This month, I thought we could take a look at metaphor and nonsense poetry. First, here's one definition of nonsense verse – this from Literary Terms: A Dictionary:
"Nonsense verse: A type of light verse in which sense is subordinate to sound, and absurdity is sought for its own sake. Among the most famous practitioners of nonsense verse are Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the author of the following lines:
On the Coast of Coramandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods,
Lived Yonghy Bonghy-Bo.
(Lear,"The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo")
(– Beckson and Ganz, 1983, p. 164)
Next will be looking at a classic nonsense poem that has captured the delight and imagination of many over the years – "Jabberwocky," [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42916] by Lewis Carroll. Please read the piece before continuing.
One of the chief ways that nonsense poems such as this one create metaphor and metaphor-like effects is through sound. Reread "Jabberwocky" aloud, and think about the sounds, especially of the made-up words – how do the sounds reach beneath your consciousness to a deeper, intuitive comprehension?
Already with the first two lines –
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
– one might sense something portentous and a little bit ominous… and this feeling is extended in other phrases, such as "mome raths outgrabe," " The frumious Bandersnatch," " vorpal sword," and "manxome foe." Caroll uses "neologisms" – newly coined words – as well as something called "portmanteau." The Merriam-Webster dictionary [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/portmanteau ] describes this as a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms (as smog from smoke and fog). Read down the page when you link to this definition, to see how Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) the portmanteau of the words in "Jabberwocky" –for example, how "slithy" comes from a combination of "lithe" and "slimy." So this sense of familiar words combined into one also helps us bring meaning to the new word.
Another Definition of Nonsense Verse. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has this definition of nonsense verse:
"Some readers consider that any poetry which tells a fantastic story or which describes a fictive world in which the natural laws of the world as we know it do not operate (comparable to the prose example example of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland) is nonsense verse. And there are certainly, in the world's poetries, ample numbers of bizarre, fantastic, mythic, or surreal stories in verse which describe some autonomous world which clearly operates according to a set of laws which have their own internal logic.… These certainly have their interest. It is however naïve to believe that nonsense verse does not 'make sense'; much of it does, in its own way. 'Nonsense,' a modern critic has remarked, 'is not no-sense.' Rather, we must say, nonsense verse is verse which does not yield the same kind of denotative sense that sentences do in ordinary language or prose or even most poetry where the words chosen are of known lexical meaning (as recorded in dictionaries) and are arranged in normal syntax. Nonsense verse may in fact yield sense in only vestigial, disconnected, or centrifugal ways, or it may yield sense in unexpected, unpredictable, or hitherto unknown ways. But these are shard-sense or new-sense, not no-sense, which would be the verbal equivalent of a series of random numbers. Users of language live in meaning and will create sense wherever conceivably possible.
"Still, the term 'nonsense verse' is more properly reserved for verse in which the dislocation is less that of plot or fictive world than of language itself. Nonsense verse is most often constituted by unusual words – e.g., neologisms, portmanteau words – or unusual syntax or both."
(– The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Preminger and Brogan)
We come to realize that a nonsense poem such as "Jabberwocky," with many made-up words and a variety of rich sounds (a few of which may seem unusual to our ears), employs onomatopoeia – words that sound like the thing they are conveying – though, since the words in "Jabberwocky" are made up, we don't always know precisely what they are conveying in a denotative sense, and yet we get the meaning from the context. Think of "whiffling" in these lines:
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
– we get the sense of a huffing, snorting, and/or wheezing creature.
And in this line: " The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!" the "snicker-snack" reminds us of the sounds of a sword fight. And in this line – "He went galumphing back" – we get the sense of a large animal perhaps made awkward from his wounds, ambling away awkwardly but as quickly as possible.
We also understand the joy in the sounds made by these nonsense words: " O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” (For practice: What nonsense words could you make up to express a sense of joy like this?)
But separate and apart from individual instances of pure sound-sense, we can think about how, overall, the sounds in "Jabberwocky" work in a metaphor-like way to tell this story and convey character, action, and emotion. Again, we don't always know what is being talked about, and somehow nevertheless we do! We experience danger, a rich, portentous setting, a sense of movement, battle, and triumph.
In one sense, nonsense poetry is based on the nonrational, but it most certainly taps into something deep within us that makes sense. And we could say that there is a bit of the nonrational in every metaphor – for metaphors compare often rather unlike things that are related in some way, and the mind must make a leap to accommodate that oblique association. This is what gives us a sense of freshness and even a feeling of transformation when we read a metaphor.
Here is what Robert Wallace says about the nonrational in poetry in his book Writing Poems:
"A good poem, read again and again over the years, seems always fresh, saying more each time than we recall, showing itself to us in ever new lights. Passing centuries may not dim this mysteriously self-renewing energy. We are not mistaken in believing that such poetry comes from, and keeps us in touch with, a fundamental power deep within the psyche, or dark rivers from time-beyond-memory carved in stone."
For Your Thinking and Writing:
Whether you next write a nonsense poem or one with conventional language and syntax, think about how the words you choose can add meaning purely through their sounds, perhaps also creating metaphor-like effects or supporting metaphors in the piece.
For Further Reading:
More links to discussions of Lewis Carroll and "Jabberwocky":
Poetry Foundation – https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/lewis-carroll
Alice in Wonderland site – http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/poem-origins/jabberwocky/
Interesting Literature – https://interestingliterature.com/2016/01/22/a-short-analysis-of-jabberwocky-by-lewis-carroll/
May poem from Edward Lear: "The Quangle Wangle's Hat"
I always encourage you to simply play around with sounds – in your journal or in your shaped pieces – it is both fun and an excellent practice, and it may lead to a whole piece that uses sound as a strategy.
Until next time, best wishes for your reading and writing!
Beckson, K, and Ganz, A. (1983). Literary terms: A dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Preminger, A., and Brogan, T. V. F. (Eds.)(1993).The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Wallace, R. (1982). Writing poems. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.
Leave a Reply.
Jennifer Burd teaches "Mastering Metaphor" through the Loft Literary center and writes a monthly blog, "Metaphor and More."