The Gromboolia Anthology of Nonsense
This is an anthology of online nonsense art. That is to say, it’s a place to experience different kinds of nonsense art which happen to be online. It begins with literature but goes in many other directions, as nonsense can manifest as novel, story, poetry, song, games, videos, oatmeal, movies, dance, squance, and pomade. Much nonsense art, of course, is not available online–so be sure to check out the primary bibliography for a more complete list. Maybe you’ll even have to go to a library! Gasp!
The Gromboolia Anthology will continue to grow, so do check back occasionally to see what’s new. The Jabberwokabout blog also will post occasional updates on what’s new. Anything missing? Let me know! Note bene: I will also be publishing a note on the selection process.
In a category by themselves are Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, the “fathers” of what we now generally call literary nonsense. In a way, their collected work is a kind of definition of what we now mean by “nonsense literature.”
Edward Lear (1812-1888)
Lear began the popularization of literary nonsense in the nineteenth century with A Book of Nonsense (1846), a collection of limericks (though he never called them that) that he adapted to make nonsense. Unlike modern limericks, these are not jokes, but rather a kind of circular nonsense play. Lear’s most anthologized poem is “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” but he did so much more, from the volumes of limericks to short story, lyric poetry, recipes, botanical drawings, songs, and alphabets. Follow this link for an archive of facsimiles of original publications, posthumous material, and some of the major and minor editions and anthologies.
The published books are here (the last one posthumously): A Book of Nonsense (revised 1861 edition); Nonsense Songs Stories and Alphabets (1871); More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc. (1872); Laughable Lyrics (1877); Queery Leary Nonsense (posthumous, 1911).
Don’t know where to start? Try “The History of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World” (short story), “The Dong With a Luminous Nose” (lyric poetry/song), this set of limericks, an alphabet, some nonsense botany, a recipe for “amblongous pie.”
Just for fun, here is Dayle Stanley’s musical version of “The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo” (1963).
Warning! Reading Lear without his illustrations is a crime in most parts of the world punishable by Runcible Recriminations, which involves spoons and other implements of destruction. Always consider his illustrations with the texts!
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
Carroll (that is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) published Alice in 1865, creating a new stream of nonsense that differed from Lear in certain ways. His main nonsense works are: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), The Hunting of the Snark (1876)
Many artists have tried their hand at Alice, including Salvador Dalí, Tove Jansson, Ralph Steadman, Mervyn Peake (Alice coming through the looking-glass (1); The Walrus and the Carpenter(2)), and more. Each vision is quite unique–never replacing Tenniel’s originals, but sometimes riffing off of them.
THE REST: Here are other notable writers of literary nonsense. Of course, not everything any particular author does is nonsense. Some of this is for children, some for adults, but much nonsense serves both audiences. This Anthology will continue to grow, so do check back…
Gelett Burgess (1866-1951)
A man of many talents, Burgess also dipped into, and now is probably most famous for, his nonsense poetry. Much of the material that appears in The Burgess Nonsense Book (1901) is closer to light verse than nonsense, but he does hit it occasionally. Burgess is best known for the rhyme that most people think is by Ogden Nash, concerning a certain pitiable purple cow. The full book is available here.
Dr. Seuss (1904-1991)
Seuss is, as Phil Nel puts it, an “American icon”–and has his own unique style of nonsense. Books like The Cat in the Hat (1. Original cartoon (1971); 2. video of reading) and especially the lesser-known On Beyond Zebra (video of a reading), are a good place to start.
Many have cited Foote’s “The Great Panjandrum” as the first nonsense poem. It wasn’t, but it was a fine example of proto-nonsense, hearkening back to the intellectual nonsense of John Hoskyns and John Taylor a hundred years or so before. It was created, so the story goes, by Foote to test the memory of Charles Macklin, an actor who claimed he could memorize any text after hearing it only once. It was first published in 1775, and here, in 1885, in a Randolph Caldecott-illustrated edition. (Foote, Samuel. The Great Panjandrum Himself. Illus. R. Caldecott. New York, London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1885. .Web.)
