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.

15 Facts About Rushmore On Its 20th Anniversary

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

On December 11, 1998, Wes Anderson introduced the world to his unique brand of whimsical comedy with Rushmore. Though it wasn't his feature directorial debut—he had released Bottle Rocket, which he adapted from a short, in 1996—it was his first major Hollywood movie. And kicked off his still-ongoing collaborations with a stable of talented actors that includes Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It was also the second film Anderson co-wrote with Owen Wilson.

To celebrate the quirky comedy's 20th anniversary, here are some things you might not know about Rushmore.

1. Rushmore Academy was the director's Alma Mater.

Wes Anderson sent location scouts across the United States and Canada to find the perfect high school to shoot the movie. He was having a tough time trying to find the school, until his mother sent him a picture of his old high school in Houston, Texas: St. John's School. Anderson thought it was the perfect location to make the movie.

2. Bill Murray wanted to make Rushmore for free.

Bill Murray in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Once Bill Murray read the screenplay, he wanted to be in the movie so badly that he considered appearing in it for free. Murray ended up working on Rushmore at scale with the Screen Actors Guild day rate minimum for smaller indie film projects. Anderson estimated that Murray made about $9000 for his work on the film.

3. Film critic Pauline Kael had a private screening.

Pauline Kael’s film criticism was a major influence on Anderson’s view of cinema. “Your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that," he once wrote to her.

Kael retired from The New Yorker in 1991, so Anderson arranged for her to have a private screening of Rushmore before the film came out in 1998. He wrote about the screening in the introduction to the published version of the screenplay, and shared what Kael told him about the film: "I genuinely don't know what to make of this movie."

4. It was Jason Schwartzman’s first film role.

Casting directors searched throughout the United States, Canada, and England to find a young actor to play the lead role of Max Fischer. Australian actor Noah Taylor was the frontrunner for the part when, on the last day of casting in Los Angeles, Jason Schwartzman auditioned. He was wearing a prep school blazer with a Rushmore Academy patch that he made himself.

5. Owen Wilson's private school experiences inspired some of the movie's plot points.

As a sophomore at St. Mark High School in Dallas, Texas, Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson was expelled for stealing his geometry teacher's textbook (the one that contained all the answers); he went to Thomas Jefferson High School to complete 10th grade. This was the inspiration for when Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy and is forced to attend Grover Cleveland High School.

Although Wilson doesn’t have a credited role in Rushmore, he does appear as Ms. Cross’s deceased husband, Edward Appleby, in a photo in Appleby’s childhood bedroom.

6. Wilson's Dad Inspired a Moment in the Movie.

Wilson’s father, Robert Wilson, was the inspiration for Herman Blume’s speech about privilege at the beginning of Rushmore.

7. Alexis Bledel was an extra in the film.


Getty Images

Before she starred as Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, actress Alexis Bledel was an uncredited extra—she played a Grover Cleveland High School student—in Rushmore. You can see her in the background in various scenes, including dancing with the character Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) at the end of the film.

8. Both Anderson and Wilson's brothers had parts in the movie.

Owen and Luke Wilson’s older brother Andrew plays Rushmore Academy’s baseball coach, Coach Beck. He also appeared in Anderson’s directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, playing the bully John Mapplethorpe.

Eric Chase Anderson, Wes's brother, plays the architect who designs Max’s aquarium.

9. The Movie's Editor Made a Cameo.

Rushmore editor David Moritz plays the Dynamite Salesman; he sells Max the dynamite and explosives for his stage play Heaven and Hell at the end of the film.

10. Producers Made a Deal to get a Bentley.

Producers needed a Bentley for Murray's character, Herman Blume, but Rushmore’s production budget was only $20 million and they couldn’t afford to rent one. A Houston resident was willing to lend them his Bentley if they gave his daughter a role in the film. Producers agreed; the man's daughter plays an usher who seats Miss Cross at Max’s play at the end of the movie.

11. Mason Gamble's role in Dennis the Menace almost cost him the part of Dirk Calloway in Rushmore.

Mason Gamble in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Wilson referred to the character of Dirk Calloway, played by Mason Gamble, as the conscience of the film. Originally, Anderson didn’t want to cast Gamble in the part because of the actor’s previous—and very recognizable—role as Dennis Mitchell in the 1993 live-action movie Dennis the Menace.

12. Rushmore Upset Francis Ford Coppola.

Director Francis Ford Coppola owns a winery, and when he first saw Rushmore, he was upset with Anderson because he used Coppola’s chief Napa Valley wine rival during Max's post-play celebration. (It probably didn't help matters that Coppola is Schwartzman's uncle.)

