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Wordplay: The Case for Ludic Poetry

by J. Patrick Lewis

The English language is like the world’s greatest dog: You can make it bark, heel, roll over, and come when you call it, though it is not likely to fetch the morning newspaper. Writers play with that dog endlessly, training it to respond, begging it to obey, cajoling it to be good. To strain the analogy, beginning writers do, too, even if their language dogs are only pups.

The tall people walking around schools share a single goal: to make people more literate. Directing children to poetry (only one of many avenues to improved literacy) is a full-time job: Just ask a Language Arts teacher. One way that might prove less painful is through verbal legerdemain—ludic poetry—helping kids to see the nimble, even absurd, extremes to which words can be taken. The dog of language can reward the handler who puts it through unexpected paces.

Ludic” means “game-playing.” Ludic poetry plays word games. Let’s get serious for a moment about wordplay. Some poets ridicule humor as being unworthy of poetry. Tickling the funny bone, they insist, merits instant exile from the high-minded salons of the genre. Equally offensive is the poet whose work is said to be “merely clever.” Poets may inhabit the only room in which cleverness is a calumny. But why object to cleverness? As the British poet John Whitworth has written, “Most, perhaps all, poetry involves elements of game-playing, and Postmodernism is particularly keen on games because it hates the whole idea of ‘high’ or ‘serious’ Art.”

Imagine a world of literature in which comic novels were thought “unserious,” and therefore unfit to wear fiction’s mitre. Whither Huckleberry Finn, Catch-22, Lucky Jim, The Catcher in the Rye, and innumerable others?

If levity should ever trump gravity in poetry, the jesters will reign at court, which will happen only when shrimp learn to juggle. Still, as Gavin Ewart once wrote, “Good light verse is better than bad heavy verse/any day of the week.” And no matter how loudly the purists howl, a little humor is not a dangerous thing.

All puns, for instance, are wordplay, but not all wordplay involves punning. People often groan when they hear a pun, thinking that the term “bad pun” is a redundancy. But who begrudges Shakespeare his many ribald or simply “clever” puns?

As one wag put it, “A pun is the lowest form of humor—unless you thought of it yourself.” And another wrote, “A pun is its own reword.” Offer seventh graders a list of homonyms, the surefire Petri dish for creating winners and groaners alike.

 The Pitcher Strikes Out

No runs,
No hits,
No heirs

*  *

Dead Weight

Everyone knew that
He was rich and fat,
But no one ever learned
How much he urned.

Have you ever gone into a graveyard and looked at the tombstones? Dead people can be funny, and their famous last words are written in stone!

Epitaph for a Bartender

For someone who
Could bend your ear,
His conversation
Was small beer.

*  *

Epitaph for a School Teacher

Knives can harm you, heaven forbid!
Axes may disarm you, kid.
Guillotines are painful, but. . .
There’s nothing like a paper cut.

 Give students a list of literary characters (or ask them to come up with their own favorites). What final thoughts would these worthies have left for posterity? Or what ignoble notions about themselves would they have abhorred?

Epitaph for Pinocchio

Here lies

Even more playfully, students might choose to write imaginary epitaphs animals have left—or had said about them—as their last words. Jane Yolen and I have collaborated on a collection of just such Last Laughs (Charlesbridge, 2012). Here are a few animal sayonaras not included in the book.

For a Sheep

 No one will ever forget, Ewe

*  * 

For a Boll Weevil

Gone but not for cotton

*  *

For a Skunk

I won’t be mist

*  *

 For a Pigeon

 She was pooped

*  *

For a Moth

In case I come back,
Leave the porch light on

*  *

 For a Mouse

Miss the traps
Miss the cheese
Miss the cheddars
Miss the bries
Miss the Colbys
Miss the Swisses
Miss the Muensters
Miss the Mrs.

 No one is likely to confuse these trifles with poetry, but writing them might prove useful as finger exercises toward writing poetry. Am I encouraging kids to write doggerel? No, I am urging them to write. Period. And to write for practice, not for publication.

What’s ludic is not ludicrous. Ludicrous—ridiculous or provoking derision—has been around for four hundred years; ludic only seventy or so. Let students choose a favorite book they have read and ask them to write a “mini-review” or synopsis of it in ten words or less.

Moby Dick

Man’s obsessed,
Whale is gored—
Man goes a little
Overboard.

*  * 

Madame Bovary

Dilemma
For Emma:
Paree
Or ennui?

Getting students to imitate poems they enjoy is critical, not as a license to plagiarize, but as a way to practice! Why not try a parody of a famous poem? Lewis Carroll’s “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” one of the most famous parodies (of Isaac Watts’s pious and forgotten verse), reminds us how important imitation can be. Here’s Mark Sanders’s send-up of William Carlos Williams’s ubiquitous red wheelbarrow:

The Red-Handled Hatchet

dinner depends
upon
the red-handled
hatchet
wedged in the chopping
block
beside nervous
chickens.

Ask students to turn classics into math problems, as I have done here (from a forthcoming book):

Emily Dickinson’s Telephone Book

My book closed twice before its close –
The sum of facing pages
In my mind’s eyeball  – 115  –
Were bookmarked for the ages.

Though I shall open it at noon
Once waking – from my slumbers –
The phone book so befuddles me –
What are the two page numbers?

[Answer:
115 divided by 2 = 57.5;
rounding 57.5 up and down
= pages 57 and 58.]

Which prompts the question: Is a parody a tribute to or a critique of that which it parodies? Who cares? A student’s first intention should be simply to get something down on paper.

