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What Is Nonsense Poetry?

Updated on July 18, 2016
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Nonsense Verse - Hey Diddle Diddle illustration by Edward Cogger
Nonsense Verse - Hey Diddle Diddle illustration by Edward Cogger | Source

Nonsense : Introduction


Nonsense poetry or verse is a long established tradition in creative writing and is still popular with readers of English language poems. Poetry that has no real meaning and often makes us laugh and think weird things has a unique appeal. It's also playful - who doesn't like playing with their language? Crazy images can pop up in the mind as we come across words and phrases that we've never seen before.

Perhaps this is the reason it still endures? Many of us first experience nonsense verse at an early age and it seems to stick. Think of nursery rhymes, limericks and curious folk-songs - they all offer us a taste of real nonsense. Who can forget the story of Humpty Dumpty or the surreal images in Hey Diddle Diddle?

Nonsense can be witty, silly, whimsical, strange, funny, puzzling, curious, paradoxical - all of these things - but maybe it sometimes defies definition. It's just recognised as pure nonsense. George Orwell thought that nonsense verse can be 'amiable lunacy.'

Well known exponents of nonsense poetry include Edward Lear, inventor of the limerick, and Lewis Carroll who wrote Jabberwocky, perhaps the most quoted nonsense poem in history. Carroll in particular made nonsense popular, a form of entertainment that hijacked poetic form and took it to places it hadn't been before.

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Love Songs to a Camel: Dark, Daft, Comic and Curious Nonsense Poetry
Love Songs to a Camel: Dark, Daft, Comic and Curious Nonsense Poetry

A beautifully produced book packed full of nonsense poetry suitable for all ages. Journey to the Cliffs of Reason, take a risk with Inkum Jinkum, sing love songs to a camel and meet Zeus, in a dressing gown. Anything is possible. Short poems, long poems - playful, puzzling, plattimongous!

 

The Reader and Nonsense

When a poet feels the need to write a nonsense poem the danger is that the poem can get out of hand. The language can become overstretched, words impossible to pronounce and rhythms jarred. There has to be a balance struck between chaos and order.

Invented words, portmanteau (a word formed from two, for example knork, a combination of knife and fork) often fit in with natural language to give a good nonsense poem solid rhythm and strangley, reason. Ideally nonsense verse should be playful, musical, comical and most of all, capable of stirring the reader's imagination.

In other words, the reader shouldn't be left behind but taken along for the ride.

Riddle, Metaphor and Dialect

The Anglo-Saxon people loved to invent riddles and many are written down in the Exeter Book, created in the 10th century. These riddles use metaphor and conundrum to keep the reader interested. Similar verses have come down the generations - this children's rhyme was heard in a playground in Essex, England, in recent times. It's all about a cow.

Four dilly-dandies (teats on the udder)

Four stick standies (legs)

Two crookers (horns)

Two lookers (eyes)

And a wig wag (tail)

The Everyman Book of Nonsense Verse (Everyman's Library Children's Classics Series)
The Everyman Book of Nonsense Verse (Everyman's Library Children's Classics Series)

A beautiful book full of classic nonsense and great illustrations. One for the children most definitely but adults can also find them fun.

 

Origins in Nursery Rhyme


The man in the wilderness asked of me,
How many strawberries grow in the sea?
I answered him, as I thought good:
“As many red herrings as grow in the wood.”


A lovely piece of near nonsense, from a traditional verse. It has mystery - a wild man who happens to be asking questions - very silly questions - and there's a kind of insane logic in the reply, often associated with good nonsense. Strawberries in the sea? What a stupid question, BUT, the answerer is committed to an equally stupid answer. Red herrings grow in the wood. Yes, of course they do. They thrive next to the whistling bluebells.

Here's a parallel traditional Bengali verse. Which came first I don't know! This example is from The Tenth Rasa, an anthology of Indian nonsense writing.


In a dank forest an old crank asked if I would know

'In half an acre of ocean how many jackfruit grow?'

I estimated roughly and said,' Begging your pardon -

Just as many as the prawns growing in your garden.'


Is the above verse 100% nonsense? Not quite. There are no genuine neologisms for starters - that is, new words completely created by the author, words that have no meaning whatsoever.

Words that may sound proper, that fit into the rhythm of a poem often stretch the language to its limits because they're made up, challenging the reader's sense of poetic integrity. The following classic nursery rhyme has a made up word, repeated, in the opening line:


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.

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.

— Dr Seuss

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1567-1616) created a huge range of strange and silly words in his many plays. By incorporating these neologisms (new words) into song and sometimes lines of characters, he created his own brand of near nonsense. Here are three short songs:


No more dams I'll make for fish
Nor fetch in firing
At requiring;
Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish
'Ban, 'Ban, Cacaliban
Has a new master: get a new man.
Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom,
hey-day, freedom!

