Posts Tagged ‘nonsense’

Signs of advanced age: I was getting sparked up to write a cranky post about how it seems like the majority of commercial YA looks like crappy romance novels when I decided to scrap it. The world doesn’t need a case made for the obvious, and my birthday deserved something better.

So I started scrawling out a poem. Yeah, that’s age for you right there. Skip the cranky and get loopy.

It’s a sort of personal influences/appreciation/homage thing that came to me in a sing-song way while my brain was still trying to noodle off on my morning commute to work. Pretend it’s 50-plus years from now and you’re a kid in fifth grade who stumbled onto this.

Vonnegut, Pinkwater, Steinbeck, and Lear,
One tall, one squat, one stoic, one queer.
They sailed the seas for a day and a year,
Old Vonnegut, Pinkwater, Steinbeck, and Lear

Vonnegut, being tall, volunteered as the mast
With his back to the bow and his eye on the past,
Shook his head at the foibles of mankind so vast,
“You’ve got to be kind, so it goes, nothing lasts!”

Pinkwater sat cross-legged, he centered the craft
With plenty of ballast both forward and aft.
Self-appointed zen master both thoughtful and daft,
You could hear lizard music whenever he laughed.

Steinbeck manned the oars with a heave and a ho.
When the seas were becalmed he pulled steady and slow
From bowls full of dust on to cannery row
Drunk on wine from the vines where the grapes of wrath grow.

Old Lear was their captain, a man prone to fits,
Who crafted the boat out of lyrical bits,
Like “There once was a man from thr Isle of St. Kitts…”
That despite lacking sense were as good as it gets.

They hadn’t a map but their course was still clear.
The point of the voyage: Carry on, persevere!
Though they fade in the distance they won’t disappear,
Old Vonnegut, Pinkwater, Steinbeck, and Lear.

Freely, I admit this could be better. And I feel a little sorry for including Pinkwater among the names of the long-gone, but his name fit the meter and his verse came easiest, almost in an instant. It’s also extremely unfair that so many other great influences of mine didn’t manage to fit in the boat – Francesca Lia Block and John Dos Passos in particular comes to mind; I just didn’t think they fit inside that absurd boat but they’re as equal an inspiration as the other four.

And these are just the writers, if I’d started mining illustrators and photographers I’d end up writing a Homeric epic!

Down the road I think I’d like to revisit this poem about four absurd travelers, much like Edward Lear’s longer works like “The Owl and the Pussycat” or “The Jumblies.” Down the road. And it’s all downhill from 51, or so I’m supposed to believe. Let’s just say “for another day” and leave it at that.

I thank you all for your kind attention.

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Having spent most of the month endlessly recovering from what my doctor called a “quiet” case of pneumonia (everyone’s a poet these days) I find myself longing for all the foods I am restricted from eating. That, in turn, makes me think about recipes which have a rhythm of their own at times. And then I stumble across an article in the newspaper featuring some nonsense recipes. And so, a tribute.

for Edward of Holloway

Find the circumference
Of one golden Kumquat
And tossed in a pot

An Anglerfish’s degree
Plucked fresh from the Sea
Sauted until hot

A measure of Music
Boiled up with a flourish
Performed at a trot

A quartful of quarters
Poached from Four-flushers
Set fire to the lot

Add the Palm of one Heart
Unbroken, unblue
And free of all clot

When you find your nerves shot
Once the mixture congeals
You’ll find it will yield
One Lear

Sort of a recipe, kind of an homage, at least the nonsense part makes, er, sense.

Poetry Friday, unlike any other friday because of its poetriness, this week being rounded up over at Hey, Jim Hill! If you haven’t come her from there, then go there from here!

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Years ago we lost the battle of the homemade lunch with the girls. It wasn’t worth the battle to constantly have them deciding they didn’t want to eat the things they brought and throwing away food, to say nothing of going hungry. Even when they hated half of what the school lunches provided and ate only the starches they at least didn’t starve.

But they’re both teens now, and attending a creative arts day camp for the first part of the summer, and they have no choice but to bring a lunch from home. One week down and so far, so good. They know their hunger and what’s expected and have been good about requesting healthy, lunch-worthy items. Perhaps this forced march through the making of a lunch can be the reset button for the coming school year.

In that hope I’ve dusted off a previously unfinished ode to the time-honored tradition of kids making their own lunches.

