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  • James Pollock

The Poetics of Modern Punning

hilaritas—a mixture of intellectual excitement and sheer aesthetic pleasure at a notable display of wit”

A Brief and Excellent Primer on the Tradition of Wordplay in Modern Poetry

Eleanor Cook is—along with Hugh Kenner and Northrop Frye—one of my favorite Canadian literary critics. Her books are goldmines of poetic technique. I want to especially recommend a short chapter in her 1998 book Against Coercion: Games Poets Play, called “The Poetics of Modern Punning.” This is the place to start for poets wanting to get oriented in the modern tradition of wordplay in poetry, a powerful source of pleasure for readers.

Cook sets to work describing what she calls the “standard” puns that, she argues, every good poet needs to be aware of. “What words,” she asks, “come with so venerable a history of paranomasia [that is, punning], that no self-respecting modern poet can use them without making choices? That is, poets may use these words if they wish, but they must decide what to do with the standard paranomasia.” The words she discusses are “turn” (and its relatives “trope” and “verse”); “leaves”; “room” (and its relative “stanza”); and “maculate” and “immaculate” (and their relatives “spotted” and “unspotted”). She also considers puns on punctuation marks; portmanteaus and neologisms; allusive puns; and etymological puns; and in the process she considers brilliant examples from Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens, especially, as well as from James Merrill, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and Lewis Carroll.

Like everything in poetics, engaging in wordplay (whether as reader or writer) is not so much a matter of inborn wit as simply knowing what you’re doing, and Cook’s essay will get you well-launched in this regard. Of course, it takes practice, but once you get thoroughly tuned in to this element of poetic technique, your pleasure in the poetry you read, and your control over your diction in your writing, will increase considerably.

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