Edward Gorey (1925-2000)
Gorey may be the American truest to the tradition of literary nonsense. His many books dip in and out of the genre. His most famous book is The Gashleycrumb Tinies. But for nonsense, see also The Epileptic Bicycle, The Wuggly Ump, The Blue Aspic, The Untitled Book, The Object Lesson, The Doubtful Guest, The Willowdale Handcar, and more. His works are best (and most cheaply) found in the four anthologies, all with the title of Amphigory (too, also, again, etc.)
Gorey also did illustrations for absurdist writers like Charles Cros and Alphonse Allais, and of course, Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies” (one example here) and “The Dong With A Lumionous Nose” (cover illustration).
Children’s poet of the stars and a few minor quasars! JonArno has been creating some of the best children’s poetry around, to be found in his various collections, including The Man In The Moon-Fixer’s Mask (2004), Black Stars in a White Night Sky (2006), A Vowellers Bestiary (2008), Down In The Bottom Of The Bottom Of The Box, Enjoy It While It Hurts (2013), The Hobo’s Crowbar (2016), and even a secret pseudonymic guest appearance in This Book Makes No Sense: Nonsense Poems and Worse (2012). It’s not all nonsense, but they are wildly inventive and glossolalliaphillic. Here’s one piece that you might not know how to laugh at: “He Laughed With a Laugh”
John Lennon (1940-1980)
Oh, that guy. John Lennon was a devotee of nonsense literature from childhood. He says as a young person, he “was determined to be Lewis Carroll.” (qtd. from the 1968 interview, below!). Here is rare footage of him performing “The Wrestling Dog” from his first nonsense book, In His Own Write (1964), a collection of poems and stories, which was also made into a play. Here is another performance and interview, when A Spaniard in the Works came out in 1965, where he reads excerpts from “We Must Not Forget…the General Erection” and “The Wumberlog (of The Magic Dog)”. Here’s John talking in 1968 about the book, the play coming from the book, nonsense, and his process of writing poetry and music. Posthumously, there was Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986).
Spike Milligan (1918-2002)
As a founder of The Goons, Milligan was not only a creator of nonsense, but a huge influence on the voices to come, like Monty Python and John Lennon.
Mills is usually considered a sound poet rather than a nonsense poet, though as you will see with his performative piece “Squalinda,” (scroll down to “Side 1: Experiments in Disintegrating Language.” It is track 7) the line is not always clear. The liner notes state “Squalinda is an oddity, dating from 1968, using a mixture of normal dictionary words plus invented but suggestive words. It reads as an advert for a blue movie which achieves an orgasm.” Mills himself notes this is “odd,” arguably because it tilts into the realm of nonsense literature, as the “normal” words and “invented” words create the requisite tension between meaning and non-meaning. From the album Konkrete Canticle – Experiments In Disintegrating Language, 1971.
Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)
Peake is more known for his Gormenghast novels (which are, themselves, arguably nonsense), but he was also a master of nonsense verse (some appeared within the novels). He wrote and illustrated several books of nonsense verse. Here is a sampling of his work, from A Book of Nonsense (1972). Two more examples: David Shaw-Parker reading “Oh Here It Is and There It Is…” and “The Men In Bowler Hats Are Sweet” (but why oh why the horrible intro muzik??).
He also did illustrations for the Alice books (see Carroll, above), and The Hunting of the Snark (here is The Bellman from that).
Reid’s book Ounce Dice Trice (1958) is all about the joy of words, of the sounds of words, strange words, archaic words, and nonsense words. It delves into the arcane and mystifying art of naming and infinite cycles of definition. You can find some samples of it here. In the Jabberwokabout blog, you’ll also find some sample pages.
Laura E. Richards (1850-1943)
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
A great unsung hero of American nonsense, Sandburg is a must. Read him now or I’ll not like you. These are short stories, with a distinctly American take on nonsense. Three main volumes, Rootabaga Stories (1922), (on archive.org, also Gutenberg). Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), and Potato Face (1930). Here are a few particularly nonsensical ones to get you started:
“Yonder the Yinder” (PF)
Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)
Much of Silverstein is light verse rather than nonsense, but sometimes he hits it. Especially with Don’t Bump the Glump (1964) and Runny Babbit (2005), his posthumous spook of boonerisms. Check out the official videos:
and this video of several other pieces from Runny Babbit.
