All poetry involves a certain facility with words—and often rhymes and meter—but a few poems kick it up a notch and really make us rethink what you can even do with language. Here are five of my favorites that’ll bend your mind.
1. How many prepositions is it possible to fit into a single line of a poem? These verses by Morris Bishop suggest that the answer is at least seven:
I lately lost a preposition.
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair.
And angrily I cried, “Perdition!”
Up from out of in under there.
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And dangling phrases I abhor,
But yet I wondered, “What should he come
Up from out of in under there for?”
In a similar vein, there’s the classic joke, where a child says to a parent at bedtime …
“What did you bring that book that I don’t like to be read to out of about Down Under up for?”
2. Generally, when a word has a prefix, like the in- in independent, you can remove the prefix and still have a perfectly normal word left over, like dependent. But that’s not always the case, as this poem by David McCord demonstrates:
I know a little man both ept and ert.
An intro-? extro-? No, he’s just a vert.
Sheveled and couth and kempt, pecunious, ane,
His image trudes upon the ceptive brain.
When life turns sipid and the mind is traught,
The spirit soars as I would sist it ought.
Chalantly then, like any gainly goof,
My digent self is sertive, choate, loof.
On the same topic is the delightful song “Kempt,” by the Australian musical comedy group Tripod.
3. If you know any children who’ve already learned the words to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” try expanding their vocabulary by teaching them this version by John Raymond Carson.
Scintillate, scintillate, globule lucific
Fain would I fathom thy nature specific
Loftily perched in the ether capacious
Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous
4. OK, this one isn’t technically a poem, but try reading it anyway …
Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
Look familiar? It should—this is the beginning of the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, rewritten with similar sounding words by H. L. Chace. For a better shot at making sense of it, try reading it out loud, or listen to this recording.
5. Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” which illustrates how we can make a certain kind of sense out of nonsense words, given sufficient context. It begins:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
A lesser-known and even more linguistically fascinating side to “Jabberwocky,” though, is the many ways that it’s been translated to other languages, which also involves translating the English nonsense words into another language’s idea of semi-sensical nonsense. You can read many of these translations, from Afrikaans to Klingon to Yiddish, right here.