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What Is Nonsense Poetry?

By Jessica Reed
Updated May 23, 2024
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Nonsense poetry, or nonsense verse, can be found throughout children's nursery rhymes, limericks, and even old Anglo-Saxon riddles. Nonsense poetry refers to any sort of poetry that is nonsensical in nature, be it that some of the words are made up and meaningless or that the words exist but make little sense in the context they are used in. Often nonsense poetry is lighthearted and has a simple rhyming scheme to it. Most nonsensical poems were written to entertain and amuse children, such as the verses found in children's nursery rhymes.

Popular writers of nonsense poetry throughout history include Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, and the famous children's book author Dr. Seuss. The works of Lewis Carroll are examples of nonsense verses where words are made up. His poem Jabberwocky features phrases like "vorpal sword," "manxome foe," and "uffish thought." While Carroll later explained the words and how he chose them — often by combining various words that described the word he was looking for — they are still nonsensical and the reader could assign any meaning he wanted to them.

Dr. Seuss also featured made-up words in his children's books, though the intent of each word is clear and takes on a specific meaning for those reading the books. Still, the books are in keeping with the light and entertaining nature of nonsense poetry. Examples of Dr. Seuss's fanciful phrases include the book titles There's a Wocket in My Pocket and Horton Hears a Who! The word "who" does exist, but is used in a way that does not follow what a traditional English speaker would expect to hear.

In contrast, nonsense poetry can also include poems and riddles which make perfect sense grammatically but do not make sense semantically, referring to what the words mean when read as a whole, or as part of sentence. "'I see,' said the blind man" is a popular phrase that plays on the phrase "I see" meaning both "I understand" and "I can see." The nonsensical part comes from the fact that the man, being blind, cannot see at all. Anglo-Saxon riddles took advantage of these play on words to create poems that seemed to make no sense but actually referred to specific items or creatures.

Many cultures and languages have embraced nonsense verse at some point or other during their history. Today, nonsense verse is found primarily in humorous lyrics or children's books. It focuses less on riddles that require the listener to solve them and more on stringing together unusual or made-up words for amusement.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Apr 28, 2012

@umbra21 - English is a rich language precisely because at some point someone made up a new word that precisely described a particular thing.

Shakespeare alone invented almost 2000 of our words, including things like advertising, lonely, luggage, jaded and so forth.

No language is static and I think learning to play around with words at an early age is actually quite critical for kids to develop creativity. If they don't get to read a book of nonsense or two they might never learn that it's OK to go off the beaten path and invent their own ways of doing things.

Plus it's fun. I mean, come on, just try reading Jabberwocky out loud without a smile on your face. It's very difficult to do it.

By umbra21 — On Apr 27, 2012

@KoiwiGal - It's true that some children's writers can take nonsense rhyme and give it a point. But, I would say your example of Roald Dahl's work is more like a science fiction writer making up a name for his aliens than a nonsense word.

And I think most of the time people make up words for their poetry because they're lazy rather than because they are trying to be evocative.

It's much easier to combine two words in order to make a third word fit into the form of poetry that you're using, rather than finding a perfect word that already exists.

The English language is an extremely rich one and there are too few words being used these days as it is, with people coming up with nonsense words in what they call text speak for use in emails and cell phones.

People should be trying to use the words we already have, not making up new ones, even for kids' poems.

By KoiwiGal — On Apr 26, 2012

I think it's very difficult to write a truly good nonsense poem, but that when they are well written they can be amazing. Jabberwocky is of course an example of a truly amazing nonsense poem that can still resonate with people today even though it was written decades ago.

Another example is the writing of Roald Dahl. When you think about some of the things he's written, like about the Oompa Loompas but how easily those words are said, and what a vivid picture they bring to mind, you can't help but think the man was a genius. Particularly when you read about the predators that would eat the Oompa-Loompas, the Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers and Snozzywangers.

I loved those words when I was a kid, especially when they were read aloud, but even as an adult I can appreciate the humor of them.

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