With these spoonerisms, the “nonsense” is obviously solved, but Silverstein’s spoonerism construction is so careful and convincing as to force us into considering the alternate, nonsense constructions as valid–thus maintaining that crucial balance between meaning and non-meaning.
Sharing the connection to pre-Raphaelites, as Lear did, Swinburn decorated the literary scene with his florid poetry but was not above self-parody. His poem, “Nephelidia” testifies to his own grand ridiculousness. And maybe ours, too. As Rod McGillis writes, “The very fullness of this verse signifies its emptiness” (“Nonsense” in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, eds. Cronin, et. al. Blackwell, 2002. p. 159.)
Alan Watts (1915-1973)
Although known as a philosopher of Zen Buddhism, Watts also published Nonsense (1967), a slim book of nonsense poems and essays that explain why literary nonsense is the best kind of philosophical language. Here are a few of the poems , and here are the essays.
There is also this lecture, in which he posits that nonsense is the answer to the meaning of life. Sort of.
More authors coming soon: Woody Allen, Anushka Ravishankar, Theodore Roethe, Michael Rosen, JonArno Lawson, Flann O’Brien, Dave Eggers (as Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-On-Whey)
Jabberwokabout, Michael Heyman’s burblings on nonsense and this very site, can be found here (and by clicking on the blog from within this site). The old blog for the various travels of nonsense folks was at http://jabberwokabout.blogspot.com. I am transferring the blog to this WordPress page, though, so come back here for the blog in the future.
For nonsense doings in India and things related to The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense and This Book Makes No Sense: Nonsense Poems and Worse, there is this blog: http://tenthrasa.blogspot.com
From Somewhere in Time: A writer’s blog – with quite a lot about Lewis Carroll, by Jenny Woolf.
The Beatles. Certain substances contributed to the general psychedelic feel of the more nonsensical tunes, but don’t underestimate the enormous influence of the art of nonsense, something Lennon had studied and practiced since childhood, and had brought to such a high level as to publish it in a few books (see his entry in “Literature”). When he decided to deflect his writing of nonsense poems and stories towards his songwriting, the result was songs like”Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus,” (coming in part from Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”(1)), “Come Together,” “Glass Onion,” and “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey.” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” even mentions pataphysics, a nonsensical science invented by French absurdist Alfred Jarry (1873–1907). In a 1971 conversation with a drifter on his property, Lennon said of “Dig a Pony,” (lyrics). “I was just having fun with words. It was literally a nonsense song. I mean, Dylan does that…You just take words, and you stick them together and see if they have any meaning. Some of them do, some of them don’t.” Also, of special interest here is “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” a more obscure tune found on Past Masters, Volume 2, but well worth the finding–as it is completely bonkers, in terms of lyrics and music. It’s nonsense in a different style from the psychedelic tunes, hearkening back more to The Goons (see below). By the way, “Revolution #9” probably does not qualify, as it is more experimental/conceptual than generically nonsense. In other words, it doesn’t make enough sense to be nonsense. (nb. Links for the music are nearly impossible–and much that is out there is bogus in various ways. But do you really not own all The Beatles?)
Will F. Denny‘s “Nonsense” (1906) is a rather astonishing early nonsense recording, coming from this forgotten vaudevillian and an old (1906!) wax cylinder. An interesting mix of Edward Lear and folk nonsense–with dash and spirit! Now what are we talking about??
Bob Dylan is a great purveyor, but don’t mistake all of his obscure references for nonsense. Just because you don’t know that Samson slew a thousand-man army with a donkey’s jaw (Judges 15:16) doesn’t make it nonsense (though it is a reference to a tall tale). Anyway, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with the video especially, has some elements. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” has even more, so much that it made him, dare I say, chortle.
Cardiacs, under the leadership of Tim Smith, have graced the waves of pop-punk strangeness from 1977 onward, with composed chaotic cahootic chart-avoiders. They represent a case of possible nonsense music, whatever else one may think of the lyrics, which also sometimes seem to qualify. Combined with performance, as in this video of “Tarred and Feathered,” (originally from Big Ship, 1987) they earn a special music-lyric-performance nonsense laurel. The lyrics are here. Here is another, “Loosefish Scapegrace,” where nonsense may just lie in the music, the lyrics, and the combination of the two. Lyrics are here. Both sets of lyrics are taken from less reliable sources, so beware.