Who could improve upon or travesty Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”? Pretend the poem is a piece of classical music a young pianist is practicing when, without warning, an entirely new tune arises, a composition not better, probably much worse, but one that might contain a kernel of individuality.

This parody of Frost also serves as a shape poem of a rake.

American Autumn

O
H
O
A
K
T
R
E
E
Y
O
U
LEFT
SUCH
A HEAP!
THE FRONT-
YARD   LEAVES
ARE GETTING DEEP
AND I HAVE PREMISES
TO  KEEP  AND  PILES  TO
GO THAT I MUST SWEEP AND
PILES TO GO THAT I MUST SWEEP

 *  *

Have you ever tried a one-word poem?

The Hangman’s Lament

NECKCKCKST!

*  *

Life at the Nursing Home

Whistful

*  *

The Bear to the Hive

Syruptitiously

Easy? Well, no actually. Writing one-word poems can set the imagination on an exhausting but tantalizing treadmill.

Sometimes individual letters can tell the whole story. 

Wordplay, a many-splintered thing, can be distilled to one question: What’s in a word?  My ludic homage to Dictionary Day, October 16th attempts to address the puzzle.

In A Word

Inside their walls,
some words include
the perfect mate—
ungrateful dude
(or laboratory)
and evil eye,
meringue, entwined,
believe, far cry
treat, puppet, grunt,
and shallowness,
but best (or worst)
is loneliness.

Put ludic poetry in your quiver. Like sunlight and garlic to vampires, it keeps the blueblood bards at bay. But more importantly, it provides limitless ways to practice the art of writing.

A mere sample of specific types of playfulness and words at play includes:

  • Little Willies:  Invented by Harry Graham, and showcased by X.J. Kennedy in his series of Brats books.
  • Spoonerisms:  Shel Silverstein, Runny Babbitt: A Billy Sook, HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Portmanteaus:  Jack Prelutsky, Scranimals, HarperCollins, 2002, and Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, Greenwillow, 2006.
  • Tongue twisters:  Jon Agee, Orangutan Tongs, Hyperion, 2009.
  • Palindromes:  Jon Agee, Go, Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog! And Other Palindromes, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, and others in the series.
  • Acrostics:  Avis Harley, African Acrostics: A Word in Edgeways, Candlewick, 2009; Schnur, Steven, Autumn: An Alphabet Acrostic, Clarion, 1997 (see also his Winter, Spring, and Summer acrostic books in this series).
  • Shaped poems: Betsy Franco, A Curious Collection of Cats, Tricycle Press, 2009; Joan Bransfield Graham, Splish Splash, 2001 and Flicker Flash, 2003, Houghton Mifflin; John Grandits, Technically, It’s Not My Fault, Sandpiper, 2004, and Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems, Clarion Books, 2007; Paul B. Janeczko, ed., A Poke in the I, Candlewick Press, 2001; J. Patrick Lewis, Doodle Dandies, Atheneum, 1998; Wes Magee, ed., Madtail, Miniwhale and Other Shape Poems, Puffin, 1989; Heidi Roemer, Come to my Party and other Shape Poems, Henry Holt, 2004; Joyce Sidman, Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Parodies:  Karen Jo Shapiro, I Must Go Down to the Beach Again, Charlesbridge, 2007; Joyce Sidman, This Is Just to Say, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Reversos:  Marilyn Singer, Mirror, Mirror, Dutton, 2010.
  • Anagrams:  Richard Lederer, The Circus of Words, Chicago Review Press, 2001; Bob Raczka, Lemonade: and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word, Roaring Brook Press, 2011.
  • Lipograms: JonArno Lawson, A Voweller’s Bestiary, Porcupine’s Quill, 2008.
  • Double dactyls, or if you prefer, higgledy-piggledys:  Anthony Hecht and John Hollander (eds.), Jiggery Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Atheneum, 1967.
  • Epitaphs:  J. Patrick Lewis, Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses, Candlewick, 2006; J. Patrick Lewis & Jane Yolen, Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs, Charlesbridge, forthcoming spring 2012.
  • Rebuses:  Stephanie Calmenson, Kindergarten Kids: Riddles, Rebuses, Wiggles, Giggles, and More! HarperCollins Publishers, 2005; J. Patrick Lewis, The Fantastic 5&10 Cent Store, Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 2010.
  • All forms: Willard R. Espy, A Children’s Almanac of Words at Play, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1982; Avis Harley, Fly With Poetry: An ABC of Poetry, 2000, and Leap into Poetry: More ABC’s of Poetry, Wordsong, 2001; Paul B. Janeczko, A Kick in the Head, Candlewick, 2005, and Poetry from A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers, New York: Bradbury, 1994; X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy Kennedy, Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry, Little, Brown, 1985; Myra Cohn Livingston, Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry, HarperCollins, 1991.

A shamefully incomplete list of other living wordplay wizards and punsters includes Mary Ann Hoberman, JonArno Lawson, Douglas Florian, Arnold Adoff, Calef Brown, Adam Rex, Kenn Nesbitt, Bobbi Katz, and many more.


To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

To read “Can Children’s Poetry Matter?” by J. Patrick Lewis, click here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

janet wong January 22, 2012 at 9:59 am

Brilliant and inspiring–so many terrific examples. Thank you for this article!

Reply

Steven Withrow January 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Great points, Pat! Thanks for standing up for light verse, games-playing, and humor!

Reply

Kenn Nesbitt January 23, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Well said! After all, poetry without play is like breakfast without chocolate; it may be very good, but…

And, if I may, I would include the incomparable E.O. Parrott’s “How to Be Well Versed in Poetry” in your list of All Forms. Though it’s not written for kids, I can’t think of a more playful book to introduce readers to the wonders of wordplay in verse.

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