“Funny” and “Curious” Verse: The Limerick in Polish Children’s Literature
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“Funny” and “Curious” Verse:
The Limerick in Polish Children’s Literature

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In 1978, the unquestioned authority on limerickology, Cyril Bibby, voiced the opinion in his book The Art of the Limerick that Slavic as well as African and Asian languages had not created original native limericks, giving this explanation for it:

[N]ative speakers from these areas have been unable to provide genuine examples. And my inquiries through The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times Book Review produced no evidence of it either, despite their wide and varied readership.

(177)

Certainly, the time of the “Iron Curtain” did not favor cultural contacts between Poland and the United States, which resulted in America’s limited knowledge of Polish literary phenomena, in particular those which represented the non-serious and light Muse of Nonsense. Thus, Bibby’s interpretation of territorial distribution of the genre highlighted, on the one hand, the innate English inclination to nonsense humor and the English language as a natural basis for nonsense effects, its rhythm, and rich vocabulary, and on the other, the wide presence of English popular magazines with columns devoted to such ludic verse.

In the following analysis of Polish limericks, I hope to prove the inadequacy of Bibby’s view of the genre’s vitality beyond the Anglophone tradition. The limerick has thrived in Poland since the 1930s, and its generic conventions have inspired many famous authors (like the Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska); the Polish language has turned out a perfect vehicle for nonsense play, and many Polish journals have welcomed these frivolous lines. Undoubtedly, the limerick has expanded significantly the repertoire of adult as well as children’s literature in Poland.

Beginnings

The first Polish limericks addressed to the young reader appeared after the genre had been established in adult literature. It seems a remarkable coincidence that the pioneer of limerick verse, Julian Tuwim (1894–1953), initiated nonsense poetry for children at the same time between the two world wars. His poems (such as “Słoń Trąbalski,” “O panu Tralalińskim,” and “Lokomotywa”) broke away from nineteenth-century didacticism and brought into children’s literature the spirit of pure fun, which expanded boundaries of the material world and language.

Besides the domestic nonsense, the limerick form in post-war literature matured in Księga non-sensu (A Book of Nonsense) published by Antoni Marianowicz (translator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and Andrzej Nowicki in 1958. The book was the first presentation of the most representative works of English nonsense to Polish readers—including translations of nonsense verse by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, H. Belloc, W. de la Mare, and T.S. Eliot alongside many anonymous texts. A significant part of the book was nursery rhymes and limericks deeply rooted in the English tradition. Quite likely, eleven limericks by Lear translated by Andrzej Nowicki became a generic matrix for Polish writers searching for fresh ideas for children’s literature. Compared with later sophisticated versions by Robert Stiller (whose translations of 212 of Lear’s limericks were published in the Limeryki wszystkie [1986]) or by Stanisław Barańczak, professor of literature at the University of California, Berkeley (famous as a translator of English and American light verse and author of Fioletowa krowa [1993], an anthology of non-serious poetry from William Shakespeare to John Lennon)—the translations by Nowicki seem to be the closest to the unpretentious limericks by Lear, perfectly responding to a child’s knowledge and imagination. The same limerick from Lear could therefore generate different Polish variants as the comparison between Stiller’s and Nowicki’s translation strategies suggest:

There was an Old Person of Deal, Who in walking used only his heel; When they said, “Tell us why?”—he made no reply; That mysterious Old Person of Deal.

I

Był facet w Gołdapskich Wilkasach, Co chodził na samych obcasach. Choć pytano: „Pourquoi?” Nikt nie zgłębił do dna Tajemnicy tego milczka w Wilkasach.

(Lear, Limeryki wszystkie 103 [trans. by Stiller]) [End Page 38]

II

Pewien starszy pan w Bombasa Stale spacerował na obcasach; Gdy kto spytał go: „Czemu?”- Nie...