writing technique

Nonsense and Stuff


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.

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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: www.jackbrutuspenny.com/shop

Author: Jack Brutus Penny  www.jackbrutuspenny.com

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