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This article is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

The Play’s the Thing: Word-Play and Poetry Robert Dinapoli

Q: Why are Australian wines so popular?
A: Because everyone loves an Aussie bottler.

The question with which I would really like to begin, however, is this: what do awful puns and poetry have in common? The answer, as far as I can make any out, is surprisingly complex. The humble, lamentable pun rides on the back of a cognitive glitch, a mental and linguistic hiccup we experience as we perceive an unexpected phonological resemblance between two otherwise unrelated words. The punster uses such accidental similarities of sound to pull a prince-and-the-pauper switcheroo that forces those two lexical strangers into a temporary faux-pas-de-deux exchange of identities. In my own woeful example above, ‘Aussie bottler’ derives its cognitive kick from its wholly unexpected twins-separated-­at-birth resemblance to the cliché of the ‘Aussie battler’ so beloved, not by oenologists, but by political demagogues after cheap traction with their electorates. While I’m sure the odd politician enjoys his bottle of Shiraz, the sudden juxtaposition of two otherwise unrelated spheres, which both creates a semantic tension and resolves it in one go, gives us a guilty pleasure, like a riddle that wears its solution as obviously as a silly party hat. It’s not going to send any sphinxes into paroxysms of suicidal cliff-jumping, but it’s as satisfying as an itch that comes with its own built-in backscratcher. Our groans only pretend to express pain; the recovery of any unexpected surplus of meaning, however trivial, gives us pleasure.

The urge to do silly things with words can take hold among ...

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