What’s all this nonsense, then?
For some people, the word ‘poetry’ induces the same sort of fear as a final demand or the prospect of being stuck in a lift with Katie Hopkins. Such dread is often a hangover from schooldays, when being required to memorise chunks of Wordsworth or Wilfred Owen was enough to put some of us off daffodils or trench warfare for life.
That said, half-remembered poems are often a doorway into the past, triggering memories attached to hearing or recounting them for the first time – perhaps a granddad extolling ‘season of mist and mellow fruitfulness’ on a childhood tramp through the woods, evoking that day, in those woods, with the same Proustian intensity as the scent of his pipe smoke or the touch of his felt hat.
If I may be serious for a moment…
We all have our favourite poems. I grew up with a fondness for Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, experimenting with adding verses to The Owl and The Pussycat, which might see them as likely to go up the M3 as the Orinoco, or getting married in Vegas by an Elvis lookalike because the turkey who lived on the hill had been kidnapped by Bernard Matthews. Recently, I’ve been exploring the therapeutic benefits of ‘nonsense’ poetry, with its comedic sting in an outlandish tale. Nonsense poetry, to me, is a metaphor for life itself – apparently ridiculous, resistant to any inherent logic but its own, and impossible to quantify. To demonstrate, I give you the following bit of stuff and nonsense, with apologies to Lear:
The skunk and the hummingbird went to town
On a bicycle made for two
They took some lolly, wrapped up in a brolly
– But ran over Mr Magoo
‘Oh heck!’ cried the skunk in a general funk
‘Has he taken a knock to the head?’
The hummingbird sighed, ‘I think that’s implied,
If you cycle through lights when they’re red’
I say ‘apparently’ ridiculous because, in the poetry of Lear and co, there’s sanity in them thar lines: sanity, clarity and artful construction. You can’t form ‘nonsense’ without exerting control, just as you can’t maintain ‘form’ if you apply coercion. It’s a delicate balancing act.
Writing ‘nonsense’ allows the writer to enter the realm of bizarrely landscaped dreams already populated by fairy tales, a realm of surrealist fantasy where a lobster might play a ukulele, wicked stepmothers stalk the land, and an escape hatch is never more than a plot twist away. Therapeutically, diving into this world reminds the writer they are in and of the moment, free to conjure up the continuing adventures of skunk and hummingbird without violating the internal logic of the poem’s proposed endeavour, cycling into town on a bicycle.
Working on this idea recently in a CWTP context, a writer took the above verse as a starting point and married it to the aphorism of a woman needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle, with interesting results:
Germaine the well-known jellyfish was late for a date with the sea
So she borrowed a Raleigh Chopper and pedalled from A to B
She paused at the zebra fish crossing, to make way for a school of whales
Chanting their water tables and rehearsing their fishy scales
Permission to be ‘silly’ is also permission to let go and perhaps, eventually, approach more serious issues through humour and vice versa – just as rude ditties about overpowering people or situations are a way of diminishing a perceived threat, you might recount a funny incident from your life as a heartfelt sonnet or flight of Miltonic fancy:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n
Something he found out for himself
When he didn’t get home til eleven