{National Poetry Month} On Whimsy in Poetry

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On Whimsy in Poetry by Natalya Lawren {guest writer}

cover art for Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends

 

From the abandon of Doctor Seuss to the witty verse of Shel Silverstein, whimsical poetry often brightens our childhood and then somehow disappears from mention thereon. This is a bid to bring this form and style back!

The poem I’ve chosen to focus on today is a far cry from the controversial subject of “Howl”, but is just as revolutionary in another way.

So may I present to you a childhood favorite–

illustration by John Tenniel from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

“The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll from Through The Looking Glass

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

and the mome raths outgrabe.

 

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!’

 

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought-

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

 

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

 

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

 

‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’

He chortled in his joy.

 

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

and the mome raths outgrabe.

 

Even Alice comments on the poem:

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate –’

Yes, at any rate, we seem to understand this poem to some extent where we pick up on the cognates and overall narrative. We connect the nonsensical words to what we already know, and though the creatures are barely referenced in detail, the general gist seems to be enough to create an image, even the style and rhyme scheme of this poem accomplish this. Carroll has many chants and narrative poems of this nature scattered throughout his books. What I love about poems such as these is that they do not put any special effort to be understandable, nor any pretenses of sophistication. They bring out the inner child, and call this nostalgia, but the fond memories of reading at a young age are captured like the paper is flypaper.

It is arguable whether the purpose of whimsy is negligible, or whether it all serves as some conduit for deeper portent. Just as fairy tales warn children not to wander into the forest or eat/enter their neighbor’s houses, some poems do the same, implanting some subconscious rhyme to remember at the youngest age. But this poem– well, it perhaps instructs the history of Wonderland, or how to kill a Jabberwocky, or avoid the Jubjub bird and fearsome Bandersnatch. Seuss teaches us the vital lesson that we should avoid green colored eggs and ham– because, as implied by the overall poem, they must be covered in mold.

Something interesting I stumbled across as I was looking up Doctor Seuss poems on the internet to refresh my memory: there were more parody versions of mocking hateful political opinions than the actual original! And I am just as opinionated as the next person, but that was why I brought up “Howl”.

I suppose this discovery brings me back around the the previous point I had made about whether whimsy served a purpose. Demonstrated in some of these parody poems, it shows that the form and rhyme, the way we speak and see these poems, still contains the light innocence and joy, and in the case of parody only furthers the dementedness and sarcasm of these replacing words. And if ignoring this alternate use, we have something moving in its own way.

Literature does not have to be dark to make a statement, nor do they have to speak down to an audience. The rules of language and understanding have long been trodden on, and that is how we have some of the words we use in day-to-day speech, whether it be the ‘street slang’ or one of the many words Shakespeare invented. I think that just like we can understand something even from a different use of words, we can love whimsy and oddity even if we cannot yet admit it.

From what I can tell, growing up seems to mean becoming serious, and I do not think that it matters much. We are serious and righteous often anyhow, and just like some tranquil line of poetry can strike and stroke some blossoming joy, a short ditty and carefree creation brightens the day and the pages, and hopefully National Poetry Month 2015 as well.

Laugh. Revisit your childhood favorite or seek out a new childish favorite. I suggest “Hippopotamus Sandwich” by Shel Silverstein for L, who I remember has always loved it. Share these and do not be ashamed in uttering nonsense or inanity.

You can be Alice if you like. Or you can chortle in joy, and pull out your vorpal blade. There is a Jabberwock to slay and poetry to share.

Oh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay!

 

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