Our guest post today is from Jack Penny, an illustrator and writer of nonsense, who gives us an insight into a genre which, despite a long tradition, remains out of the mainstream.

‘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!”’

 The first two verses here of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) are a wonderful example of nonsense verse. Literary nonsense is not literally nonsense, but a genre of writing that makes sense and meaning of language and reasoning that seem otherwise rather unreasonable.

Though literary nonsense has been around for a marvelously long time, it is still rather unknown and far too often confused. I regularly have to explain in interviews what nonsense exactly is, and I do so through comparing it to the fantasy genre. Fantasy is a genre that creates a world in its entirety. There may be no gravity perhaps, or maybe people eat milk and drink cheese, but whatever world is created is bound by an established set of rules. What separates nonsense from the more popular genre of fantasy is that there is no bounding set of rules. There is a surprisingly deep, and playfully intellectual nature to nonsense that lifts it above gibberish.

hairbrush - cropped
I once read an article that tried to explain a good approach to practicing writing nonsense verse.

First, write a normal poem, rhyming or not, about anything. For instance, ‘to drink ones cheese and eat ones milk’.

Then move some words around based not on meaning but entirely on the sounds and rhythm to make the verse as fluid as possible. ‘To one’s cheese drink, and one’s eat milk’.

Finally, select about a third of the words on each line and change them entirely to a made-up word that rhymes/sounds alike. For instance, milk may become brilk (I did this by combining the words brill and milk), or cheese may become seech (done by reversing sounds). And so we are left with, ‘to one’s seech drink, and one’s eat brilk’.

The opening verse of a poem I wrote perhaps three years ago runs:

‘Set err upon the clarinet.

Befell, t’was a languid strange stoop.

There sat a coy end when,

ambled empty fate.’

 Perhaps from this it is hard to tell that the original text was about an ex-girlfriend of mine and went something like this:

Met her on the Internet

Tell friends it was a language exchange group

She had a boyfriend then

Cancelled many dates

Nonsense is a writing genre bound by nothing, and so can in fact also be used in rationale and reasoning as deftly as anywhere else. I recently published a book called From the Riddle Me Collection Volume One: A Stone’s Throw, that contains 200 original riddles that, rather than relying on the metaphorical or allegorical, rely in a nonsensical way on etymological and idiomatic aspects of the English language.

‘If I am slow I may be a poke, or if I’m not I may be sure. If I am bold I may be brass, favoured by fortune, or made to venture. What is up may not be up but in fact belted and so quiet, while what is down may be brought, at least by a peg or two.’

So to end this feature a small riddle for you:

I have no mouth but there a spoke

Put in me, on such words I choke,

See fortune’s me, luck’s where it lands,

I come in two and four me bands,

But where a two and one more nuisance spurred;

A third.

The answer is available, along with 200 other riddles, beautiful illustrations and other extras in the first book of the series, from my shop here:

Author: Jack Brutus Penny

You can find From The Riddle Me Collection Volume one: A Stone’s Throw at and





21 responses to “Nonsense and Stuff”

  1. Allen Curtis Meissner Avatar
    Allen Curtis Meissner

    Don’t you just love how stupid and crazy things grab attention more quickly than normal things ?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Naturally. It always seems sad to me that we remember pain far more than joy, and hold on to hate more tightly than love. So I revel in how our brains are so attached to what they can’t really grasp.


  2. GD Deckard Avatar
    GD Deckard

    Thanks for the non sense! (I memorized Jabberwocky years ago. Now for some reason, I can’t forget it.)
    Reading on the edge & sometimes peeking over is refreshing. The most boring I ever write is when the words flow so sensibly I realize I didn’t need to write them at all.
    You have a talent for shaking words up, Jack. I wish you great success!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Thank you very much GD Deckard, I appreciate the kind words. I always loved the Jabberwocky also. I’m often proud of a sentence or paragraph when I realise that even I have to read it through twice to understand it. Words that flow too sensibly that they become unnecessary, I couldn’t agree more.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. atthysgage Avatar

    Jack. Great fun. Thanks for posting. I’ve never been much good at riddles, but I enjoy the form none the less.

