How to Write a Nonsense Poem
Nonsense poetry should never be dismissed as a mere gimmick designed to appeal to kids. While it is true that many of the best are indeed written for children, nonsense poetry is as old as language itself, many of which have indeed been passed down the generations in the oral folk tradition, largely as idiomatic expressions but also as nursery rhymes.
Since the late Victorian period, however, there has been a further explosion in nonsense poetry, spearheaded by the likes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. At their heart, nonsense rhymes are playful exercises in illogic which are intended to evoke humour and bewilderment in equal measure. With this consideration taken into account, writers should consider experimenting with the following techniques in order to write their own nonsense poems:
1. Make up words
Some of the best nonsense poems contain words which do not even belong in the dictionary at all, at least at the time of their original publication. Probably the most famous work of nonsense poetry is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky,’ which is contained in a book Alice discovers whilst exploring the mirror world in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Holding a mirror to the poem in the hope of making some sense of it, Alice reads it aloud:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll
Alice’s reaction to reading this poem is naturally one of bemusement. Carroll’s intention, quite clearly, is to underscore the confusion she is experiencing, but—even in isolation—it’s almost possible for a reader to find a slither of meaning in ‘Jabberwocky.’ The first stanza (above) tries to evoke a swampy realm of creatures in which the Jabberwock dwells, and despite the fact that almost half of the words used are completely made-up, it almost seems to make sense.
With this in mind, a writer hoping to create nonsense poetry should be open to inventing words of their own, particularly ones which express what you’re trying to say by playing with onomatopoeia, assonance and divergent meanings. The trick is to use gibberish artfully, conveying vivid imagery without relying solely on the English language, using words which sound like they could be real in a way which poeticises the nonsensical. It may not be easy, but my word, it is fun to write.
2. Embrace absurdity
Very often, the overt meanings in nonsense poetry venture into surrealist territory, embracing absurdism in its purest form. No matter which way you cut it, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by Edward Lear is about how a turkey presides over the marriage of an owl and a cat. That in itself is ridiculous, so if you want to veer more towards an obviously absurdist interpretation of your poem and rely less on gobbledygook, absurdism is always a good option.
Dr. Seuss’s nonsense poem ‘Too Many Daves’ finds its appeal from a similarly absurdist brand of humour, attempting to make the reader laugh more at the predicament the poem explores than the linguistic choices the writer actually makes:
Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did. And that wasn’t a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, ‘Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!’ she doesn’t get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
‘Too Many Daves’ by Dr. Seuss
Of course, any aspiring poet today recognises Dr. Seuss as a master of nonsense poetry, as not only was he remarkably inventive in creating oddball characters (The Grinch, The Lorax) and preposterous worlds (Whoville, Thneedville), but he also invented many fictional words and phrases which have now passed into the modern lexicon. Few people realise it, but did you know Dr. Seuss invented the word nerd? If that doesn’t inspire you with the power of jibber-jabber and absurdist verse, then it’d be fascinating to know what does!
3. Use conventional rhymes
Given that you’ll be testing the limits of your reader’s imagination with random words and absurdist content, it’s advisable to stick to conventional rhyme schemes for a nonsense poem (e.g. ABAB, AABB, and so on). Edward Lear’s preference, in particular, was to write short limericks, telling outlandish tales in short stanzas which confound the reader with their sheer lunacy:
There was an old man, who when little
Fell casually into a kettle;
But, growing too stout,
He could never get out,
So he passed all his life in that kettle.
‘There was an Old Man, Who When Little’ by Edward Lear
What often makes nonsense poetry so successful is the fact that the only predictable thing about them is their form and style. If rhyme schemes follow traditional patterns readers already recognise, not only does it help anchor how you can use words and pace your flow of syllables, but it also makes the surrealist context more accessible and less jarring for your readers. For this reason, I’d recommend thinking conservatively when it comes choosing a poetic form for your first work of nonsense poetry.
Despite how nonsense poems have played a pioneering role in the evolution of the English language, especially by encouraging readers to broaden our vocabularies beyond inherited speech, the most important thing for writers to remember is to have fun. The tone in nonsense poems is more than always light, highly readable and amusing. Therefore, if you wish to write a nonsense poem, play fast and loose with your own creative impulses; make yourself laugh; and you’ll be sure to create a work of nonsense poetry which is not only enjoyable to write, but also fun to read. Give it a go. You’ll never know if you have a knack for it unless you try.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.