Stop Making Sense

James Parker

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.

James Park­er, an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor, is the author of Turned On: A Biog­ra­phy of Hen­ry Rollins
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