A Balanced Meal

I brought my lunch to school today
With all my favorite stuff,
Like French toast topped with gravy and
Some burnt marshmallow fluff.

My sandwich includes pickled eggs
With jam and sauerkraut,
Hot mustard and green jelly beans
Between two slabs of trout.

Inside the Thermos that I filled
With cream of liver soup
I added chocolate covered ants;
They melted into goop.

“And don’t forget to take some fruit
For snacks!” my father brays.
I prefer green seedless grapes
All smeared in mayonnaise.

I have the finest lunch around,
The best in any grade.
You’ll never see a finer lunch
So . . . do you want to trade?

I thought back to some of my favorite sandwich creations of my youth – peanut butter and grape jam with potato chips, pickles with cheddar and pickles on raisin bread – and recalled that the girls would recoil in horror but the boys were usually more curious in a “Are you really gonna eat that?” sort of way.

Is this just another “boy thing,” another manifestation of the boy-girl divide where the girls reason out their tastes while boys have to physically explore them?

Poetry Friday, Independence Day Weekend Edition!  Andromeda over at A Wrung Sponge is hosting this week. Wishing everyone a safe weekend (remember, the secret is to control the fire, no matter what you use it for) and to enjoy and honor ever food combination you can!

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Lunacy this week. Off the edge of explanation and into the wild blue id. The subject was eggs and from there the sounds took over. Those familiar with A Clockwork Orange might recognize “eggy-wegs” but I’ve been saying that for as long as I can remember. The rest of it? Who knows. So without further ado…

hen house hop

eggs eggs

hatchlings thatchlings

scritchlers scratchlers

plumplings dumplings

rufflers toughlers

combers crowers

cluckers ruckers

nesters breasters


Poetry Friday, everyone! Heidi over at my juicy little universe is hosting the round-up along with a collection of poems from 2nd graders. Lots of good words out there, people, enough for everyone.

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The end is neigh!  Today, the last of the NONs, the final element in what boys are typically drawn to in their reading…


Non the Fourth: Nonsense

Boys love nonsense. They love wordplay and the fun of saying things just to hear them out loud. They actually love language so much – as opposed to talking – I’m almost certain they love it over girls. As a result, when it’s not flowery, boys do love poetry.

I would implore you at this point to reconsider the meaning of the word nonsense, as “trifling or insignificant,” and how often seemingly trifling or insignificant details are key elements to mysteries requiring a solution. What is fiction if not a collection of seemingly insignificant details that come to hold so much more meaning as the narrative unfolds?  Boys love puzzles and problem-solving, and it is this recognition of something that is out of place or not making sense that draws them in. Detective and genre fiction excel at presenting information that appears on its face as either foolish or absurd only to have it become hugely significant.

To those who insist that nonsense is folly and frivolity I need only point to Exhibit A: Lewis Carroll.  His two Alice adventures contain more nonsense than anything by Dav Pilkey or Daniel Pinkwater, and they are treasured stories boys enjoy despite having a female main characters.  I’ll address gender in my summary, but the fact remains that what draws boys into this book is precisely the nonsense of it all, the wordsmithery, the punning and poetry and gamesmanship.  And if you’ve been following this series along you might have guessed a few other elements that boys have latched onto.

While Carroll’s works can be dismissed as an anomaly – a classic that has slipped through the cracks – I’d like to linger a bit on this particular story a little longer to examine its lack of sense and what it tells us about boy readers.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician and logician (among other things) with a love of poetry and puzzles, often one contained within the other. All you have to do is take a look at the Alice in Wonderland of The Hunting of the Snark, both annotated by modern logician Martin Gardner, to learn just how deep Carroll’s nonsense really went. Riddles and puns are enjoined by acrostic and secret messages and work on whatever level the reader finds accessible. But even stripped of all this, the stories and words themselves have a style and tone that engages readers, they revel in portmanteau words (a term coined by Carroll) to explain the words he invented for Jabberwocky. Kids today memorize and enjoy Jabberwocky to this day, some voluntarily, and they do so because nonsense contains a very crucial element:

The joy of words.

