Our theme for this Quackisitions update is Bob Dylan. Of course, Dylan himself is a fine purveyor of nonsense, as we’ve seen in the Anthology with tunes like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Such adventures are a kind of signature, and they have not gone unnoticed, in encomiums and drubbings over the years. But true nonsense cannot be mocked, and so those who use it only create further nonsense. The Anthology now includes a couple of these “tributes.”
The most notable is from Robert Wyatt, founding member of Soft Machine, and since then an old-before-his-time bearded weirdy, cranking out gentle, crackly craziness. His 1997 album Shleep tilted nonsensical (not only in its title), and Dylanical, with “Blues in Bob Minor.” On the same album, by the way, is his “The Duchess,” which nods to Lewis Carroll. The other Dylanesque tune is Weird Al Yankovic’s “Bob.” I have mixed feelings about this one, as it is just a series of palindromes on the cards. Still, as you’ll see, the whole video performance, with it reflection of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” seems to take it further, the video giving both more coherence and more implied, yet absent meaning. I’m leaving it in the Anthology for now–but you if you object, let me know! I’ll leave it here for now, dear Nonsensophiles.
Click above, and then the little arrow to hear. This interview was conducted when I was the Resident Artist at the Eckerö Post and Customs House, on the Åland Islands, in May 2017. We talk about what brought me to Eckerö and some very basic definitions of nonsense. Make sure to ask Google to translate the page to English and you will discover that I am (and proudly so), a “mum infant.”
In the spirit of new things, new years, and the Official Second Update to the Gromboolia Anthology of Nonsense (soon to box the ears of Star Wars at the box office), I present to you Recent Quackisitions. There have been several addition of late, but here are a few highlights:
“Nonsense is the Fourth Dimension of Literature”
You don’t have to believe me…but I’m afraid you do have to believe Gelett Burgess, peripatetic discoverer of dubious dimensions and author of The Burgess Nonsense Book, noble addition to our Anthology.
As you can see from the title page, not everything in this book is meant to be nonsense, and even some that claims to be may not, in our fusty dustiness of nonsense definition, fit–but nonsense there is within, as seen in Burgess’s theoretical physics, not to mention his spotting the Muse of Nonsense.
“a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine”
Next is Algernon Charles Swinburn, whose literary excess is famous–and yet how fortunate he saw through his own bluster. His poem “Nephelidia” goes all-in on the all-inness of allinity.
“The Cause of Gauze”
Lastly, another must-hear from Of Montreal’s masterpiece album, Coquelicot
A little update on some of the fruits of a radical sabbatical emphatically done. Of the various projects that have been fomenting radical rascalisty re-alignment, a couple have just seen the light of day. First, a chapter on music and children’s poetry, in The Aesthetics of Children’s Poetry, edited by Katherine Wakely-Mulroney and Louise Joy (Routledge. Table of contents here), a most noble volume that takes Isaac Watts as a starting point for some much-needed discussion of children’s poetry.
My chapter, ” ‘That Terrible Bugaboo’: The Role of Music in Poetry for Children,” argues that some children’s “poetry” is actually music, or intimately aligned with it, yet critics will usually ignore the music altogether. It’s something like analyzing the words of a picturebook without looking at the pictures. Using some theory of meaning-making in music from Alfred Cazden and Leonard Bernstein, among others, I argue for the inclusion of music in hermeneutical handbags. As a prime example, I take Edward Lear’s longer poems–which are actually songs. It turns out, contrary to what we normally hear about Lear, that he was a semi-professional composer (if publishing his own settings to Tennyson is any indication), and most of his longer nonsense poems are actually songs that he wrote and performed, two of which we have the sheet music to. I’m trying to jumpstart criticism that takes the music into account. The only other example I know of this happening in earnest is a mostly-forgotten but colossale piece by the composer Randall Thompson, published in the Harvard Literary Bulletin in 1967 (Vol. 15, No. 3), called “The Yonghy Bonghy Bò,” with intro by Philip Hofer. My chapter attempts to encourage this kind of cross-disciplinary criticism.
