April 16, 2014 by KWills
There is an art to nonsense, which lies in weaving an internal logic through the wild flights of fancy. Some of my favourite poets are masters of silliness: Ogden Nash, Wendy Cope, Pam Ayres, Alan Ahlberg and Quentin Blake, to name but a few. Sometimes the silliness lies in the subject matter, like “The Dong with the Luminous Nose”, or “Be Careful When You Crim”. Here, the images themselves create the comedy. Other poems play with the nonsense of the words themselves (“Eletelephony”) or the sheer joy of sounds (“The Ning Nang Nong”).
Most of these poets use standard forms for their comic work, although the audience is usually too focused on the joke to realise that they are also seeing a perfect roundeu, or sonnet, or villanelle. Wendy Cope is especially good at this; Pam Ayers and Alan Ahlberg often use a ballad or a quatrain for the comfortable bounce of the rhythm. Quentin Blake and Ogden Nash seem to favour writing freeform poetry, but they still make use of any number of traditional techniques to hold that free-form together – from simple end-rhymes to hidden patterns in the meter.
Like true freeform, true nonsense is very hard. It’s not just about abandoning the rulebook, rather it’s a way of subverting those rules, giving the audience what they don’t expect, and turning that strangeness into the new normal. By the end of the ride, if it’s done right, reality itself should be the thing that feels strange.
I wish I could take you on such a ride, but I’m not there myself yet. Here, however, is an early attempt. I realise that doing things this way round is a bit like discussing the thrills of a rollercoaster, then presenting you with a kiddies’ slide, but I’m doing my best. Recognising great poetry is a lot easier than writing it…
Not So Much of the “Common”, If You Don’t Mind
It’s very well to tell me I should use my common sense,
But senses are suseptable to all kinds of pretense.
I do not trust my eyes or ears, I daren’t follow my nose,
(It sticks in where it shouldn’t be, inviting nasty blows)
While taste and touch just sit around, as passive as you please.
I do not think that common sense is any one of these.
As for my other senses, as intangible as air,
I doubt that I would find much commonality in there
My sense of humour is a joke, my sense of timing’s slow,
My sense of the occasion never knows when it should show.
As for my sense of balance, that’s been slowly winding down;
It’s quite a big achievement to stand firm on solid ground.
I had a sense of fashion once, I’m not sure when or why.
But if we wait here long enough, it might come wand’ring by.
For all the good that does us – look, I hate to let you down,
But I have to say I think you’d better try another town.
It seems I have no common sense, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
My senses, like my self, are all incredibly rare.