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Wordplay is also known as verbal play or play-on-words is a literary technique used in both prose and poetry.
Playing with words is a technique of using words in a way that is light-hearted or funny.
Think of wordplay as "word games." The way you would play with words in a word game app. You may play with words in poetry based on their sounds, meanings, or arrangement, and by repetition.
For instance, when you use words that have similar meanings (synonyms), similar sounds (homonyms), or words with the same spelling but different meanings (homographs) in the same sentence. Also, it involves subverting the conventional use of specific words in the text.
The pun is the most common wordplay in poetry, as it also appears in everyday language. I will discuss the pun and several other types of wordplay and give specific examples from poems.
First, what are the functions of wordplay? What effect does wordplay achieve in literary works including poetry, novels, and non-fiction?
Coming our way
Ground zero at noon
Halve a nice day.
— Edmund Conti
5 Functions of Wordplay in Literature
1. Enhancing metaphors.
Wordplays create elaborate metaphors that help the reader to create vivid mental images. If you spot a metaphor in literature, look again, and you will see a play on words applied.
2. Creating a comic effect.
Wordplays make the text more interesting because they can be humorous. They are funny because of the contradiction and ambiguity created in the text. Some writers use wordplays to give the reader a taste of clever well-placed jokes.
3. Revealing wit.
Wordplays are a revelation of the wit of both the writer and reader. They are a measure of intelligence and wisdom. When a reader understands the deeper meanings that the writer intended by playing with words, they forge a unique connection based on mutual understanding.
4. Improving memorability.
Wordplays can create memorable sound effects and imagery that a reader will remember long after reading the literary work. Play with words creates emphasis on specific words. Thus, it makes memorizing significantly easier than using ordinary language.
5. Strengthens the flavor of language.
In general, poetic language involves wordplay. If someone says that a statement is poetic, there is a high chance wordplay is involved. The playful use of words makes the text fun to read and on comprehending the wordplay you comprehend the meaning.
Types of Wordplay in Poetry
I base my classification of types of wordplay on the definitions of the specific literary devices. You will notice the following list includes literary techniques that involve modifying words or using words in a specific manner that makes them feel like a game.
Note that I have used a bold font in the examples for emphasis only.
The pun is a literary device that adds a humorous meaning to a poem. The poet plays with words with similar sounds but to give another meaning which is different from the obvious one. The words used may or may not have similar phonetics, but the perception of meaning is different.
Line 7 in "Nothing Gold Can Stay' by Robert Frost
So dawn goes down to day
Line 39 in "Exposure" by Wilfred Owen
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice.
A palindrome is a phrase, verse, or word that reads the same both backward and forward. For instance, the words "mom," "dad," and "level" are palindromes. In poetry, it can be a line that reads the same with the same words or a word that reads the same letter by letter backward and forward. It is also known as the "mirror effect" in contemporary poetry.
The entire poem "Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era" by Oli Hazzard
Notice how the above sentence reads the same, because it has the same letters, from the end as from the beginning.
In a poem by Emily Brontë the title which is also the first clause of the first line reads:
Fall, leaves, fall;
Line 17 and 25 in "Saddest Poem" by Pablo Neruda
Far away, someone sings. Far away. [line 17]
Someone else's. She will be Someone else's. [line25]
Notice how the phrases seem to "reflect" themselves because of the placement of their repetition.
The entire “Doppelgänger” poem by English poet James A. Lindon is a palindrome. It seems midway through the poem, the poem reflects the preceding lines.
Antanaclasis occurs when the poet uses the same form of the word to imply different meanings. It can be a noun implying different meanings, or a verb but with different meanings in the context.
Stanza 5 in "If You Forget Me" by Pablo Neruda
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
The same word "roots" is used with different meanings in the poem.
Stanza 1 in "Incident" by Amir Baraka
He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came
back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the
shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.
The above stanza contains both antanaclasis and polyptoton. (See the next subheading.)
In polyptoton, the poet uses the same word in a different form but implying the same meaning.
Hence, both antanaclasis and polyptoton can generate puns. [Refer to "pun" above.]
Stanza 4 in "If You Forget Me" by Pablo Neruda
you forget me
do not look for me
for I shall already have forgotten you
Lines 5, 6, & 7 in "if' by Rudyard Kipling
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
This literary device gives a rhetorical effect by substituting a word (part) with the actual thing (whole) it is referring to. The word that is used in place is connected to what is being referred to.
Lines 21 in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth
They flash upon that inward eye
A part of the body "That inward eye" is referring to a state of consciousness or the mind and not a literal thing. It gives the same idea as the "mind's eye."
Line 13 in "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
The oxymoron is a literary device that creates contradictions in ideas, words, or concepts. An oxymoron is a form of wordplay when words that contradict each other appear consecutively.
Line 13 and 17 in "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas
...who see with blinding sight [line 13]
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears [line 17]
The literary technique of linking two or more words to form a new word is called the portmanteau. The formed word then attains the semantics and shared meaning of the joined words.
