The Sense in Nonsense
Here’s a ton of fun, an anonymous traditional poem for children, for the kid in the rest of us, and in memory
of my father, Ted:
- Nonsense Song
It was midnight on the ocean;
Not a street car was in sight.
The sun was shining brightly,
And it rained all day that night.
‘Twas a summer’s night in winter
And the rain was snowing fast.
A barefoot boy with shoes on
Stood sitting on the grass.
The rain was pouring down,
The moon was shining bright,
And everything that you could see
Was hidden out of sight.
It was evening and the rising sun
Was setting in the West.
The little fishes in the trees
Were huddled in their nest.
While the organ peeled potatoes,
Lard was rendered by the choir.
While the sexton rang the dish rag,
Someone set the church on fire.
“Holy Smoke,” the preacher shouted,
And in the rush he lost his hair.
Now his head resembles heaven,
For there is no parting there.
I saw a great, big, tiny house
Ten thousand miles away.
And to my view ‘twas out of sight
Last night, the other day.
The walls projected inward,
The front door round the back.
Alone it stood between two more.
The walls were whitewashed black.
Though it’s been at least three and a half decades since I heard Dad recite the poem—his speech severely affected by a stroke he suffered at the age of 60 in 1969—it’s easy to conjure a picture of him in its midst while seated at the dinning room table that doubled as his desk, prompted this time, maybe, by some absurdity in the news, the Chicago Tribune or the Sun Times spread out before him. He’d lift his chin, clasp his hands over his chest in mock supplication, and let loose.
Surely it was in large part the joy, the exaggerated gestures, the sheer exuberance in his voice that caused me to spontaneously recall a few months ago stanzas five and six, more than a dozen years after we’d lowered him into the ground. Thank God for Google, which made it possible to quickly retrieve a version of the poem—its source obscure, its author(s) anonymous, and the punctuation, as it appears here, mine.
The cascade of silly moments in “Nonsense Song” makes a heck of a lot more sense to me than the nonsense I see displayed too often in contemporary magazines under the pseudonym “poem.” I say death to the passive aesthetic of chance, the weak-willed arrangement of syllables and/or symbols, which seems to be moving more and more toward the obtuse and, ultimately, the worst words in the worst order. And should it be that random chance’s look-alike, “Language Poetry,” becomes all that the future has to offer, I would choose to close the book on abstract poems, period. The problem with this second-mentioned mode seems obvious to poets who don’t practice it: aggressive, nearly arrogant obscurity; the “work” is not grounded in the pretender’s sentience, let alone common experience.
On the other hand, I respect Jasper Johns’s honest “Take something. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” In this, his triad of imperatives for the artist, I sense he’s referring to the physical world, a call for action, and a grammatical subject, who must exercise volition to affect an audience.
Even though I can’t tag the set of verses that comprise “Nonsense Song” with a personality, I believe they accomplish pretty much everything that a brilliant comic poem accomplishes. This is a good kind of crazy. It’s the real deal, raw yet artful, with just the right amount of control over the chaos, reminding me of Wallace Stevens’s words of affection for his “The Emperor of Ice-Cream:”
This [piece] wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it. I do not remember the circumstances under which this poem was written, unless this means the state of mind from which it came. Poems of this sort are the pleasantest on which to look back, because they seem to remain fresher than others. (Opus Posthumous New Ed., p. 212.)
Something like a small scroll of koans, like Mother Goose run amuck—wonderfully wild in spots, magical in others, or “irrational”—the spirit of “Nonsense Song” is as fabulous here, now, as when I first heard it. In the manner by which a dream makes perfect sense when one is immersed in its mist, the stanzas create a reality of their own with their direct appeal to and surprising assault on the senses. Time and space are unobtrusive unifying elements. There is mystery, and I still own a yen to know the identity of the “arsonist,” simply because of the song’s irreverence and the sheerest suggestion of political overtones.
Allow me, back to the value of the irrational, to highlight another thought from Stevens:
- When we find in poetry that which gives us a momentary existence on an exquisite plane, is it necessary to ask the meaning of the poem? If the poem had a meaning and if its explanation destroyed the illusion, should we have gained or lost? (OP, p. 228.)
“Nonsense Song” is part of the cannon of what I’ve privately dubbed the Hey-Diddle-Diddle School of Poetry. Children require exposure to the irrational in order to courageously and efficaciously face a world that does not always make sense. Nonsense verse is good practice. Would humans have made it to the moon without a language that allows a cow to leap over that moon in the imagination? No way. Poetry sometimes serves as a portable and hilariously hospitable laboratory employed as preparation for making what once seemed impossible possible.
Karl Elder’s “The Sense in Nonsense” was commissioned in 2005 by Poetry Daily for its newsletter during National Poetry Month. His long poem, “Gilgamesh at the Bellagio,” recently appeared in Black Warrior Review with an introduction by Beth Ann Fennelly. More of his work is available at www.karlelder.com.