Stuff and Nonsense

I have been thinking a little about writing, its diversity, its attractions and its mysteries. I am going to attempt a little essay to explore a number of such facets particularly as it relates to poetry.

Although I am not Christian in belief, I do admire the work of the Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. So let us start with a poem of his. Because it is Easter I have selected “The Windhover.”

The Windhover
[To Christ our Lord This epigraph dedicated the poem to Jesus while echoing the Latin phrase, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the Jesuit motto meaning “To the Greater Glory of God.”]

I caught this morning morning’s minion king –
dom of daylight’s dauphin dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle!AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

The beauty of the words is apparent (although many of the words may not be familiar to you – e.g. dauphin, wimpling, sillion, chevalier, vermillion). The structure is magnificent (a variation on the sonnet form) utilizing all the skills of a great poet with alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme etc. This poem is very meaningful but the meaning is not clear. I believe you would probably need to have had some literary training to be able to pull out all the nuances.

Well what do you make of the following?

Twirl, Twirl

Twirl! Twirl! Twinkle between!
The tweezers are twist in the twittering twain.
Twirl! Twirl! Entwiningly twirl
Twixt twice twenty twigs passing platitudes plain.
Plunder the plover and rover rides round
Ride all the rungs on the brassily bound
Billy, Swirl! Swirl! Swingingly swirl!
Sweep along swoop along sweetly you swain.

This is a lovely poem, catchy and rhythmic – but it is nonsense. It was written by Walt Kelly the creator of the cartoon character “Pogo”. (I can always remember one of Pogo’s famous lines, “I have met the enemy and he is us!”) He has used the syntax of good poetry but is having a lend of us!

But how would you respond to these stanzas from “How Soon the Servant Sun” by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

How soon the servant sun,
(Sir morrow mark).
Can time unriddle, and the cupboard stone,
(Fog has a bone
He’ll trumpet into meat).
Unshelve that all my gristles have a gown
And the naked egg stand straignt.

Sir morrow at his sponge,
(The wound records),
The nurse of giants by the cut sea basin,
(Fog by his spring
Soaks up the sewing tides),
Tells you and you my masters, as his strange
Man morrow blows through his food.

Well, what do we make of this? Does the emperor really have no clothes or are we not clever enough to understand? Perhaps this is a hugely insightful, meaningful poem but we don’t have the skills (or perhaps the patience) to unfold its meaning.

Perhaps the quote below from Thomas himself helps us throw some light on the matter.

“I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance. […] I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever.”

So here is one of the most famous poets of the twentieth century admitting his passion for the play of words, no matter what they mean!

Now there were other talented poets who wrote engaging poetry that admitted, or perhaps even revelled in the fact, that their poems were nonsense. I believe I quoted Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky” in a previous blog. And of course Edward Lear was an acknowledged master of this genre. Who can forget “The Owl and the Pussycat” “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” and the “Pobble Who hast no Toes”?

Sometimes the distinction between the serious and the nonsense is hard to discern.

Carroll’s nonsense poems were often parodies of popular songs or ditties of his day. Ironically the parodies are remembered long after their sources have been forgotten. Carroll loved to poke fun, in his gentle manner, at the stuffy mores and hypocritical mannerisms of society.

Doglas Hofstadter, the American philosopher wrote, “One of the characteristics of ‘genteel’ poetry of the nineteenth century was its precious use of classical literary allusions.”

He then references a poem by Charles Battell Loomis that parodies this trait. Loomis was an American author who gave up a business career to write magazine sketches and books. He was noted for his humourous writing.

A Classic Ode

Oh limpid stream of Tyrus, now I hear
The pulsing wings of Armageddon’s host,
Clear as a colcothar and yet more clear –
(Twin orbs like those of which Parsees boasts);

Down in the pebbled deeps in early spring
The dimpled naiads sport, as in the time
When Ocidelus with untiring wing
Drave teams of prancing tigers mid the chime

Of all the bells of Phicol. Scarcely one
Peristome veils its beauties now, but then –
Like nascent diamonds, sparkling in the sun,
Or sainfoin, circinate, or moss in marshy fen.

