The Screwdriver Effect in Poetry

by Regina Kenney

urlIn a college poetry class, I learned about a magnificent poetry mechanism called ‘The Screwdriver.’ Since then, I have Googled the hell out of it trying to find more examples and to learn more about it.

The results?

Nothing. Nadda. Zip-did-dee-doo have I found about this concept. So either my professor made it up (good on him, because it has stuck with me through the years) or it is so obscure that it hasn’t made it to the interwebs yet.

But here I present to you my ‘if-memory-serves-me-right’ definition.

The Screwdriver Effect (noun): A literary device whereas the last part of a sentence or stanza completely changes the meaning of the entire piece.

Let me hit you up with some examples.

My professor said the most famous ‘Screwdriver’ in poetry was the first lines of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

Here we have a beautiful, romantic opening but then – Screwdriver – the poem likens the night to a dead body. “Like a patient etherized upon a table” changes the mood and meaning of the first two lines entirely.

My personal favorite example comes from an 1899 poem by William Hughes Mearns entitled, “Antigonish:”

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

The first three lines in this poem are child-like, almost like a hopscotch rhyme. But then the last line you find that the speaker doesn’t like the man. The poem suddenly becomes scary.

Now whether this is a ‘bonafide’ literary mechanism or not, I love it (And please let me know if it is or if you empirically know that it is not!).

Will keep a running list of Screwdrivers on this blog post – email (with the subject line “Screwdriver”) or comment below if you have any other great examples.


UPDATE (December 9): I have found it. Paraprosdokian.

Not as catchy as ‘Screwdriver’ but Paraprosdokian is a wordplay type of literary device, derived from the Greek word which means ‘beyond expectation.’ It is defined as ‘an unexpected shift in meaning that appears at the of a stanza, series, sentence or paragraph.’

Here are some more examples from These ones are different than my previous examples that made the meaning haunting, in these the paraprosdokian device is used for wit/comedy:

“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
– Dorothy Parker

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else.
– Winston Churchill

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.
– Albert Einstein

“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
– Andretti

“He taught me housekeeping; when I divorce I keep the house.
– Zsa zsa Gabore

And here is a more poetic example, from

By the wide lake’s margin I mark’d her lie–
The wide, weird lake where the alders sigh–
A young fair thing, with a shy, soft eye;
And I deem’d that her thoughts had flown…,
All motionless, all alone.

Then I heard a noise, as of men and boys,
And a boisterous troop drew nigh.
Whither now will retreat those fairy feet?
Where hide till the storm pass by?
On the lake where the alders sigh…….
For she was a water-rat.

– Shelter by Charles Stuart Calverley




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