Also hot off the internets is an article on the nonsense of Carl Sandburg, the humorlessly designed European Journal of Humour Research (Vol. 5, No. 3). In 2016, I went on a mad whirlwind nonsense tour (see old Jabberwokabout blog posts for 5/16/16 and 5/21/16) to Poland, with dear nonsense friends and colleagues Björn Sundmark, Sirke Happonen, Olga Holownia, and Agata Holobut, joined with special guest Elzbieta Chrzanowska-Kluczewska.
We perpetrated a seminar appropriately and sententiously entitled “BLÖÖF: Nonsense in Translation and Beyond,” at the Institute of English Studies of Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, and the talks were developed into the papers published here. This is an open access journal–so dive in, me droogs! You can find the table of contents here, from which you can go to the full text of any article. My piece, “Pigs, pastures, pepper pickers, pitchforks: Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and the tall tale,” is on the oft-ignored American poet Carl Sandburg and his glabrous nonsense short stories for children, the Rootabaga Stories. I argue that Sandburg’s nonsense is distinctly “American,” not only in terms of theme, but also technique, which hearkens back to American folklore, the tall tale, and Laughead’s Paul Bunyan stories. Click here for the article.
Much more will be coming from sabbatical adventures… stay tuned!
I shall occasionally be posting on this blog some highlights from The Gromboolia Anthology of Nonsense, the online anthology I’m building on nonsenseliterature.com. Considering the website is only a couple of months old, I suppose I could be posting quite a lot of recent acquisitions and features, but I’ll limit this post to the most recent, which included, in the category of literature, Alastair Reid; in music, the band Cardiacs; and in scholarship, my article from 2001, “The Original Interactive Game: Edward Lear’s Literary Nonsense” (The Five Owls).
In the study of nonsense, one rarely comes across Alastair Reid, but I hope to rectify that a little by putting him in Gromboolia. His book Ounce Dice Trice (1958) is in The New York Review Children’s Collection, a series that, since 2003, has brought certain worthy books out of their out-of-print status and back to the world, including works by Ruth Krauss, James Thurber, Eleanor Farjeon, and T. H. White. Reid’s book is a stunning dive into the sound and texture of words, guiding us on ways to construct our own words, on words as names, as numbers, and other constructions that are shown to be quite arbitrary. It gives us the power to create our own words and beyond that, systems of word-usage. It starts off rather tamely, with categories of words, such as those that have “bug” in them “to be said when grumpy,” including: “humbug, bugbear, bugaboo, bugbane, ladybug, bogybug, bugseed.” Even here, Reid begins to veer off into nonsense. Next, he begins to create words for familiar (or seemingly so) things:
Several pages are devoted to the possibility of names:
And he moves on to question why we should count in the old boring ways, suggesting new words for the numbers one to ten:
He creates what he calls “Garlands” which are loops of definition that include sense and nonsense, and also some “Curiosities,” where the picture-text incongruity is particularly strong.
The ongoing series put out by Dave Eggers, oops—I mean, Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey–resembles some of the pseudo-scientific jibjab you’ll find here. Overall, Reid’s book is not only excellent nonsense, but also a guide to empowering children and adults to become their own Humpty-Dumpty, a supreme arbitrator and controller of words!
In the category of music, I’ve just added the band Cardiacs, and the songs “Tarred and Feathered” and “Loosefish Scapegrace.” In both songs, there is some chaos, of course, and certain manifest mechanics of nonsense, such as arbitrariness in melody, harmony, and musical structure (not to mention lyrics). The nonsense is balanced by various kinds of sense. That is, the music is crazy in certain ways, but it’s not so crazy as to be atonal or even “experimental” in most definitions of it. The lyrics, likewise, often do make sense, especially for “Tarred” (while “Loosefish” takes a few more nonsensical lyrical turns). The former also has a video, and when you look at the whole package (music, lyrics, video performance), there is, I would argue, a nonsense effect, a tension between meaning and non-meaning (thank you Wim Tigges). It’s also crazy fun poppunkprogskunk!