Loud as the blasts of Tubal, loud and strong,
Sweet as the songs of Sappho, aye more sweet;
Long as the spear of Arnon, twice as long,
What time he hurled it at King Pharaoh’s feet.

Now this to me is a very disconcerting poem. Despite all its arcane classical allusions it reads well. So you are tempted to read it over again and find the meaning that is surely there. But with Loomis’s pedigree I am pretty sure there is none intended and he is merely taking us for a ride. But how can we distinguish this from Dylan Thomas’s work that literary critics admire and take very seriously?

Before we move from Loomis however, let me share with you his little poem exemplifying the difficulties of the English language.

A Fresh Hack at an Old Knot
by Charles Battell Loomis
I’m taught p-l-o-u-g-h
S’all be pronouncé “plow.”
“Zat’s easy w’en you know,” I say,
“Mon Anglais, I’ll get through!”
My teacher say zat in zat case,
O-u-g-h is “oo.”
And zen I laugh and say to him,
“Zees Anglais make me cough.”
He say “Not ‘coo’ but in zat word,
O-u-g-h is ‘off,'”
“Oh, Sacre bleu! Such varied sounds
Of words make me hiccough!”
He say, “Again mon frien’ ees wrong;
O-u-g-h is ‘up’
In hiccough.” Zen I cry, “No more,
You make my t’roat feel rough.”
“Non, non!” he cry, “You are not right;
O-u-g-h is ‘uff.'”
I say, “I try to spik your words,
I cannot spik zem though.”
“In time you’ll learn, but now you’re wrong!
O-u-g-h is ‘owe'”
“I’ll try no more, I s’all go mad,
I’ll drown me in ze lough!”
“But ere you drown yourself,” said he,
“O-u-g-h is ‘ock.'”
He taught no more, I held him fast
And killed him wiz a rough.
At least this poem is quite explicit in what it is trying to say! However the previous examples show us how difficult it is to differentiate between the meaningful and the meaningless. This might just seem an issue of amusement and trivialness. But underlying it is something of great importance. It is reflective of the very nature of human understanding. It begs a very significant question. How does meaning emerge out of what is essentially a meaningless context? It probably points to a significant differentiation between human and artificial intelligence.

But let me finish with a very short, untitled, poem from our own Michael Leunig. I often use this in presentations. (My critics will say I am still obsessed with dualism!)

Come sit down beside me I said to myself,
And although it doesn’t makes sense,

I held my own hand
As a small sign of trust
And together I sat on the fence.

Whilst Leunig admits “it doesn’t make sense” in its own strange way, even though nonsense verse, it still makes more sense to me than “How Soon the Servant Sun”!

5 Replies to “Stuff and Nonsense”

  1. But ‘stuff’ can only perceived by the senses.

    So Nonsense is nonsense.

    And just as viable as a perception of the world.

  2. My English teachers learnt to hate my analytical nature from about Grade 8. I had a problem with their interpretation of meaning in some of what was to me bizarre poetry. When I discovered that most of the “great” poetry I was forced to read was written by drug effected and arguably mad men there was no holding me back. Now I find all these years later that the difference between deep and meaningful poetry and nonsense is purely the opinion of the reader. If the words feel nice then why is meaning necessary! I am sure I could have a lot of fun with this knowledge if I was to revisit my English teachers.

    That said, the modern day popular poets are the lyricists of music and many of the words in popular music also make no sense but grudgingly I have to agree that the words feel good. I quote a few lines from a song by Nirvana.

    There nothing on top
    But a bucket and a mop
    And an illustrated book about birds

    No literary merit here at all perhaps but I like it and it is nonsense which surely gives it some credibility. It was also written by a drug addict who latter according to the media took his own life with a shotgun wound to the head.

    Of course there is also the classic song “American Pie” by Don McClean. I had an English teacher explaining the meaning of the lyrics to me when I was 15 and then at around 40 listened to an interview with Don McClean when he explained the song has no meaning. It was just words that sounded and felt good.

    So much for being analytical about poetry. It is like wine if you like it, it is good.

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