Many poets and critics in the 19th century, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, attempted to make distinctions between various related terms including imagination, fancy, and wit. The “imagination” was the ability to think on a highly creative plane, conjuring images that made the world more intelligible or perceptible to the intelligence. The “esemplastic,” according to Coleridge, is that imaginative ability of the poet to make an architectonic whole out of various and disparate elements. “Fancy” was farther removed from reality, was more whimsical or playful or decorative. “Wit” is the ability to imagine or perceive incongruous connections between disparate things, as in “annomination” which is wordplay, like the “bon mot” or the pun, the quibble or calembour; a synonym is “paronomasia.” It is the expression of the quick and humorously clever mind, but it is essentially superficial − the Romantic and most of the Victorian poets and critics were nothing if not Transcendental philosophically — that is to say, Kantian and post-Kantian idealists, and exceedingly earnest.
Often over these many, many years, when I inflicted a pun upon someone, I was told that out of simple humanity I ought not to inflict punishment for no reason. Usually, it is a simple human being who makes this suggestion, but I was apparently born a pundit; therefore, my parents are more to blame than I, although I have always been punctilious in my approach to punography and its application, and that is a matter of personality, which may also be ascribed to my genes, though not to my brother Gene who has never made a pun in his life, nor to my wife Jean who has never done the same – you see how fate has treated me…fate, or the Laughing God, in whom I am inclined to believe for, as the Hebrews say, “Man plans, God laughs.”
I usually reply to the half-witticism regarding the ill humor inherent in punning by asking the question, “Who is the greatest poet in the English language?” Invariably the answer I receive is, “William Shakespeare.” My follow-up question is always, “And who is the greatest punster in the English language?” Usually a silence follows rather than a reply because both the asker and the askee look askance at one another, for our answers, obviously, are identical. My third question is, “Well, if the greatest poet and the greatest punster in the English language are the same, how is it possible for the pun to be the lowest form of wit? If it were so, wouldn’t Shakespeare be the worst poet in the English language rather than the best?” It is difficult to see how our greatest writer can simultaneously be our worst, though it may be so, paradoxically.
Not all poets employ the pun in their works as Wild Bill Tremble-Lancelot did. Rather, they carry language umbrellas to ward off puns in their poems. If one creeps in somehow, such poets take great umbrage, as Grace Schulman did at Yaddo in the summer of 1977. One evening she gave a reading, and at breakfast the next morning I told her that I liked the pun in her poem titled,
"I PRAY TO A GENITAL GOD"
When I pointed out the pun
in her poem, she told me to be still.
It was no pun — in the panorama
of all her work there wasn't a single pun.
She hated puns.
She could no longer work, for
thinking of the pun. "Disruptive," she said,
"you're being quite disruptive." Rather than
rapture, she found but rupture now, a pun
upon her page:
"Cruel and inhuman pun-
ishment," she said, "to see where less was meant,"
but so much more than what I'd seen. She could
not write, not even punctuate. I must be
compassionate, even blind
to the printed word, for what she meant was
holy -- "My god!" she cried, "can't you at least
be a gentleman? The god I meant was Pan!"
I bowed my head.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I saw
you paging what was not there. I've caused you
pain. I did not mean to pan the poem
you thought you wrote, nor even the one I saw.
I shall be more
"genteel in future, and if
I see a pomegranate where you meant
only a poem, granite I'll not see
on Shakespeare's tomb, the punography between
his poignant lines.
"I shall note the inscription only,
done by the chiseler's hand when he was dead.
To hell with language. I shall bear my soul
tiptoe among the tombs, hope to fall prey to
a genital god."
Poets like Grace are victims of
AMBIGUPHOBIA: The Fear of Puns
Neither hear nor dare to utter them:
that is her mutter as she walks the lane
between her home and work. No other theme
keeps her intention. Shakespeare is her bane
of contortion — all those double entendres,
wierd ploys, warble chokes. How can one stand
a language that sniggles like string, snags in the tongue?
A word should mean what it means and not demean
the person who speaks it, cause her demeanor to alter,
native good humor to melt in the foyer,
or before the altar, of the Laughing God.
She works the line between her ham and wok
when she pre-pares a meal. What is amiss? Better
to walk a mile than think of puns; sooner
choke on Oklahoma dust and walk a mule
than have as motto, "Neither hare nor deer
to otter dam." Better emigrate
to Rotterdam and get in Dutch
than stumble over meanings, double over,
wretched upon the quaking worth of words.
If you, dear reader, would like to investigate further the background and permutations of the pun, I can think of nothing better than Joseph Taratovsky’s New York Times essay, “Pun for the Ages” at this venue:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/opinion/28Tartakovsky.html. Both the poems above may be found in my book titled, Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007. ISBN 978-1-932842-19-7, cloth; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, paper.
Suggested Writing Exercise
Write a poem that is full of puns or, contrarily, one that has no wordplay in it whatsoever.