Sunday, November 17, 2013

Conventional signs and the absolute blank - some nonsense aesthetics (guest starring Swinburne and Morgenstern)

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
    Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
    A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
    Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
    “They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
    But we’ve got out brave captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “That he’s bought us the best –
    A perfect and absolute blank!”   (Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark,” Fit the Second)

The nonsense poems I have been reading are not so far, looked at kind of cockeyed, from the early modern descendants of Petrarch I was writing about last week.  Elizabethan sonneteers were working under narrow constraints, rewarded for ingenuity as much as, or more than, meaning.  It was at times hard to see the difference between dozens of tiny variations on an entirely conventional idea and the absence of any idea at all.  “They are merely conventional signs!”

The two orders of poetry also share a common ancestor in the classical pastoral poetry tradition.  Thus ends today’s sermon in literary history.

It is not that nonsense and its cousins are not meaningful.  The Alice novels are as deep as I want them to be, rare examples of fiction with something to say about metaphysics.  But there is a side of nonsense that directly addresses the possibility of meaning, that tries to see how close it can get to the blank map.

I have been paging through The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse (1979), ed. Geoffrey Grigson, where I came upon a cluster of Christian Morgenstern poems including “The Great Lalulā,” of which I present the final stanza:

Simarar kos malzpempu
silzuzanlunkrei (;)!
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei [ ]!
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

Well said.  All punctuation in the original.  Morgenstern is often described as untranslatable for some reason.

The poem is selective in its chaos, keeping rhyme, meter, sound and, what else, alphabetical characters, although I bet it was originally published in Gothic script.

Algernon Swinburne achieves a similar effect with English words and grammar in “Nephelida”:

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn
        through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,
    Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that
        flickers with fear of the flies as they float,

A page and a half of this, frankly very hard to read for more than a few lines at a time.  It constantly seems to approach meaning, but that is hardly the point.  Wonderful stuff, and just a smidge over from the way Swinburne often sounds in his serious – I hate to call them serious – poems.

Little children seem to figure all of this out without any help, the fun of turning everything, including language, upside down.  In a comment to yesterday’s Carroll post, Jenny from Reading the End praised the sheer joyfulness of Carroll’s nonsense.  He shares that sense of play with all of the nonsense and light verse writers, the delight created by the discovery that an unrelated jumble of words, placed together in a particular order, have turned into something marvelous even without meaning a thing, which is itself meaningful.  And thus I have invented aesthetics.  A little late.

12 comments:

  1. Has any other nonsense writer also written a textbook of logic? A few solutions to Carroll's logic problems:

    Babies cannot manage crocodiles.
    No pencils of mine are sugar-plums
    Guinea-pigs never really appreciate Beethoven.
    My writing-desk is full of live scorpions.
    Opium-eaters never wear white kid gloves.
    All my dreams come true.

    My favorite of Carroll's books may be the dark horse, "Sylvie and Bruno": wild, embarrassing, surprising, a true wonderful mess of a book.

    Will Browning get a place in your nonsense pantheon? You know, a case could be made.

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  2. Arguably the deepest poem written in Fish Language (or in any other language) is Morgernsten's Night Song of the Fish:

    The original reads:

    ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿


    And my poor attempt at an English translation

    ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿ ‿ ‿
    — — —
    ‿ ‿

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  3. Morgenstern was a treasure. Grigson attempts a few translataions and does pretty well: "The Aesthete Weasel," the tragic tale of "The Moonsheep."

    Grigson does not include Browning, perhaps because the relevant poems are too long, but I like the idea.

    Sylvie and Bruno - now, this is the disadvantage of owning a big Complete Carroll. Every time I have got it out to read S & B, I end up rereading Alice. I should get a separate edition. Or exert some willpower.

    I should have somehow used this but of Alice in this post:

    "Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no
    sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English."

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  4. Has anyone ever understood "Sordello"? Not I, I'm afraid.

    And for Carroll, there's the pertinent:

    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you CAN make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

    As for "Sylvie and Bruno," you seem to like omnibooks, and it's one of those. An omnibook by Lewis Carroll? Sound interesting?

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  5. Yes, very interesting.

    "Sordello" is just the poem I was thinking of. I have not read it all, and cannot remember how far I got. I remember thinking something like "This is gibberish."

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  6. Before a coming glory : up and down
    Runs arrowy fire, while earthly forms combine
    To throb the secret forth ; a touch divine—
    And the scaled eyeball owns the mystic rod :
    Visibly through this garden walketh God.

    From Sordello.

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  7. Have you yet read Guy de Mauoassant's account of his meeting with Swunburne- it is hilarious and is on The Public Domain Review with a new translation

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  8. I enjoy the idea I read somewhere, that because of his unusual education Browning did not realize how obscure his early poems are. I do not believe the idea, but I enjoy it.

    Yes, mel, I have read that, or anyone some version of it. Several versions. I can see how the memory of meeting a soggy Swinburne would stick with a kid.

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  9. " But there is a side of nonsense that directly addresses the possibility of meaning"

    Yes, that's just it: nonsense verse works only because there is a sense to play against. And the best nonsense seems--almost--to make a kind of sense, or maybe it does make a kind of sense; hard to say. But nonsense works with (or against, as I say) the idea of meaning, and I think that at least part of the appeal--as you probably said yesterday more clearly than I'm saying right now--is the implication that meaning is arbitrary, and that language itself is a sort of game. This is none of it coming our right. "The possibility of meaning." There is no reason--and I think we all know this--why nonsense verse is in and of itself any less meaningful than sensible verse. The words themselves, the phonemes, are arbitrary symbols. So nonsense pokes fun at the entire system of language, of signs, and probably at things deeper than language, and what's not fun about that? Clearly I should think more about this and attempt to rephrase all of this. But it's late, so you get this marginal comment instead.

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  10. Children, many children, get this instantly, the fun with breaking the rules of language, or the idea that there are especially ingenious or pleasing violations of the rules. This is developmental, I suppose - the littl'uns are just getting the rules straight, likely with some confusion and friction, so what fun to be able to toss it all in the air once in a while.

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  11. >> just a smidge over from the way Swinburne often sounds in his serious – I hate to call them serious – poems.

    I admit I laughed out loud when I read this because it was so exactly what I thought of as I was reading that stanza. Swinburne is like baklava to me: I ferociously love it, even while recognizing that it's far too sweet, but after one piece I'm done with it for a year (I can't help it, I love internal rhymes, I love them, I can't help it). Have you read Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist? He makes some joke in that book about how Swinburne used up all the rhymes there were in the world, so that English language poets were forced to come up with free verse in self-defense.

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  12. No, I have not read the N. Baker. That is funny. Swinburne really does now feel like the end of a tradition, a bundle of poetic ideas taken to their logical conclusion.

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