My friend and former colleague Bill Whipple wrote,
I've been wastimg my time wondering about this, and I thought I'd see whether I can waste some of your time as well.
Has anybody developed a scheme for classifying the various types of nonsense verse? There seem to be several distinct genres. There are classics like “Jabberwocky,” or this gem by Ogden Nash:
The sharrot scudders nights in the quastron now,
The dorlim slinks undeceded in the grost,
Appetency lights the corb of the guzzard now,
The ancient beveldric is otley lost.
Treduty flees like a darbit along the drace now,
Collody lollops belutedly over the slawn.
The bloodbound bitterlitch bays the ostrous moon now,
For yesterday's bayable majicity is flunky gone.
Make way, make way, the preluge is scarly nonce now,
Make way, I say, the gronderous Demiburge comes,
His blidless veins shall ye joicily rejugulate now,
And gollify him from 'twixt his protecherous gums.
[I think I wrote one of those, Bill, when I was in high school:
THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAMBLE DOG
And glying came the wamble dog
Through yellow floods of dimble trees.
Along the way he flaffled at
Grand hordes of ifferary fleas.
“Aha!” cried he, gapflumpf with glee,
“Bewordling there, who can that be
Standing beside the rordle sea
And waiting lorily for me?”
His flaffle tail stood tall and straight
As he approached, with breath abate,
The black cloaked figure on the shore:
‘Twas Mother Goose and nothing more
Delarling in a tarn of gore
With story books and rhymes galore
And tales you’ve never heard before,
Bound up within a silken noose.
So up he glyed with panting breath
(For he was old, and Mother Goose
Is know to grownups, too, as Death).
The wamble dog will gly no more,
For now he frondles Stygian lore,
And life’s short game, for him, is o’er
Since death has evened up the score.]
These examples use made-up words [neologisms], placed within normal syntactic structures, using enough common words (articles, conjunctions, etc.) to make the text sound meaningful -- except for the artificial words. [Neologistic verse?
Then there is another type of nonsense verse, in which all the words are genuine and the syntax is correct, but where the choice of words makes no semantic sense [inappropriate modification and imaginary description?]. An example comes from our old friend, Walt Kelly:
I've always thought, in the crispness of Noon,
The best of the week is Christmas in June.
Then if ever's the Ismuth too soon
As we sprinkle and wrinkle the Bismuth in tune.
[Would this poem of mine fit into your second category, Bill” –
Twunkle, twunkle, small carbuncle,
How I wonder who’s your uncle
Down beneath the dirt so low
Where the worms and beetles grow.]
Allowing that "Ismuth" probably means "isthmus," there are no artificial words here -- but the lack of semantic meaning makes it nonsense.
Then there is a third type, in which both the words and the semantics are normal, but where a total absurdity of the situation makes the poem nonsense. An example is this one by Christopher Isherwood:
THE COMMON CORMORANT OR SHAG
The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
[This sounds like more “imaginary description, Bill, but I think I’ve written one of them]:
A MOLE LIVED ON A MOUNTAIN
A mole lived on a mountain.
His banjo, it was blue.
He sang of a crystal fountain
That welled from beneath a yew.
And it was in the fall of the year
That his banjo, it was blue.
As the old mole sang, he shed a tear
For Lily of the Valley.
And it was in the fall of the year
That he sang, "O waly, walley,
My love, she lives in a far, far land,
My Lily of the Valley."
He sailed for a desert island
With his banjo all of blue.
He sang, "My love's in a far, far land —
"Alas! that she never knew
A mole lived on a mountain
Whose love for her was true,
Who sang of her crystal fountain.]
All of these types share one feature: correct syntax. I suppose that without syntax, we'd have just collections of words that don't make any sense together, and that wouldn't be seen as verse. But it's possible to skirt the edges of even this requirement, by using slight fragments of syntax (along with meter and rhyme) to hold together normal words that lack semantic coherence. Here's Kelly again:
Hear ye! Hear ye!
Hear ye now!
Cup ye now an eye
Moo and six is pie
[Does this work with the rules you’ve set down for the fourth category, Bill? –
When one snords or burdlestans
Past the grim fleeglockles,
He must wordle Everyman's
Whibble 'mongst the cockles.]
