Nonsense – like fear, sex and heavy metal – is a principle in life. At the very top of things, above all the heaving and the straining, there is a permanent layer of bubbling superfluity, of pristine biological froth: This is nonsense. Oddly, it can be quite hard to reach; there is no universal access to this layer. Anyone can be daft, or disruptive, or fitfully meaningless, but your real nonsense-maker has other, rarer qualities: He (mainly he, for reasons which may become clear) is possessed of a kind of manic sobriety, something between a pedant and an anarchist. Nonsense is not chaos; it doesn’t wallow or thrash. On the contrary, it has a playful attraction to form, particularly rhyme and meter – in fact, the tighter the rules, and the more punctilious and arbitrary the enforcement, the happier nonsense is. Emotional repression is also useful: The two founding fathers of nonsense verse, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, were celibate Victorian Englishmen.
The lavish new Everyman Book Of Nonsense Verse is an exemplary anthology, covering the ground with thoroughness while also aggravating and enlarging the definition of its subject. All the canonical nonsense-masters are present – Lear, Carroll, G.K. Chesterton, Mervyn Peake – as well as cheerful moderns like Matthew Sweeney and Roger McGough. But it is in the inclusion of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor Of Ice Cream” and Ted Hughes’ “Wodwo” that the editor, Louise Guinness, has distinguished herself.
Wallace Stevens, with a sound grasp of the nonsense-principle, declared in 1959 that “a poem need not have a meaning and, like most things in nature, often does not have.” “The Emperor Of Ice Cream” was written in the ’30s and he answered (or not) questions as to its meaning for the rest of his life, even fielding at one point an enquiry from something called the Amalgamated Ice Cream Association. The poem’s most famous couplet – “Let be be finale of seem/ The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream” – can stand as a nonsense manifesto, a total flouting of the authority of reality. Stevens explained it thus: ” … let being become the conclusion or dénouement of appearing to be: In short, ice cream is an absolute good.” Now that’s nonsense.
Hughes’ “Wodwo” is different, being composed of the reflections of some sort of shuffling, sniffing half-beast unsure of its own nature: “But what shall I be called am I the first/ have I an owner what shape am I…” Hughes critic Ekbert Faas described the occluded seekings of the Wodwo as “a language of self-erasure which, emulating Nature’s own cycle of creation and destruction, consistently obliterates its own traces.”
Nonsense and nature go hand in hand. Edward Lear, a very lonely and suffocatingly closeted gay man, used nonsense as a sort of code, in which (as every biographer post-Freud has pointed out) too-tight shoes and overlarge noses were featured with dream-like repetitiveness, the poet’s pinched libido blooming fantastically into a procession of tender, proboscile, disappointed phalluses. As Lear grew older and his sadness deepened, he almost left nonsense behind, abandoning the darting whimsicality of his earlier verse for sub-Tennysonian broodings like “The Dong With The Luminous Nose”: “When awful silence and darkness reign / Over the great Gromboolian plain … ” etc.
No one does just nonsense: That would be inhuman. It works best as a hobby, a sideline. Lear was a painter, Carroll a clergyman and mathematician. Mervyn Peake, with all the mental tonnage of his Gormenghast novels installed and pressurized in his head, seems to have fired out brilliant squibs of nonsense for relief: “Of fallow-land and pasture / And skies both pink and grey, / I made my statement last year / And have no more to say.” Chesterton found the production of nonsense verse to be – literally – laughably easy: “To publish a book of my nonsense verses,” he wrote to his fiancé, “seems to me exactly like summoning the whole of the people of Kensington to watch me smoke a cigarette.” And Stevens said of “The Emperor Of Ice Cream”: “I dislike niggling, and like letting myself go. This poem is an instance of letting myself go.”
So how do we hit that dancing nonsense-layer? Drugs? On a highly organized mind, a mind (in Lear’s words) “concrete and abstemious,” the effects of drugs can produce nonsense. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, coming round from a dose of ether and convinced he had the secret of the Universe in his grip, described his revelation thus: “A strong sense of turpentine prevails throughout.” Nonsense! The rest of us, however, must stay straight – if only for the sake of making no sense at all.