(The Tempest, 2.2.178-86), Caliban


Flout 'em and scout 'em
Flout 'em and scout 'em
And scout 'em and flout 'em
Thought is free.

(The Tempest, 3.2.121-23), Stephano


Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!
In thy fats our cares be drown'd,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown'd:
Cup us, till the world go round,
Cup us, till the world go round!

(Antony and Cleopatra, 2.7.127-32)


Shakespeare's character Sir John Falstaff in the farce Merry Wives of Windsor is a colouful pot-bellied older man who tries to seduce Mrs Page and Mrs Ford,unsuccessfully. Amongst his many funny lines is the nonsensical 'Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves....'

Samuel Foote

Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was a British dramatist and actor who wrote the following poem to test the memory of a rival actor Charles Macklin in London in 1755.



So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
and the Joblillies,
and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) British novelist, got in on the nonsense act with this short grace, chanted by natives about to eat a meal.


Choo a choo a choo tooth.

Muntch, muntch. Nycey!

Choo a choo a choo tooth.

Muntch, muntch. Nycey!

Limerick No1 from Lear's Book of Nonsense (1846)
Limerick No1 from Lear's Book of Nonsense (1846) | Source

The Limerick

Edward Lear created the limerick as a vehicle for his nonsense. With a regular rhythm and comical element limericks are an established favourite world wide. He also wrote other verses that have become popular with children, such as The Owl and the Pussycat.

Lear took nonsense to a different level and together with Lewis Carroll created a Golden Age of Nonsense.

Lewis Carroll

By far the most popular nonsense poem in English is Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1871 in Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there, a sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

It was written to highlight the pretentiousness of formal verse at the time, a sort of tongue-in-cheek, cock-a-snook piece of work aimed at the authorities. Some critics suggest it was part of his stance against Victorian establishment thinking.

Illustration to Jabberwocky  Artist John Tenniel
Illustration to Jabberwocky Artist John Tenniel | Source

Jabberwocky

By Lewis Carroll


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird,

and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!”


He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.


And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!


One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.


“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was a British painter and artist as well as a novelist and poet. He published Rhymes without Reason in 1944, a collection of comical, light-hearted nonsense poems which includes this short classic six liner:


AUNTY FLO

When Aunty Flo
Became a Crow
She had a bed put in a tree;
And there she lay
And read all day
Of ornithology.

Frank Gelett Burgess


Known as Gelett Burgess (1866-1961), he was an American writer and humourist who published the Burgess NonsenseBook in 1901, a collection of verse and prose. He's best known for writing the four line poem The Purple Cow:

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!


Burgess was one of the first nonsense poets to include symbols in his lines, as in this special piece:


I don’t give a √D2

For the stuff you denominate hair

And your fingers and toes and your

Neck and your nose,

These are things it revolts me to wear.


The first line contains a mathematical symbol and the whole line reads :

I don't give a square root of D squared which fits neatly into the rhythm of the poem.

Dr Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), aka Dr Seuss, was an American writer, poet and illustrator. His many books of zany nonsense over decades make him one of the best loved of children's authors in the USA. His corny, mad stories and offbeat characters fit perfectly within the rhythm of his poems, many of which contain made up words, such as kwigger, kweet, grickily gructus, truffula trees, wumbus and many more.


A flock of Obsks
From down in Nobsks

Hiked up to Bobsks
To look for Jobsks

Then back to Nobsks
With sighs and Sobsks...

There were, in Bobsks,
No jobs for Obsks.


He never will know if the Gick or the Goor

fits into the Skrux or the Snux or the Snoor.


“Look, Lorax,” I said. “There’s no cause for alarm.

I chopped just one tree. I am doing no harm.

I’m being quite useful. This thing is a Thneed.

A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”

Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) was a British writer best known for his cult classic comic sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In this book the hero Ford Prefect and his friend Arthur Dent are 'tortured' by an alien Vogon captain. The form of torture? Vogon poetry is read out loud. According to Adams, Vogon poetry is the third worst poetry in the universe. Here is a scrumptious sample:


“Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits
On a lurgid bee.
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes
And hooptiously drangle me
With crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
See if I don’t!”

Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan (1918-2002) was a British writer and comedian who wrote verse mainly for children. His famous Ning Nang Nong is taught in schools today. It's stuffed full of joyous simple nonsense that takes you far away.


On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!

