New nonsense newts nudge ‘n nose ninto norld

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!


The Gromboolia Anthology of Nonsense recent quackisitions update

I shall occasionally be posting on this blog some highlights from The Gromboolia Anthology of Nonsense, the online anthology I’m building on 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.