    I think there’s a great value for any author to detach herself from literal meaning sometimes, if only to explore the possibilities. Our brains make so many connections on sub-conscious levels, often creating things we never would’ve let happen if we hadn’t let go of conscious control. It’s one more tool for us to learn how to use.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Hey Atthysgage, thank you for the comment, I appreciate the kind words. I couldn’t agree more about the subconscious connections our minds can wander into being an underused tool.


  4. mimispeike Avatar

    The joy of nonsense for me is, first and foremost, the delicious sounds, and second, the game of extracting meaning where there may be none, none intended at least, but discoverable meaning nonetheless.

    I’d thought, in my light verse, that I wrote nonsense verse. Perhaps not. I suppose I write whimsy that rhymes. That rhymes in surprising ways. That tells a solidly loopy story in whimsical language that rhymes in surprising ways.

    I do appreciate you poking a nose into our little group. I do feel very much on your wavelength, and I hope, if you should read a bit of my verse, that you might feel a bit on mine.

    Your book is going on my to-buy list, along with one I discovered yesterday on Scribophile, a Ph.d thesis on – can you bear it? – occult Renaissance philosophy!

    GD and Atthys will be shaking their heads about now. Christ! Here she goes again!

    I need to know that stuff, for Sly! (A cat, by the way.) For when he encounters John Dee. He’s got to sound like he (and I) know what we’re talking about. It can’t all be gobbledegook.

    Gobbledegook, my thing, with a dash of honest-to-God history thrown in. For laughs, unbeatable.

    Nonsense verse, yes indeedy. John Dee was always in financial straits. Sly, taking his cue from Nostradamus, is going to pen and peddle, under Dee’s name, verse in the same vein, to help him out. I will use your book as a supplementary how-to. And give you credit in my arch footnotes, I assure you, as I’ve done for A Fool And His Money, another Ph.D thesis that I’ve borrowed (lightly) from, with permission of the author.

    Whether a credit in my screwball adventure will do any of you any good, who knows. But I want to give credit where credit is due.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Dear Mimi, thank your for your response. I do hope you pick up the book and it does act as a source of inspiration for you in any way possible. Please note that I have a few projects in the making, the next being a wonderful collection of 16 short nonsense stories much like Kipling’s Just So Stories, explaining how things came to be in truth. This book here, is a collection of riddles. There is little explanation to my nonsense-writing technique itself in there. Though I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

      Your work also sounds fascinating and I’ll check in on your website as it gets together. Though I try to help define it here, nonsense has become a rather broad term may well include your whimsy. My personal rule of thumb is the ask whether the events described in the line are appropriately inappropriate to the context otherwise.

      I look forward to speaking to you more!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. mimispeike Avatar

    Are my events appropriately inappropriate to the context? To the larger context of assumptions for this sort of silliness, I would say yes, merrily inappropriate, even exquisitely inappropriate, and deliciously true to the characterization that I’ve painstakingly developed in my novel.

    I had meant my verse to be a true children’s story, but that goal melted away immediately, as my arch instincts took over. This is as far from Peter Rabbit as you can get. Nor is it a variation on Dr. Seuss. Childlike innocence is in short supply. My world is a bit cut-throat, but delight-full at the same time.

    Is it, then, a novelty story for adults? I say no. Catly and Yo Ho! (my verse) are not in the spirit of Go The Fuck To Sleep. They are very much for children, but will need (words and concepts both) explaining. Bottom line: once again, I am entertaining myself.

    I have written (er, Sly has written) a good deal of verse in my novel (playful, heartfelt sonnets to a ladylove, primarily) and he has penned a lengthy, tenaciously rhymed diatribe laying out his world view. He is a ferocious correspondent with scholars across Europe, loath to engage in live discussion, him being, after all, a cat. (John Dee is a special case. That works out fine.)

    My inspiration was Margaret Cavendish (billed in a bio I’ve managed to lay hands on as the first female scientist), who liked to express her scientific theories as fantasy storytelling in both prose and verse. I have lifted her first two flavorful lines of a memorable piece, then taken them in my own direction.