Well, it seems to be that there ought to me some taxonomy here. Somebody must have plowed this field, or at least surveyed it -- but I haven't found anyone who has done so.
Do you have any thoughts about all of this -- other than that it's a damfool way to spend a Memorial Day weekend?
Let me know if my examples fit your categories, Bill, then maybe we can figure out the taxonomy.
I think your examples fit the categories in which you've placed them, except for "Snords." That would seem to me to
fall in the first category -- its effect comes from artificial words placed in syntactically-correct proto-sentences. Certainly your Wamble Dog poem is an excellent example of that genre. Lewis Carroll's "Hunting of the Snark" would also be in this category. It would also encompass Douglas Adams' Vogon Poetry.
I think "Twunkle Twunkle" approximately fits the second category. To be sure, "twunkle" is not an English word, but then "Ismuth" in my example isn't one either. (I imagined it to be a variant of isthmus -- or possibly of azimuth -- but the word as Kelly actually used it is artificial.) Perhaps the second category ought to be defined as verses composed **almost entirely** of genuine words, to allow occasional exceptions. These seem to me quite different from the verses in the first category, where the humor stems primarily from the use of nonsensical words in grammatically-correct structures. Here is another example of the second category, from the Beatles album "Abbey Road;"
Mean Mister Mustard sleeps in the park
Shaves in the dark, trying to save paper.
Sleeps in a hole in the road,
Saving up to buy some clothes,
Keeps a ten-bob note up his nose,
Such a mean old man.
Or, from the same source,
Didn't anybody tell her?
Didn't anybody see?
Sunday's on the phone to Monday,
Tuesday's on the phone to me.
Your "A Mole Lived on a Mountain" fits the third caregory very well. All the words are real, all the sentences make sense -- except that the situation described is absurd. Much of the work of Lear would fit in this category -- such as "The Jumblies":
Far and few, far and few,
And the lands where the Jumblies live.
Their heads are green and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
As for the fourth class, I'm not sure whether it can be defended as a distinct category at all. I can't think of any examples other than by Kelly, but he was proficient in a style that skated on very thin syntactical ice, using localized bits of semantic context, to bind together verses. Here's another example:
Can we eggplant?
Can we corn?
Can we succotash?
String we strongbeans
for the morn,
Perhaps, though, unless an example by another poet turns up, this should just be considered one of Kelly's idiosyncratic styles (like the "Anguish Langwich") and not treated as a genre of nonsense verse. I don't know... what do you think?
What Walt Kelly does in the first three lines of the example you use for your fourth class of nonsense verse is called “anthimeria,” which, as I say in my The Book of Literary Terms on pages 119-129,* “substitutes one part of speech for another; for instance, a noun for a verb as in ‘The clock's chime belfries above the city.’" Overall, Kelly is using “annomination…wordplay, as in the pun, the quibble, or calembour. A synonym is paronomasia,” also to be found on page 119 of my book. There are many other terms for what he does; for instance, “strongbeans” is a “coinage” or “neologism” which he produces by substituting one vowel, an “o,” for the “i” in “stringbeans” (assonance, a type of chime, “similar sound” rather than “rhyme”). All of these ploys are standard in nonsense (or any other kind of) verse. So I don’t think your fourth category exists as a separate type of silliness, a point you yourself make, with which I agree.
However, you might be able to make a case for the other three. Now all you have to do is come of with names for them. I’ve suggested “neologistic verse” for the first, “verse of inappropriate modification” for the second, maybe, if it’s to be distinguished from the third, and perhaps “imaginary description” for the third, though the last two terms are clunky.
The best names I've been able to come up with for the three types are (1) lexical nonsense, (2) semantic nonsense, and (3) contextual nonsense. I'm not enamored of these terms, but they're descriptive -- the first has to do with absurd words, the second with absurd meanings, and the third with absurd context. I think you're right -- the line between the second and third types is a fuzzy one. But they do seem distinguishable to me. We're both content to deep-six the fourth, so that takes care of that one.
Suggested writing exercise:
Write something nonsensical in verse.
*The Book of Literary Terms: The Genres of Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism, and Scholarship, Hanover: University Press of New England (www.UPNE.com), 1999. ISBN 0874519543, cloth; ISBN 0-874519-55-1, paper. A companion volume to The Book of Dialogue and The Book of Forms. A Choice “Outstanding academic title” for 2000.