13. Anderson's Brother Did the Movie's Criterion Collection Artwork.

The Criterion Collection edition of 'Rushmore' (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Eric Chase Anderson did the artwork for the Criterion Collection DVD cover, an interoperation of a shot from the montage of Max’s extracurricular activities at the beginning of the movie. The Yankee Racer shot is itself a recreation of a photo from French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, taken in 1909 when he was only 15.

14. Schwartzman waxed his chest to play Max.

Although Max only shows his chest once in the film (during the high school wrestling match), Anderson made Schwartzman wax his chest for the duration of Rushmore's filming.

15. The Max Fischer Players Appeared on MTV.

During the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, the Max Fischer Players recreated the year's hit movies—The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight—as stage plays.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

8 Tips for Overcoming Social Anxiety Disorder

iStock.com/fizkes
iStock.com/fizkes

If the thought of having to attend a networking event, office holiday party, or family reunion with your uppity out-of-state cousins fills you with dread, then you might have social anxiety disorder. Also known as social phobia, the pervasive fear of being judged by one’s peers affects an estimated 15 million Americans. If you think you might be one of them, a physician can recommend the best course of treatment for you, but there are a few tactics you can try in the meantime. Here are some tips for coping with social anxiety disorder.

1. Ease into social situations.

Everything gets easier with practice, and the same concept applies to socializing. Avoiding parties and large gatherings may provide temporary relief of social phobia, but it isn't a long-term fix. To get started on your road to overcoming anxiety, the Mayo Clinic outlines a few steps that can be found in most cognitive behavioral therapy regimens. This form of psychotherapy challenges people's negative thoughts about social situations to help alleviate anxiety. One such step is to set small, manageable goals for yourself, like giving a stranger a compliment or asking an employee in a store for help finding something. Keep doing little tasks like these until you start to build confidence. Once you’ve mastered these social skills, you can more on to more challenging scenarios.

2. Prepare talking points to combat social anxiety disorder before an event.

We’re not saying you should memorize your lines, but it will ease some of the tension if you come to a party or networking event with a few conversation starters in mind. If possible, do some snooping to find out what some of the other guests are into, or check the news for interesting ice breakers. Just take it from author, life coach, and self-proclaimed “party-impaired individual” Martha Beck: “When you find yourself standing at the bar or reaching a dead end in a conversation, news of a sighting of Bessie, the Lake Erie monster, or some other tidbit that caught your attention will make it that much easier to mingle.”

3. Lay off the caffeine.

You may think that a cup of joe will perk you up and make it easier to conquer your fears, but it may end up making your social phobia worse. Coffee, chocolate, and soda are best avoided because stimulants such as these can elevate your levels of anxiety.

4. Get plenty of sleep.

In a similar vein, make sure you get plenty of sleep before your next big event. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends that you get at least eight hours of sleep each night. If you’re sleep-deprived, you may notice that it’s harder to immerse yourself in social situations.

5. Identify your negative thinking patterns.

Think back to the last time you felt anxious. What kinds of thoughts were you having in that moment? Did any of them make you feel worse? If so, you might be getting swept up in negative self-talk, which can fuel social phobia and make you feel more anxious. Identifying these thoughts when they pop up is the first step to confronting and changing them, according to the Social Anxiety Institute.

6. Imagine what would happen if your worst fears came true.

It may seem counterproductive, but asking yourself “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” is a good way to confront your “inner critic,” according to author and clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen. Avoid words like “always,” “never, “everybody,” and “nobody”—they’re vague and tend to overstate the risks you face. Instead, think about your specific fears of any given situation, and you will probably realize that “failure”—whether it’s tripping on stage or sounding awkward—isn’t as bad as it seems. The more you rationalize it, the more “‘Everyone will think I’m a freak’ turns into ‘The five or six people I talk to at the party might notice my hands shaking and think something is wrong with me,’” Hendriksen writes in her book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. If you do this enough, social situations won’t seem quite as scary.

7. Focus on someone else.

When you’re talking to someone, really make a concerted effort to listen to what they’re saying. This will help shift your focus away from your own insecurities. “The trick is to focus on anything except yourself, and that magically frees up a lot of bandwidth,” Hendriksen tells Vox. “When we’re able to do this, we come across as much more authentic and open and the anxiety disappears.”

8. Be proud that you put yourself out there.

Instead of scrutinizing every little thing you said or did after a social event, give yourself credit for simply doing something you find challenging—and living to tell the tale. Establishing a system of “self-reward” will help decrease your anxiety in the future, according to Robert L. Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. “Who deserves more congratulation than you for trying hard to confront what is difficult?” Leahy writes in Psychology Today. “Just trying, just going, just staying in, and just tolerating the discomfort are reasons for reward. Each time you face your fear, you win and your fear loses.”

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