Humorous nonsense and multimodality in British and American children's poetry

Elzbieta Chrzanowska-Kluczewska


Nonsense and humour are two cognitive and linguistic phenomena that frequently overlap. The focus of this article falls on chosen instances of humorous nonsense poetry, targeted at English-speaking children, which contains verbal and visual modes of expression. Formal sources of nonsense-creation in natural language can be several, among others semantic anomaly, syntactic ill-formedness and structural ambiguity, phonetic and graphological experimentation. The interplay of nonsense with the visuality of the text in children's poetry assumes three distinct forms: 1) visual poems, 2) multimodal texts,, where illustrations, often nonensical and funny in themselves, support the verbal text, and 3) texts based on the phonetic play. Examples will be drawn from the classics of the Anglophone children's poetry: Mother Goose, the Victorian classics L. Carroll and E. Lear, 20th-c. British and American poets - L. Hughes, e.e. cummings, T. Hughes, J. Agard, as well as the Polish-British pair W. Graniczewski and R. Shindler. In all the poems to be analyzed multimodality has an important role to play in the creation and strengthening of the effect of humorous bisociation/incongruity. A tight intertwining of the phonetic, semantic and visual layers in such texts becomes an additional challenge for their translators. The theoretical keystone for our considerations remains H. Bergson's study Laughter (1900/2008), which deftly combines the Superiority, the Incongruity and the Release Theory of Modern Humour Studies. Bergson rightly links the sources and effects of the nonsensical and the comic to the notion of game/play and to the idea of dream-like illusion they create.


children's poetry; nonsense; humour; multimodality; visual modality

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