Writing a good nonsense poem takes years of serious practice. Do you think that Alice just tumbled down the first rabbit hole she encountered ? Or that the Owl hadn’t dated a whole kindle of pussycats before he found the right Remarkable Pussy You Are ? Many an expedition was sent out in search of the Ning Nang Nong, stocked with provisions of green eggs and ham all stored in a pelican’s beak, that ran into various crocodiles, snarks and enormous bears before coming galumphing back by sea in a sieve – or so I was told by a girl named Matilda, so it must be true.
The trouble is, if your verse doesn’t actually mean anything, it must make it’s pointlessness pretty – no excuses for shaky meter and half-rhymes when another, better rhymed word would make just as much sense (ie none). The rhythm has to be perfect, the lines rattle off with never a hiccup or emphasissing the wrong syllable, and above all, it must sound great ! It might not mean anything, but who can fail to love with
‘The time has come, the Walrus said, / To talk of many things: / Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax – / Of cabbages – and kings -’
‘At whatever time the deed took place / Macavity wasn’t there !’
‘And there in a wood a piggy-wig stood / with a ring on the end of his nose,’
– hold on, we’re not done yet –
‘His nose, / His nose, / With a ring on the end of his nose.’
But there was nothing but the utmost seriousness at this week’s workshop – Martin Choules read us his dry discourse on the biology of siphonophores with only a brief attack of the giggles, and Roger Beckett has been treating climate change with the utmost gravity, despite it being minus fifteen in Aberdeen yet awfully hot in Aldershot. For Daphne Gloag, the most pressing question was whether parrots are afraid of dynamite, and Alan Chambers has been off listening to the bells, while Christine Shirley found February to be a time for thawing, and there’s nothing silly about that. Meanwhile, Owen Gallagher managed to sing a hymn of praise to workmen without a single cliche about buttock cleavage or milk-and-four-sugars, and John Hurley’s daydream beside a log fire took him into his sentimental past rather to where the bong-tree grows. Peter Francis then told us with a straight face that his favourite element is water, but I swear his hidden wall is laughing at us, unlike the skylark in Pat Francis’ ode (who fortunately wasn’t a duck). And then we came to David Erdos, or rather his cat, sneering at the folly of the human world that the felines are about to take over – it was just a shame he couldn’t have brought his cat along with him so she could have read it out herself, and finally Nick Barth has been down at the seaside looking at the light and wondering what the fuss is all about, which is a perfectly sensible English reaction.
Whenever anyone has brought some nonsense verse to the group in the past, the reaction hasn’t always been as warm as we might wish. Edward Lear was as nonplussed as a negative integer with the reaction to his early Limericks (especially when they complained that the last lines were just repeats of the first), and Lewis Carroll thought that all the questions over the meaning of vorpal blades and borogoves rather missed the point (because there wasn’t one). But perhaps their nonsense was just too…sensible. But then again, I’ve always found the English to be unworthy custodians of their language. Now James Joyce, there’s a man who could peloother his umbershoot with an agenbite of inwit till his poppysmic quark was a scribbledehobbled tattarrattat.