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ENGL 2240: Pt. 1 Nursery Rhymes & Nonsense Poems


When we think of our earliest personal interactions with poetry, our memories of early childhood conjure images of someone reading rhymes from "Mother Goose," or singing, "Ring around the rosey" with our friends.  Without realizing it, "hearing" or "voicing" of the words to those words plays a very important and fundamental role in our understanding and appreciation of poetry.

Take, for example, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  Most likely, you can recite it from memory:

Mary had a little lamb,

Its fleece was white as snow,

and everywhere that Mary went,

the lamb was sure to go.

On the surface, this is a rather simplistic rhyme.  It has a narrative (a story about a girl named Mary), some description (white fleece, snow), and other easily identifiable elements of prose writing; however, it's not linear like traditional text or prose, it has a kind of rhythm or "beat" we don't usually see in traditional prose sentences; it makes use of words rhyme to support, repeat, and enhance sound, or produce a melodic or "auditory effect" as well as a "sing-songy" (for lack of a better word) aspect from the combination of those words, their order and placement, and the rhythm that accompanies them; it's lines are "broken" into segments, and look very much like the lyrics to a song.  Of course, all of these elements are intentionally done, for a specific purpose: to help you remember or memorize them.

Hopefully, sometime in your later schooling, most likely in an English class, you encountered Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, "The Raven."  Here is the opening stanza:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door—
               Only this and nothing more."

Here, we immediately begin to notice a number of things simultaneously: the repetition of the same sounds (dreary/weary; lore, door, more, visitor), the repetition of the beginning letters of words (nodded, nearly napping) known as alliteration, the repetition of entire phrases (my chamber door, rapping, tapping) and how all of those things combine to create tone and effect.  Tone and effect, as we have seen earlier in Poe's prose stories, are paramount.  The constant repetition of the "O" and "L" sounds creates a melancholic, somber tone when we read them; we are intensely aware of the way those soft sounds conflict with the constant hard sounds of "P," and "D," and "CH."  And this is exactly how Poe wants the reader to feel: lulled and lethargic and paralyzed, yet also quite agitated at the same time (just like the narrator who narrates this "tale"), an effect Poe magnificently achieves before the reader plunges headlong into the rest of the poem (which continues the narrative, but whose stanzas are nearly identical in tone, rhythm, and sound as the first stanza) keeping the reader "on edge" until they reach the climax (the point of greatest conflict) at the end of the poem.

Our personal encounters of poetry, trying our hand at writing it, our "experience" of poems that provoke a emotional response (happiness, sadness, anger) allow us to connect with one another, our shared stories, our shared humanity.  You will discover poems you adore; and others you despise or hate, but as a form of Art, literary art, we will focus on words, lines, stanzas, symbols and sounds, and all of the other elements poets use to create, capture, and present the human condition.  The poetry of today, or "modern" poetry, you will find, is quite different than what we generally consider "traditional poetry."  Some will contain no rime; some will be more visual than auditory; some seem to have no form or pattern; while others will look like, sound like, traditional poetry, but yet, are anything but traditional.

One thing many of you will have in common, is the strongly held belief that a poem must have a singular, distinct meaning.  That, to understand poetry, you must "get it," that you must solve the "puzzle" of cryptic lines and language, to reduce the poem to its lowest common denominator.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The "meaning" of a poem, if there is a singular one, is the one we derive from it for ourselves.  We can rejoice in how a poet does this with language; we can hate it when a poem contains elements we don't care for; but, at the end of the day, it's our ability to discern, to discover, to understand, to learn, to appreciate the poet's craft--for better, or for worse--and that's where we shall begin.

A common myth about poetry is that there is a singular meaning to the poem, and somehow, there's a key to unlocking the poem's secret.  Many of us have had teachers who say, "This is what that means, and this is why."  However, poetry is an intensely personal art, and while a poet may "intend" something thrrough the construction or publication of the poem, what it "means" is a strictly personal affair.  A recent Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, perfectly captures this dilemma faced by a college poetry instructor and students in his poem, "Introduction to Poetry."  Here it is:

Introduction To Poetry

by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide


or press an ear against its hive.


I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,


or walk inside the poem's room

and feel the walls for a light switch.


I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.


But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

Therefore, the goal we want to reach with poetry is to understand the poem in terms of our own, personally developed meaning.  How we read, comprehend, make connections between the words, their meanings, to construct and devise a method for determining our interpretations of the poem should be our only concern.

Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, "The Jabberwocky" is a perfect case in point. The poem opens with the following lines:

"'Twas brilling, in the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Gibberish.  Nonsense. Made-up words that have no definitions.  How are we possibly to make meaning out of something like this?  Then, suddenly, we notice that there's a rhythm, and although they're nonsense, the words do fit into parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.  Syntax and sentence structure is in play.  We know how those operate in sentences, but can they shed any light upon how we make our meaning here?

"'Twas brilling,"...okay.  "It was, brilling,"...what is brillig?  It's not a word, per se, but we can begin to make assumptions based upon what we might already know:  brillig could be an adjective, as in "It was chilly," or, "It was sacred."  Or, it could be a past tense verb:  "It was done.," or, maybe, "It was cherished."  Either of these paths, though, is navigable only if we know what "it" actually is but, unfortunately we don't.  Fortunately, for us, we do know that "it" is a noun: a person, place or thing, and we can begin to build meaning from there.  "Gyre" and "gimble" in the next line are verbs, obviously, but what kind of action?  Also, note the G-yre and G-imble helps to create possible methods for pronunciation:  gyre could rime with "higher" and gimble looks and sounds like "nimble," with a G-sound, but it could also be with a J-sound; so at a minimum we have a repeated initial sound.

Things begin to get interesting in the second stanza:

Beware the Jabberwock, my son

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!"

So now, we have a distinct warning (aimed specifically at his son AND the audience) and the specific (cryptozoological) naming of three animals: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch.  Of course, their nonsensical/mythological names don't help us, but "the plot" of the narrative here is rising, and the use of words like bite, snatch, and frumious.  Words that conjure peril and instill fear, danger, and terror in the mind of the reader.