Rushad Eggleston is one of the greatest living Nonsensators, cellists, and jarkhoppers. Here’s “Ear to the Ground,” with music and interviews, a good intro to Rushad. For music, check out the album Snethy Adventure Songs, especially “Sergeant Ruffytumpa.” Also The Rushad Eggleston Show album. The classic is Rushad and His Wild Band of Snee, with the album Playhouse of the Universe. More on Rushad’s Bandcamp.
John Lennon (1940-1980) who appears in this Gromboolia Anthology in various carapacities, also did some nonsense as a solo artist. Check out the delightfully profane “Serve Yourself” (while it’s still on YouTube!). Remember, don’t forget your mother!
The Goons, “Ying Tong Song.” The Goons (1951-60: Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan) were quite influential to nonsense-makers, especially Monty Python and John Lennon. See above for Spike Milligan’s work.
Man Man’s “Engwish Bwudd,” I think, has some nonsense or three. The lyrics are tough to make out, and online versions are iffy. Still, you’ve got gibberish, folk material, crazy semi-coherent narrative… and what a video!
The band Of Montreal is often silly and whimsical, but their album Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A volume of whimsical verse, sometimes hits it. There is the straight-up nonsense of this audio story: “The Events Leading Up To The Collapse Of Detective Dulllight”, which leads right to “Penelope.” There is also “Mimi Merlot” and quite a few other tunes on the album.
Barry Louis Polisar
A Maryland legend, Polisar has been corrupting children since the 70s. Here’s a song that shows weaponized nonsense, “I’ve Got a Teacher, She’s So Mean” (click on Track 13). His website has the text, a reading, and the song (Click here, then click on the song title in the list).
“Bishop Danced” comes in as the 310th (out of 314!) worst Bruce song, according to Caryn Rose at Vulture.com, who writes, “it’s a mess. This song makes no sense, even in the most impressionistic, symbolic interpretation of its lyrics.” Why, yes, yes, indeed. Be sure to consider the verbiage around the song, too, which adds to the nonsense by implying coherence, adding meta-goodness to the confusion.
The Talking Heads created, of course, Stop Making Sense (full concert film), for which they should be canonized in butterscotch. It’s certainly not all nonsense in terms of genre, but there are moments. This is not the extent of their nonsense, though. Check out David Byrne’s interview with himself, in case you weren’t sure of his dedication to the Art of Nonsense.
They Might Be Giants
Where do we start with TMBG? Nonsense seeps and steeps. Check out “Violin” (with bonus video. And a bear.) Perhaps “Shoehorn With Teeth” says with great eloquence their ultimate meaning. You might ask, what does it mean? So do they, in “Thinking Machine” (Lyrics).
Reggie Watts provides the deep answers in this trenchant paean to the big questions of life. This is the music video for “If You’re F**king, Then You’re Probably F**king.” Textbook nonsense obviousness wrapped up in celebratory profanity. See the “Videos” section below for more from him.
Robert Wyatt, founding member of Soft Machine, goes rogue with nonsense tunes in the flavor of Bob Dylan (“Blues in Bob Minor“) and Lewis Carroll (“The Duchess“), and others, on the album nonsensically titled, shleep (1997).
“Weird Al” Yankovic scores with this parody of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” (and “TombstoneBlues”?) a video and song called “Bob.” Yes, it’s clearly parodic and too arbitrary for a strict nonsensophile, but it treads on some nonsensical ground that is a few bounds beyond Dylan’s tune, with coherence provided by the video, the parodic references, and the palindromes (yes, they lyrics are all palindromes). Click here for “Bob.”
“Big Rock Candy Mountains“(1928), another tune attributed to Harry McClintock, with lyrics here. This is a hobo song in the long tradition of the Land of Cockaigne stories, ancient comic utopias (see Rammel for more on these in the bibliography).
“Nottamun Town,” an Appalachian song of impossibilia, sung here by Jean Ritchie in 1971. Lyrics are here. Recognize the tune? Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” perhaps? Oh yes. Guess which is the original.
