Modern Tosh: Making nonsense in poetry

Young poet and producer Tash Keary tells us about poetry, absurdity, and the art of talking nonsense.

Image: throgers
Image: throgers

When we write and edit poetry, or any writing, one of the key things we’re often looking for is that it “makes sense”. In many ways, anything we read we expect at least to be comprehensible: in everyday life we tend to prize “common sense” and “logical thinking”. It might seem to make sense for us to include this kind of thinking in our writing. But some of the biggest names in poetry and elsewhere have frequently not made sense, but made nonsense instead.

“Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.”

 – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Taking its roots from 14th century nursery rhymes, nonsense writing can be seen as a serious literary movement. There are clear examples in children’s classics like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky and Edward Lear’s limericks, but nonsense poetry can also be found in writings in the Romantic, modern and post-modern periods, and well into the present day. It has been written by some of the most famous and canonized poets from these periods, suggesting the  versatility and appeal of nonsense for a whole range of writers.

“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” 

 – from ‘The Jabberwocky‘ by Lewis Carroll

Nonsense writing was first used in part as a way of mocking scholarly conventions, of making fun of the big figures in philosophy, science and academia. It played on the idea of nonsense as a lowly form of writing which was intended for children, rather than ‘serious’ adults. Closely aligned with comic writing, this is the type of nonsense we find in Edward Lear’s limericks:

“There was an Old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he’d eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.”

from A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

Image: Widomirama
Image: Widomirama

Nonsense writing also finds a place in the Romantic period, for example in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry. Instead of being used to send up stuffy conventions, it becomes a way of describing the sublime, the otherwise indescribable. According to Coleridge’s contemporaries and critics, his great poemKubla Khan’ is on the verge of being nonsensical, and his ‘Christabel’ is the “best nonsense poetry ever written”:

“A little child, a limber elf
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds, and ever seeks”

From ‘Christabel‘ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What ‘Christabel’ does is use nonsense to create a kind of magical world, the kind we also recognise in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It is as contradictory and nonsensical as ‘Kubla Khan’s’ “a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”: two images which do not inherently follow logic or common sense.  

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Image: Filippo Minelli

Coleridge is just the first of many famous poets who use nonsense to great effect. W.H. Auden was a keen reader of Edward Lear’s nonsense, and he played on strange and unusual images in just as contradictory a way as Coleridge did. These strange and unexpected images are particularly prevalent in ‘Nonsense Song’:

“No steeple-jack shall part us now
Nor fireman in a frock;
True love could sink a Channel boat
Or knit a baby’s sock”

from ‘Nonsense Song‘ by W.H. Auden

But nonsense is not always used for playful effect. If we examine the poetry of the First World War, it takes on a much more serious import. E. E. Cummings nonsensical ‘next to of course god America I’ uses nonsense in a much more serious context:

“why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
 iful than these heroic happy dead
  who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter”             

 from ‘next to of course god america I’ by E. E. Cummings

What Cummings famously does here is take patriotic phrases and turn them into a jumble of nonsense, condensing each idea down until it becomes a stream of never ending platitudes. What makes Cummings’ nonsense even more in-your-face is his lack of punctuation and capitalization. In following stylistic conventions such as these, we associate them with ‘sense’: grammar and punctuation are ways of making meaning clearer in writing, turning streams of words into digestible bites. ‘next to of course god america I’ is an anti-digestible poem, and that is precisely its message about war and patriotism. Its point is in its opaqueness, its sense in its nonsense: these patriotic phrases are just as senseless as the ongoing war.

The thing that most attracts me to nonsense writing is its total disregard for anything you might expect from poetry, or from writing in general. Describing completely illogical images, breaking words half-way through, ignoring standard grammatical conventions – when done well, these are all intriguing ways of making writing seem urgent and interesting. The lack of linear lines of thinking provokes us to think more about what we’re reading ourselves.

“OK OK OK listen. You mincepied? You roastpotatoed? You goosefatted?
You burping in public? No worries, no worries, come, come and see
what we have here.”

From ‘Crash‘ by Annie Katchinska

Sometimes it is just as important to make nonsense in poetry as it is to make sense. In fact, it is useful at times to take a step back from concrete “sense” rules to see where a path into the field of nonsense can take you in your poetry.

Tash Keary

Tash Keary is an English student at the University of York. Her poetry has been commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, the National Student and Cape Farewell competitions, and most recently published in PBS anthologies and Cadaverine Magazine. She was a Young Producer for National Poetry Day Live 2015, and completed a Foyle Young Poets internship in 2016. Recently, she co-founded The Kindling, a new journal aiming to unite poetry written in universities across the UK and Ireland.

Published September, 2016

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