I was just browsing through some poetry the other day, and I noticed that a surprisingly large number of the poems that I really enjoyed made significant use of wordplay. In fact, much of that play might even be said to be punning, such as when Lisel Mueller in “Ex Machina” plays with the meanings of “deus ex machina” and “machina” as machine, or when in his “Blessing for Malcolm Lowry,” Brad Leithauser quotes a bar guest as saying “Life’s a process of rile and terror.” Noah Webster called puns “a low species of wit.” Christopher Morley called them “language on vacation.” On the other hand Oscar Levant said, “A pun is the lowest form of humor – when you don’t think of it first.” Going even further, Arthur Koestler put it beautifully saying that a pun is “two strings of thought tied with an acoustic knot.” And Anthony Burgess may have put it best when he said “plurality of reference is in the very nature of language, and its management and exploitation is one of the joys of writing.” (You can find more famous quotes on puns here.)
But there is more to great poetry than great punning, obviously. Although Lisel Mueller is having fun with word processor problems and quirks of the lexicon, when “Ex Machina” finishes, one is left transported. The computer, as unlikely as it seems, has become a metaphor for the criminal, without sacrificing the absurdity of the former or the significance of the latter. Much of this separation is accomplished I think, by putting the two objects into separate stanzas, allowing the absurdity to overrun the first (though mixed with not a little bit of frustration), and allowing the more serious emotions to take precedence in the second. However the wordplay brings just the right amount of the former into the latter, and leaves us with a much better understanding or empathy (not sympathy surely) for the criminal, along with, as in the case of the computer, not a little bit of disgust. This technique of thoroughly separating two concepts which we mean to parallel, and thus allowing two separate tones to pervade the separate concepts while using play on words and ideas to connect the two seems to me to be a very valuable tool that I would like to incorporate into my poetic toolbox.