John Prentiss Benson’s strip, The Woozlebeasts (1904-1905) was written almost entirely in limericks. The limerick form, of course, is not necessarily nonsense–and most of these are simply light verse (more examples of post-Lear limericks moving away from nonsense). Still, a few reach the heights, and the drawings themselves are wildly inventive. Nonsenselit.org has more info on Benson, as well. Here are twenty strips. Some of his work was also collected in a book (The Woozlebeasts, New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1905), found here.
In America, no comic strip quite hits the heights of nonsense like Zippy the Pinhead, by Bill Griffith. Bravo! His website gives access to all the comics, going back to October, 1993 (though strip began in 1971). Type a date into the “Zippy Archive” box, and the strip will arise like the cracked-up cracken. Here is a particularly good one to start you off!
I’m not sure whether this is secondary or primary, but it’s brilliant: Zippy and Griffy explain how the comic works, how it is different from other comics, and though it doesn’t recognize itself as the nonsense genre, much of the mechanics are similar. Click here for the main page, with all six “tutorial” strips, and click your way through them. Lesson Three, in particular, is useful in terms of understanding how Griffith’s “nonsense” works.
The British king of Komic Kerfuffle is Glen Baxter: http://www.glenbaxter.com. You can find a gallery of his work and some very silly animations.
Working in the nonsense Underground for quite a few years, Homestar Runner.com, along with Strongbad and the rest of the crew, often hit nonsensical heights–though not always. Here are a few particularly nonsensical episodes: StrongBad email 174, Videlectix’s game, Where’s An Egg, StrongBad email 125, StrongBad email 127, StrongBad email 204.
That Mitchell and Webb Look (2008-2011), the British comedy show from David Mitchell and Robert Webb, has quite a few forays into nonsense. Check out Wordwang. Don’t forget Numberwang, where it all started.
Eric Idle and Henry Woolf, on Rutland Weekend Television (1975-1976). A perfectly ham sandwich water-plasters scrumpingly.
John Cleese, “All About the Brain“–neuroscience made easy!
Nick Andrews, “My Hands Are Bananas“–classic YouTube. Beware the Milky Pirate!
Rathergood, “We Like the Moon“–how long can you take it?
Tim and Eric (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim) need to be here, so let’s begin with “Doo Dah Doo Doo,” dance instruction for children. Oh my. From Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!
Reggie Watts in this TED talk dips in and out of non-languages, gibberish philosophy, anti-fear, comporary science of non-understanding, and deep, deep funk. The man has a mind, for sure. What, want more? Okay, here’s a POPTECH gig.
Skwerl, otherwise known as “How English Sounds to non-native speakers,” by Brian & Karl. With over 30 million views, it must have some real good sparkly pineapple action. The script (yes, the script!) can be found here.
1915 version of Alice in Wonderland. Click Here.
Watch Amitabh Bachchan wow the ladies with his English erudition. “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves” in Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977).
In this famous demonstration of English skills, Amitabh Bachchan really hits a googly (or something like that). It is usually referred to as “English is a very funny language,” in the film Namak Halal (1982).
David Lewandowski has created some self-proclaimed nonsense films, with a certain signature rubbery nakedness that is not unappealing in a certain signature rubbery way. Time for Sushi (2017) and Late for Meeting (2013).
Cliff Nazarro in Blondie Goes to College (1942) click here. Here’s another Nazarro master performance, a Western. And here he is in Dive Bomber (1941) starring Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray, incident one , and incident two. This skill is sometimes called “double-talking.”
For you Telugu speakers, here is a Tenali Ramakrishna piece that was translated for The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, by Elchuri Muralidhara Rao. The text and a musical adaptation by Michael Heyman and Regie Gibson can be found on the Solstice magazine site, here. A more traditional rendering is in the film, Tenali Ramakrishna (1952).
Here’s some nonsensical clickbait, from The Onion, a long-time champion of nonsense: “6 Startling Before and After Photos of Meth Users,” (11.6.13. Slideshow). It resembles the Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey Books of Unbelievable Brilliance in its pseudoscience, its faulty cause-and-effect, and its kookoo-bull-headed semi-logic.