Jabberwocky—brilliant nonsense

What is Jabberwocky?

Jabberwocky is a piece of verse written by English poet Lewis Carroll in 1871. The poem appears in his book, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. It was the sequel to the famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Although the poem is one of the most famous and well-loved in English literature, it is labelled a piece of “nonsense” verse which rather conceals its brilliance. Indeed the word jabberwock has become a synonym for nonsense verse.

In Jabberwocky, Carroll uses new language in short, ballad-form verse. It tells the story of a boy killing a dragon-like creature, the Jabberwock.

The verse grabs attention through its delightful use of language. It uses some archaic words and words invented by Carroll to create a sense of other-worldiness. We recognise the words, either from their sounds that resemble other words or we get their meaning from their context.

In praise of nonsense verse

One of the most influential books in my life has been The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book by Iona and Peter Opie (first published in 1955). My parents read it to me before I can even remember. It is full of delightful and nonsensical rhymes illustrated with original woodcuts and engravings.

We find out in later life that many of the nursery rhymes were dark parodies of events in English life. Mary Mary quite contrary describes Queen Mary’s torture of protestants, for instance. Jabberwocky sits over this tradition, pays homage to it, and perhaps even mocks it gently.

My favourite pieces of writing are short sharp verses that make you laugh through their cleverness and wry humour. Even better if they are illustrated by a talented artist. Limericks are a much greater art-form than haiku because they require a punchline. (I have even created my own book of verse which I published in 2012).

Among my favourite writers are Ogden Nash, Dr Seuss, Wendy Cope, John Cooper Clarke and I recently discovered Brian Bilston. The absolute master of children’s verse is Edward Lear; Spike Milligan, of course, is also in the mix; and lesser known is Mervyn Peake.

What makes poetry so serious?

I fear that poetry has been hijacked by academics and earnest closed-shop cabals of serious poets. They have decided that “real” poetry needs to be serious. It has to be complex, multi-layered and unfathomable except to those in the know. They despise rhyme and often refuse to open their poetry competitions to “bush poets”, as if they are inferior artforms to the pseudo-byzantine blank verse offerings of poetry insiders.

I have been involved in a few poetry groups. I once had the need to be around people who share a love of poetry. However, inevitably I drift away from these groups as the tedium of their over-angsted earnestness and cryptic-crossword cleverness wear me down.

In the mainstream, a piece of prose writing or storytelling is judged by the appeal to its popular or literary audience. However, in the hijacked serious world of poetry, readership appeal is a foreign key performance indicator.

Jabberwocky should teach us to look more for creativity and wit in our poetry. Poetry needs to be accessible to the reader rather than hidden behind the the opaque meanings found in “serious” poetry. No other artform restricts its expression quite as much as poetry to a voice of seriousness.