Lastly, I revived an article long-deceased, “The Original Interactive Multimedia Game: Edward Lear’s Literary Nonsense,” published in the now-defunct journal The Five Owls (in 2001). This somewhat informal article analyzes Edward Lear’s literary nonsense from the perspective of interactivity and reader-response theory, taking into account the combination of text and illustration. It is a beginner’s guide to how Lear’s nonsense functions, its pedagogical value, and the sometimes subversive results.
Until next time, watch out for the whales (conveniently named by Reid), Hugh, Blodge, Barnaby, Hamish, Chumley, Murdo, Cham, Okum, and Sump.
I write from the fringlings of Stockholm, after being torn away from my Eckerö home so unfairly, so prematurely. My Artist Residency came to a duckbilious but bountiful bubble yesterday, as I gave a lecture/performance for a very handsome crowd indeed (immaculate grooming, attractive cake-eating).
There was talk of sound poetry, of Jaap Blonk, “Ursonate,” nonsense literature, and the nonsense that peeks out of The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, compiled by Elias Lönnrot. To my horror, the translator of the Oxfrog Wonk Classics edition of The Kalevala states, “A few nonsense words generated by play have been rendered, in our less tolerant tongue, with rare words” (lii). Another nonsense star falls from the sky, as this booby of a translator translates out the nonsense—because, he claims, English is less tolerant of it?! Of all the festering frogbuckets! It’s no wonder the world is getting warmer and my shoes are getting tighter.
After talk of the International Phonetic Alphabet (check out the clickable audio version here!), and some crazy phonetics action, it was time for me to embark on an almost-full performance of Kurt Schwitters “Ursonate.” This is a goal I’ve had ever since a certain event on November 8th last year. And just as the Dadaists were exploding a world gone mad, well, we’re not too far from that now. That—and of course, the fact that it’s hilarious and clever and so beautifully constructed, and something that children seem to take a shine to, just as the Dadaists thought they would.
The show is over, folks, and I’ve left the building. Many thanks to the Åland cultural council, the folks at Tsarevna and Mercedes Chocolaterie, the crew at the museum, and special shout-out to Mervi Appel, Yvonne Törneroos, and Malin Åberg, who protected me from the giant bunnies and made my time there a hoot and a half and even a little more hoot, after the half went and you just felt like a little bit more hoot.
I include a short clip of the performance here. I will eventually do a better recording and post the whole thing.
For all of you who happen to be in the Åland Islands, please do drop by this lecture/performance! I will be talking about nonsense, poetry, nonsense poetry, poetic nonsense, nonsensical poetasting, and pudding. I will also be whollopping the wilds with sound poetry, and tales of my study of the Kalevala and Ålandish lichen. This will top off my writing residency here, and afterwards, there shall be much gnashing of teeth and beating of mournful mungbuckets.
Click here for the Eckerö Post & Tullhus Facebook event site.
Nonsens at Eckerö Post & Tullhus: Poetry, Sound and Strangeness
Perhaps it was being raised on the Swedish chef’s jaunty genius, or perhaps it is the perspicuous peaks and valleys of intonative incline; or perhaps it is the historical hiccups that created Swedish-speaking Finns (better than Fiendish-speaking Swinns, my Farfar used to say, and he knew a few swarthy Swinns in his day); or it could be the Lunatic Lund spirit, found seven years ago right under the nose of the Nose Museum and the highly- regarded PhD on Nosery; but it does seem that nonsense, slow like honey wrapped in a five pound note, comes with the slow spring, in the mossy forests’ underfoot crunch or the absurdly large bunnies, tempting one down a rabbit hole, of this island of Eckerö, in the Åland Islands, beTwixt and between like an early adolescent on beHalloween.
Whatever currents that brought me here, I find myself in an Artist Residency at the Eckerö Post and Customs House, built in 1828 to prongify the Swedes and the rest of the world, a kind of Pre-Putin shirtless horseback riding through the cutting Baltic wind to put a puffed up front on a crumbled empire.
My mission: to create, in this hybrid archipelago, some strange hybrid of sound poetry and literary nonsense, something that some adults will find terribly difficult, and something some children will find terribly funny and something most will just find terrible. It will happen by way of something like this—and so consider yourself fairly warned.
I would get to work if I could just find a tabell that wasn’t bustidd.