Stanza 20 in "Riot" by Gwendolyn Brooks
A woman is dead
Stanza 1 in "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Caroll
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
In this poem, “slithy” looks like slimy and filthy means “combined to form one word.
A kenning is a stylistic device consisting of a compound word that describes someone or an object by giving details about it in an alternative way,
Line 10 in "The Mother" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
Lines 22 and 23 in "Exposure" by Wilfred Owen
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Malapropism is an exciting technique that is satisfying when the reader or audience spots it. An incorrect word is placed instead of a "dictionary" word that has a similar sound but a different meaning. It is a deliberate misuse of words to create humor that is very common in children's songs and nonsensical poems.
Line 24 in "If You Forget Me" by Pablo Neruda
If you think it long and mad
The common English phrase is "long and hard."
Line 21 in "To Earthward" by Robert Frost
Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love
The word you would expect here is "aftermath."
The rearrangement of normal word order according to the conventions of grammar. For example, normally, a preposition will come before a noun or pronoun. the anastrophe technique is evident when the writer inverts this order so that the preposition comes after the noun. Often, the poet does this inversion in order to achieve rhyming.
Line 19 in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth
For oft, on my couch I lie
The normal arrangement of words here would be "I lie on my couch."
Line 21 in "To His coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near
11. Double Entendre
A double entendre is a literary technique whereby a phrase or word has multiple meanings and can be interpreted in different ways. In poetry, the poet uses it deliberately to create different meanings. A double entendre can be used to create euphemism such that neutral words are used in place of offensive or sexually suggestive words.
Stanza 15 in "Riot" by Gwendolyn Brooks
is going on
is going on.
The last line in "Lovesong" by Ted Hughes
In the morning they wore each other's face
12. Archaisms and Neologisms
Archaism is a stylistic device of deliberately using old-fashioned words of an earlier time in contemporary poetry. It involves using rare, outdated, or dialectal words.
Archaisms are common in classical poetry since they used "old" words that are no longer in use. Archaism is conspicuous when contemporary poets use such archaic words as "didst though" or "think'st thee."
Line 1 & 2 in "Death, be not proud" by John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee,
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
"From Anagrams [xxiii]" by Luke Kennard a contemporary poet here is an archaism:
Oh Fido, thitherward, round the houses — hold the hard hat,
On the other hand, Neologism is the use of new, coined words that are not common or available in the dictionary (at the moment.) The word may be associated with modern language or be invented by the writer. Words from other languages and portmanteaus (refer above) can create neologisms.
Line 16 in "Mother to Son" by Langhston Hughes
Cause you find it kinder hard
Stanza 25 in RIOT by Gwendolyn Brooks
this AIN’T all upinheah!”
An epithet is a literary device that gives a descriptive title to a person, place, or object. It makes the item being described more prominent by amplifying its qualities. The epithet is similar to kenning. However, an epithet uses adjectives to show the characteristic of the person or thing.
Line 1 in "Exposure" by Wilfred Owen
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Line 14 in "Alone" by Edgar Allan Poe
From the red cliff of the mountain
A form of wordplay created by rearranging or scrambling a word or phrase to get a new word or phrase is called an anagram. Anagrams are exciting when the word or phrase from the already existing one are related. For instance, parental and prenatal or angered and enraged are anagrams.
See this stanza in "Anagrammer" by Peter Pereira
If you believe the letters themselves
contain a power within them,
then you understand
what makes outside tedious,
how desperation becomes a rope ends it.
Note that since the poem is about anagrams, the poet has already pointed out the anagrams by italicizing the words.
Spoonerism is a humorous wordplay that involves swapping letters of two words to form another that may still make sense in the context. You have probably experienced spoonerisms accidentally in your speech. It leads to new words, thus, it can be used to form neologisms.
This is an excerpted poem from the children's book Runny Babbit by Shel Silverstein
Runny Babbit lent to wunch
And heard the saitress way,
'We have some lovely stabbit rew -
Our Special for today.'
It's about "bunny rabbit" who w"ent to lunch" hearing the "waitress say" they have "rabbit stew." I guess you can't tell a rabbit that rabbit stew is on the menu!
Borgmann, D. A. (1967). Beyond Language. Scribner.
Greene, R., Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., Rouzer, P., Feinsod, H., ... & Slessarev, A. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics. Princeton University Press.
Luke Kennard. "From Anagrams [xxiii]" Retrieved from, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/89374/from-anagrams-xxiii
Poetry Archive. https://poetryarchive.org/
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Centfie
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 15, 2021:
You are most welcome. I hope you find something.
Centfie (author) from Kenya on February 15, 2021:
John Hansen, your comment has made my day. Thank you. I am happy to know that it is useful. I am heading to your profile to read your poems and identify them. If you don't mind, I can quote examples in an article in the future. I have was also surprised during my research of this article, to find out that what I did when playing around with words years back in poetry already have names!! And at that time I thought I was inventing something new,.. you know as Shakespeare did in his time.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 13, 2021:
Thank you for this comprehensive article on wordplay. I use it often in my poetry however I had no idea of some of the terms for the different types of wordplay. I like it when a reader actually comments on it as I feel it is often missed. This was very helpful.