. In “Jabberwocky,” the nonsensical words somehow make a certain sense to our brains, perhaps because they are inserted into traditional syntax. We, the readers, create meaning out of nonsense. For example, we may make “slithy” into an adjective that describes the noun “toves.”

Erasure poems happen when poets play with a given text, erasing parts of the text to reveal and create a poem. One contemporary practitioner of erasure and other types of found poetry is E Kristin Anderson, who’s done some remarkable work with novels written by Stephen King.

The poem below, originally published in Hermeneutic Chaos (sadly, this beautiful journal is on hiatus), started out as a way of playing around with two different meanings of a Latin word.

Os

In ancient Latin, the word for bone — os —
was spelled the same as os, the word for mouth.

Once there was a mouth that shrank with age
to a pocket the size of a pea, with no more room

for food, or drink, or teeth, or even a tongue.
It grew smaller and smaller until it became

completely untethered: a small hole
floating in the night sky,

through which only bones spoke,
but only the bones of stars.

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