What a load of nonsense!

John Mole - 23 February 2006

I have always loved or, to put it another way, had a weakness for nonsense verse. I rather agree with Dr. Seuss who once said that the reason he enjoyed writing nonsense so much was that it woke up his brain cells.

The line between nonsense verse and great poetry is sometimes a very thin or even an invisible one. Edward Lear's 'The Owl and the Pussy Cat' and 'The Jumblies', for example, seem to me to be full of a deep, yearning emotion as well as eccentric humour. Sheer ( or mere? ) wordplay can also be a delight and an end in itself: the songs of Winnie the Pooh, the picture book texts of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss himself of course, and so many rhymes by Anonymous. Then for older readers there are some fine European surrealists to be found in translation. I particularly like Robert Desnos's 'Chantefables' ( pour les enfants sages ) and have attempted to rework some of them into English. You can find these in my collection 'Boo to a Goose'. Then yet again there is the zany Shel Silverstein with his deliciously cock-eyed view of life, and Jack Prelutsky and.. . BUT what did surprise me recently was to learn that Spike Milligan's 'On the Ning Nang Nong' has been voted the nation's favourite comic poem. While I enjoy a number of Spike's 'Silly Verses for Kids' I do find that this particular poem not only doesn't make me laugh but that it actually rather irritates me with its goony, insistent glee. Would someone explain to me why it is so popular? I'd also like to hear from you with your own favourite comic/nonsense poems. Please let me know what they are and, if you think they may not be very well-known, where I can find them.

Comments:

I'm glad you mentioned Dr Seuss - my favourite nonsense poem is by him. It's called 'Too Many Daves', it's full to bursting with extremely silly names and it never fails to make me laugh. As a child I loved 'The Pobble Who Has No Toes' - I think what I found so satisfying about it was the combination of daftness and high drama (swimming the Channel and having your toes nibbled off!). Sometimes I think poets can try too hard to be funny by appealing to what they think kids laugh about, whereas that mix of the sublime and the ridiculous is the real sure-fire recipe.

As a supply teacher (primary) I find what you say about comic verse interesting. This is the easiest way for me to engage children with the idea of poetry, as there is nothing they like better that a good laugh! Even better if they could hear them read by the poets, so I wonder can you recommend any funny poems in the Poetry archive that you particularly like yourself?

Jan, yes I do have a favourite among the recordings available online, although others are lurking among the poems chosen for the complete archive CD. For example I never tire ( nor do children, in my experience ) of Charles Causley's 'I Saw a Jolly Hunter'. Like so many really good comic poems it has a sharp edge. As also in perhaps a gentler way Alan Ahlberg's poems have. He is well represented on the Archive's sample. But that particular favourite
of mine - which is guaranteed to surprise you if you don't know it - is 'The Loch Ness Monster's Song' by the marvellous, prolific Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. I think you'll enjoy his reading of it! Another favourite of his, though not on the archive sample is 'The Computer's First Christmas Card'. Incidentally, if you don't already have it I strongly recommend your getting hold of a copy of 'Read Me and Laugh'. It's easily available as a Macmillan paperback.There's a comic poem for every day of the year, and often when I go into schools I ask if anyone has a birthday today and if they do I read that day's poem. Of course, humour being a matter of taste ( as my comments about Spike Milligan perhaps suggest ) the laughs aren't always forthcoming. So then we try again with someone else's birthday!

Thanks for the suggestions - I'll keep a look out for the paperback you suggested. Do you write comic poems yourself John?

Yes,Jan, I do. There are quite a few in most of my collections for children. A particular favourite when I read in schools seems to be 'Frozen Doughnuts' from my collection 'The Wonder Dish'. It rather cashes in on the popularity of 'The Simpsons' to which I am addicted and is sheer Dr. Seussian nonsense. My own favourite would probably be 'My Hero', from 'The Mad Parrot's Countdown'. Comic is as comic does, though, and I was rather surprised when 'The Musical Monkey' and 'Jack in a Box' were chosen for 'The Oxford Book of Comic Verse' since the former seems to me rather sad, and the latter distinctly sinister. If you do track any of them down I'd be glad to know which of my poems you find make the children you teach laugh!

Shel Silverstein has been one of my favourite nonsense writers since I first learned to read. All of his poems and books (my favourite is The Giving Tree) seem to appeal to everyone of all ages. His use of simple, but meaningful language makes the themes accessible to all his readers.

I'm still waiting for, hoping for, someone who will tell me why 'On the Ning Nang Nong' is so popular.I promise I'll try to believe you!

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Glossary term

Pastiche

A work whose style imitates that of another writer or period.