    Ain’t history grand? Who could make this up? Well, I could. But it’s so much better that it’s one hundred percent true.

    The closest I am going to get to what you do is when I attempt to channel Nostradamus. All I need from your book is a few examples that kick-start my thinking. I will find them, I don’t doubt it.

    If you scroll down six or seven articles you will run into These Dancing Feet, which explains my approach to storytelling. I read history, biography, Shakespeare, anything, until I find a bit that makes me go Aha! I will enjoy your verse, looking for an Aha! moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Dear Mimi,

      It seems you are very self-aware of your process, style, and how it fits into genre-specific categories. Considering it sounds at least in part, to use the word you did before, whimsical, that can be tough and must be grounding. I do hope, and am also confident, that lines somewhere within my riddles will spark an Aha!

      I will explore this blog and how you produce your work when I get a moment. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. GD Deckard Avatar
    GD Deckard

    Childlike innocence included the cutthroat when kids grew up on The Brothers Grimm. Parents & educators who now work so hard to incubate children into a world of loving kindness will never be Jack or Mimi’s audience.

    Kids of all ages enjoy riddles and silliness. One’s not stupid because one’s a kid. Oppenheimer knew that when he said, “There are children playing in the streets today who can solve some of my top problems in physics because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.” I suspect the young will “get” what you write quicker than anyone else.

    Go for it guys!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Hey GD Deckard,

      Thank you for the reply. I certainly agree. Putting aside more grown-up current-affairs references or slightly too advanced English use for children, they can be far more astute than given credit for, and far more perceptive than an adult.

      When I tell people my books are illustrated especially, they say ‘oh, so you write children’s books’. Then I explain that the writing is rather ‘advanced’ and they are left bemused. Some genres are age specific, but here I feel it is far less bound by age than by curiosity and mental flexibility.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. atthysgage Avatar

    “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up” said Picasso. I do remember seeing my own kids (and others) render remarkable things with paint or pen, for no other reason than that it was fun. That’s not quite the same thing as painting Guernica. We bring other considerations to the table when we write a novel or compose a symphony. I think those are important, too. But if we lose the energy that comes from the foolish delight of creation, we can end up in a very dull place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Precisely, the delight of creation has a wonderfully uncontrollable energy that if nothing else is an incredibly underrated tool.


  8. DocTom Avatar

    Jack, just a quick thank you for giving me the key I needed for something I’m working on. Your explanation was very clear (even very literal me understands it!) and has already been filed for further reference. Thanks again and good luck with your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Dear Doctom,

      You’re very welcome, I’m glad I could help. Please feel free to contact me anytime, and perhaps consider picking up a book, I’m sure you’ll love it. Good luck with your work also.

      Kind regards,



  9. curtisbausse Avatar

    Thanks for that post, Jack. One comes across nonsense so little these days, unless it’s just that I’m unaware of it. So it’s a refreshing reminder of the potential playfulness of language. And it sent me to read again my copy of Mervyn Peake’s A Book of Nonsense. From which I can’t resist providing a sample:

    O here it is! And there it is!
    And no one knows whose share it is
    Nor dares to stake a claim –
    But we have seen it in the air
    A fairy like a William Pear –
    With but itself to blame.

    A thug it is – and smug it is
    And like a floating pug it is
    Above the orchard trees
    It has no right – no right at all
    To soar above the orchard wall
    With chilblains on its knees.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack Brutus Penny Avatar

      Hey Curtis, thank you for your reply. I’m glad the post, if anything, reminded you of the playful versatility of language. The Melvyn Peake quote is wonderful, I’ll have to look into the book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. GD Deckard Avatar
        GD Deckard

        So… Jack’s gonna Peake into Mel’s book?

        Liked by 2 people

  10. […] Penny Nonsense and Stuff “Fantasy is a genre that creates a world in its entirety. There may be no gravity perhaps, or […]


  11. […] Writing meaningful nonsense. […]


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