A lot of modern education seems to beat a lot of joy out of childhood, mostly unintentionally, but I think losing the joy of words is part of what sends boys packing when it comes to reading. Because nonsense verse is viewed as a frivolity, once poetry units become formalized it becomes necessary to teach to the curriculum, which tends to mean teaching meaning and structure and form and content via serious poems. When we teach Kipling’s “If” or Poe’s “The Raven” we trade away some of the joy previously found in Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or even Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss because… well, that the nature of things. We take out time to set aside childish things very seriously, and in doing so send the message that those nonsense verses are lesser poems. Every time the message is sent that what is enjoyed is somehow inferior it shouldn’t be a surprise that interest drops.

And it isn’t just poetry. Captain Underpants and Flat Stanley are tolerated because they are intended for emerging readers, but as elementary school trudges on books become more serious, and by young adulthood humor is merely entertainment.

Until I began to think about these issues with boy readers I hadn’t considered how one teacher’s allowance for nonsense in the classroom might have saved me from becoming a nonreader. In fifth and sixth grade I was part of a multi-grade open classroom (ah, the 70s) and we reported to different teachers for different units. For my Language Arts unit Don Mack had weekly packets that began with dictation that contained spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. The week began with him reading something aloud and us kids copying it down, later to correct and identify errors and for use throughout the unit. Sometimes the dictation was nonfiction, sometimes a timely news event, but my memory was that half the time it was poetry. At least that’s what he called it. Lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” came up against Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” and Shel Silverstien’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.”

I can still remember the subversive joy of hearing my teacher read this nonsense and legitimizing it as classroom instruction. In doing so I suddenly felt more comfortable checking out The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear from the library to the point of memorizing it. I became so familiar with the rhythms of the Limerick that I began writing my own. Three years later I was so comfortable with poetry that I was writing parodies of classic poems for class assignments (and to this day I wish I had my lost-homework epic “Turn It In” based on Kipling’s “Gunga Din”). The point being that without having that spirit of nonsense honored and nurtured I probably would have lost interest in the so-serious literature presented in school.

And lets not forget puns. Groan all you want, but boys love puns. They love the duplicity of meaning and the commradery of the in-joke. Malapropisms and neologisms also feed their daily conversations outside of class, where they suddenly feel freed to speak their minds, free of the confines of what is “proper.”

This I think is key: nonsense is a doorway to subversion of authority, a way boys establish, maintain, or reclaim their sense of worth. Certainly among peers, where a revelie of clever nonsense can garner certain standing among friends.  But also we so often look at boys as not being expressive enough, and then when they are we dismiss their nonsense as a lack of seriousness.  But I would argue that we’re ever to have boys express themselves seriously they may need to get the nonsense out of their system first; if it’s never given a proper airing I don’t think we should expect boys to be better at communication when their sole “practice” is limited to what is proper, polite, and serious.

In books, then, I would advocate for more nonsense. It doesn’t have to be complete and utter – it could be a single character that behaves nonsensically, or nonsense slang – but it should be a component to the story. Beyond humor, a touch of nonsense adds an unpredictable air to the story, provides the reader with a curve ball that catches them off guard. Give the reader context and let other characters (especially girls) react accordingly.

I promise you, boys will love it.  Let them revel in the joy of words.


Which brings us to the end of the material I originally prepared for a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts a few months back.  Almost.  I do have some stray bits I want to share next week as a sort of summary and clearinghouse for things that didn’t fit.  Also, if there were any lingering questions out there I’m opening up the floor.  Otherwise, until next week on Building Better Boy Books, if you missed previous installments they’re all collected in one mammoth page at the top under the tab called “@ boy books.”

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Said the Marshmallow Man of Luxor:
“Trick or Treat! Give me what I’ve come for!”
So we gave him a scorch,
With a creme brulee torch,
Then we dined on a forty pound s’more.

Recognizing that the limerick is oft considered juvenile form of poetry, more appealing to boys than girls, I have nonetheless come to embrace the format as a perfect platform for a collection of holiday-themed poems I am working on.

Here I have followed Edward Lear’s lead in starting with a ridiculous person from a particular place, followed by an outlandish statement, leading to a twisted resolution. There is nothing political intended or implied in the choice of place, only its ability to fit the patter and the rhyme. In this case I began with an idea of a giant marshmallow on Halloween being turned into a giant s’more. From there the rest of the limerick practically wrote itself.

While Lear often has a last line that’s a slightly, often judgmental, variant on the first line (That contemptible man from Luxor) I find that solution a bit of a cheat and go for the full punchline when attempting limericks.

Yes, I probably should get back to my school reading…

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