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Poetry Guide: Nonsense Verse

Nonsense verse is a form of poetry, normally composed for humorous effect, which is intentionally and overtly paradoxical, silly, witty, whimsical or just plain strange. It has a long tradition, particularly in English, being congenial to the absurdist streak in British humour. Some Dadaist writings could also be considered as being nonsense verse.

Nonsense verse in this sense should be distinguished from humorous verse or from verse that is nonsensical but intended as parody of modernist verse, such as the poems by the fictitious Ern Malley. In the latter case, the nonsense is an in-joke or hoax, and there is an assumption that it would be taken as meaningful, and even deep, by some readers (whose taste is thus ridiculed).

As previously said, not all humorous verse is nonsense. For instance a poem like

Algy met a bear.
The bear met Algy.
The bear was bulgy.
The bulge was Algy.

is humorous but not nonsense. Whereas

The elephant is a bonnie bird.
It flits from bough to bough.
It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow.

is classic nonsense being based on the incompatibility of word pairs such as elephant/flit, rhubarb/tree, whistle/cow which make grammatical sense but semantic nonsense.

The poem ...

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back-to-back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And rushed to save the two dead boys.
A paralyzed donkey walking by,
Kicked the copper in the eye,
Sent him through a rubber wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
(If you don't believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man -- he saw it too!)

... makes even more extreme use of word incompatibility by pairing a number of polar opposites such as day/night, paralyzed/walking, dry/drowned, lie/true, in conjunction with lesser incompatibilities.

Another nonsense verse goes like this:

'The deaf man heard,
the mute man say,
the blind man saw,
the crippled man walk.

Other nonsense verse makes use of nonsense words -- words without a clear meaning or any meaning at all. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear both made good use of this type of nonsense in some of their verse. In these poems, the grammar and syntax are perfectly well-formed, and each nonsense word has a clear part of speech. The first verse of Lewis Carroll 's Jabberwocky ...

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

... illustrates this nonsense technique perfectly, despite Humpty Dumpty 's later explanation of some of the unclear words within it.

Still other nonsense verse uses muddled or ambiguous grammar as well as invented words, as in John Lennon 's "The Faulty Bagnose":

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Here, awoy fills the place of "away" in the expression "far away", but also suggests the exclamation "ahoy", suitable to a voyage (or pilgriffage?). Likewise, worled and gurled suggest "world" and "girl" but have the -ed form of a past-tense verb. Somforbe resists interpretation -- possibly a noun; possibly a slurred verb phrase.

However not all nonsense verse relies on word play. Some conjures up nonsensical situations, for instance Edward Lear 's poem, The Dong with a Luminous Nose has a perfectly comprehensible chorus.

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.

What is the significance of the colour of their heads and hands? Well, none really. It's just mellifluous nonsense.

Likewise Christopher Isherwood 's poem ...

The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

from 'Poems Past and Present', J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Ltd. fourth printing, 1959

... makes grammatical and semantic sense and yet lies so earnestly and absurdly that it qualifies as complete nonsense.

There is a long tradition of nonsense verse in English. The Anglo-Saxon riddles are an early form. For instance ...

The creature ate its words -- it seemed to me
strangely weird -- when I heard this wonder:
that it had devoured -- the song of a man.
A thief in the thickness of night -- gloriously mouthed
the source of knowledge -- but the thief was not
the least bit wiser -- for the words in his mouth.

(Answer: probably a bookworm) The poem is nonsense until one figures out the answer.

Many nursery rhymes are nonsense. For instance ...

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Limericks are probably the best known of nonsense verse, although the form tends to be used for bawdy or straightforward humorous effect nowadays rather than for nonsensical effect.

Among writers in English noted for nonsense verse are Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Mervyn Peake and Spike Milligan. The Martian Poets are considered by some to be in the nonsense tradition. Russian nonsense poets include Daniil Kharms and Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, particularly his work under the pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, and some French exponents are Charles Cros and Robert Desnos. The best-known Dutch Nonsense poet is Cees Buddingh'. Among German writers, Christian Morgenstern and Ringelnatz are the best-known ones, and both still popular. Robert Gernhardt is a contemporary one.

Morgenstern's Nasobēm is an imaginary being, though less frightful than the Jabberwocky:

Original Translation
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
einher das Nasobēm,
von seinem Kind begleitet.
Es steht noch nicht im Brehm.
Es steht noch nicht im Meyer.
Und auch im Brockhaus nicht.
Es trat aus meiner Leyer
zum ersten Mal ans Licht.
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
(wie schon gesagt) seitdem,
von seinem Kind begleitet,
einher das Nasobēm.
Upon its noses strideth
Along the Noseybum,
With it its kid abideth.
It's not yet found in Chambers.
It's not yet found in Webster's.
Nor in the OED.
It trotted from my lyre,
As first it came to be.
Upon its noses strideth
(As said before) since then,
With it its kid abideth,
Along the Noseybum.

Gernhardt's observation that

Die schärfsten Kritiker der Elche
waren früher selber welche

has become practically a proverb in German. While strictly speaking nonsense (Elk have no critics), it nonetheless expresses the truth that often the most strident opponents of an ideology are its former adherents.