Simultaneously aware of sound and sense, the poet plucks a word out of a meteor shower of possibilities, all the time resisting the very human urge for certainty. Wit can only emerge from the bravura performance of creative freedom, from the unbridled exercise of playful license, from permanent and terrifying openness.
It is, to return to Kay Ryan’s word, ‘exacting’ for the writer. For the reader, invited to join in the festive juggling, it’s exhilarating.
One of my favourite contemporary exponents of wordplay is Gus Ferguson:
Like forty million crack dragoons stood battle-trained spermatozoons.
The captain spoke in solemn voice: ‘Although I know you have no choice And little chance, you have permission To volunteer for this emission.
Not one comma hesitated: “YES!” They all ejaculated.
Kamikaze by Gus Ferguson
There’s so much to relish here: not just the delightful punning on ‘ejaculated’ and the sly half-pun of ‘emission’, but the clever choice of the un-Latinate –s’ plural for ‘spermatozoons’ (evoking an individuality that helpless sperm certainly do not enjoy). There’s the paradox of the unhesitant comma and the anachronism of ‘crack dragoons’ — indeed, the impossibility of having a ‘crack’ force of forty million anything.
I love the absurd linking of sex with the military, of lovemaking with war-making, of what is (ideally) a spontaneous encounter of two bodies acting with free will and adopting any number of postures, with (oh dear) rigid militaristic serried-rank precision and helpless predestination. The poor doomed zoons and their perfectly personified ‘YES!’
A final set of exercises:
a) Write a poem that consists of an incongruous extended metaphor, for example comparing a poet to a dumpster, or a beauty pageant to an academic conference.
b) Take inspiration from the punning or general wordplay possibilities of any of these words: spoke, purpose, mugwump, remiss, reman, skim, conceit, atomic, quoit.
c) Take a cliché or proverb and alter one word in the set phrase. For example, substitute something else for the underlined words in ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’; ‘moving the goalposts and levelling the playing fields’; ‘live and let live’; ‘sleep like a baby’.
d) Write a short poem in which you use a noun as a verb or past participle. Try, for example, nouns like ‘calendar’, ‘melon’, ‘Labrador’ or ‘fingernail’.
Wit is heavy, light, funny, sad, quick and deep all at the same time. It’s also good for you. In a scientific study, Philip Davis has shown that when subjects are exposed to Shakespeare’s extreme forms of wordplay and wit, their brains charge with expectancy, become more alert, ready to deal with any cognitive difficulty that might follow. Wit makes people wittier.
Finuala Dowling is a South African poet and novelist. She works as a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Extra-Mural Studies and holds regular poetry workshops.