Authors of Nonsense

There are quite a few writers who have specialised in nonsense. These include:

English: Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Mervyn Peake, Spike Milligan

Russian: Daniil Kharms, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (Kosma Prutkov)

French: Charles Cros, Robert Desnos

German: Christian Morgenstern, Ringelnatz, Robert Gernhardt.

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  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 15 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Exactly, the closer you go the further you get to nowhere, somehow, somewhere. And that's just the introduction to nonsense! Imagine the contents of a feather or even the whereabouts of the first drop of water?

  • tsmog profile image

    Tim Mitchell 15 months ago from Escondido, CA

    Thanks for the introduction. Sharing is I have been enlightened under the suns rays at midnight. My concept of what was nonsense may not have fit the traditional sense while see is to be novel is a keyword. I dun'no. Yet, ponder wondering maybe will play a bit and a byte with days nearer distant closer to a megabyte than a gig. :-)

  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 15 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    The longest comment! And most of it nonsense, which is acceptabubble I guess.

  • Anita Saran profile image

    Anita Saran 15 months ago from Bangalore, India

    Lovely article chef-de-jour! I wrote a story called Glooked Up which was published in a book of short stories. It's pretty much nonsense - well, at least I've made up several words:

    Merlino opened his eyes,took off his hat and began to chew on it. The thing on the rock looked like a humanoid in a bodysuit. It was bald,very short and skinny,with one weeping eye in its forehead.

    "What's your name?" said Sloop,sidling up to it.

    "I don't know my name. My Wok Wok didn't give me one because we've run out of names here." The creature wiped its brimming eye

    with the back of his hand on which the veins stood out true and blue.

    "I'll tell you where to find your name if you show us around here,"said Merlino,suddenly waking up.

    "Oh really? I'll be so cloopful,I will show you anywhere you like!" said the creature with a forgotten sob.

    "Cloopful?"Merlino laughed.

    "Why are you larking?" it said,indignant.

    "If I could lark around I wouldn't be here,"said Sloop,puzzled.

    "Well,stop larking then,there's no need to. Are you feeling vroom?" it patted its chest.

    "No,certainly not!" said Merlino,indignant,although he had not the faintest idea about what was meant.

    Sloop giggled and glanced around him,frowning with interest. He could see clouds as on earth,trees as on earth. Buildings and flyways of glass like nothing on earth. Creatures moved inside glass houses on their daily chores.

    "Must they have glass loos too?" he said to Merlino.

    "This will be their Waterloo. One must have secrets."

    "Don't zark!" cried Anonymous,its one eye glaring.

    "Bark?" said Merlino,starting and nearly upsetting himself on his beard again,"I'm no dog!"

    "There are some good looking doinks here. They make wonderful mizooks...are you vroom?" he patted his chest again. For the first time Merlino noticed that the creature had tiny holes in the side of his bald head instead of ears. He felt all the more certain that he had been magically transported to a planet in the system of Frosty Flakes. That accounted for the strange language anonymous spoke.

    "You...er...eat the doinks?"said Sloop,horrified.

    "Half half. They are half doinks,half pigs. We eat the dog half. Twackly,we've got a lot many glooked up things here like

    centaurs and mermaids,"it said proudly. "Shall I mooch you?"

    "Oh no,please don't!" said Merlino, blushing.

    "Oh please do!" said Sloop.

    "How could you?" said Merlino, aghast.

    "With pleazpoo,with pleazpoo!" Anonymous began to walk at a fast pace,gesturing to them to follow. Merlino sighed with relief.

    "Merlino,"began Sloop.

    "I told you there's nothing O about Berlin!" said the wizard,irritably.

  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 15 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Many thanks for the visit Chitrangada. Nonsense can bring some light relief into our lives - when things become too dull and oppressive! And I agree totally with your feelings about grammar and being creative.

  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 15 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thanks for the visit and comment Jodah, appreciated. I shall have to look into Shel Silverstein. I know he wrote many children's poems and is a popular poet.

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 15 months ago from New Delhi, India

    Very interesting and informative hub!

    Now I know what is 'Nonsense poetry.' I believe creative writers should be left free--free from the rules of grammar.

    I have often found that some words which don't have any meaning whatsoever, become an instant hit with kids and adults alike. May be they strike a chord or have rhythm.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 15 months ago from Queensland Australia

    Chef, I enjoy nonsense poetry in all forms including limericks. Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear are just two of my favourites, but loved Spike Milligan's "Ning Nang Ning". Shell Silverstein wrote some good ones too.

  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 15 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit Alicia. A little nonsense verse now and then goes a long way.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

    This is such an interesting hub! It's a great time for me to read it, too, because I've been thinking about nonsense poetry lately. Thank you very much for sharing the information and all the examples.

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