Literary nonsense as a genre has its roots in two major branches. Its older branch hearkens back to the folk tradition, through folktales, drama, rhymes, songs, and games, such as "Hey Diddle Diddle". Schoolyard rhymes and Mother Goose are modern incarnations of this ancient art. Its role in the folk tradition varies from mnemonic device and subversive alteration of iconic text to simply joyous play with the sound of language.
The other root of literary nonsense is from the intellectual absurdities of court poets, scholars, and intellectuals of various kinds. These writers were often creating sophisticated nonsense forms of Latin parodies, religious travesties, or political satire.
Today, what we commonly consider to be the genre of literary nonsense comes from a combination of the folk and the "intellectual." Though not the first to write this hybrid kind of nonsense, Edward Lear developed and popularized it in his many limericks (starting with A Book of Nonsense, 1846) and other famous texts such as "The Owl and the Pussycat", "The Dong with a Luminous Nose," "The Jumblies," and "The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World." Lewis Carroll continued this trend, making literary nonsense a world-wide phenomenon with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Carroll's "Jabberwocky" which appears in Through the Looking-Glass is often considered quintessential nonsense.
Still, the human will to find meaning is strong; green ideas might be ideas associated with a Green party in politics, and colorless green ideas criticises some of them as uninspiring. For some, the human impulse to find meaning in what is actually random or nonsensical is what makes people find luck in coincidence, or believe in omens and divination.
Nonsense is distinct from fantasy, though there are sometimes resemblances between them. While nonsense may employ the strange creatures, other worldly situations, magic, and talking animals of a fantasy, these elements in themselves are not nonsensical. Supernatural phenomena do not create nonsense as long as they have a discernible logic supporting their existence. The distinction lies primarily in the presence of coherence within fantasy. Everything makes sense within the rules of the fantasy world; the nonsense world, on the other hand, has no such coherent system, although it may imply the existence of an inscrutable one, just beyond our grasp. The nature of magic within an imaginary world can serve as an example of this distinction. Fantasy worlds use magic to make everything make sense. Magic is rare in nonsense worlds, but when it does occur, it is a nonsense kind of magic; that is, its magic only adds to the mystery rather than solving anything. This occurs in Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Tales, for instance, when Jason Squiff, in possession of a magical "gold buckskin whincher", has his hat, mittens, and shoes turn into popcorn because, according to the "rules" of the magic, "You have a letter Q in your name and because you have the pleasure and happiness of having a Q in your name you must have a popcorn hat, popcorn mittens and popcorn shoes" Nonsense logic determines the magic here, and we are no closer to understanding this world.
No form of composition is, in itself, nonsensical. Limericks, for instance, in their modern incarnation are usually a kind of joke rather than nonsense. Their humor hinges on the unexpected resolution found in the rhyme of the last line, the "punch line". Edward Lear's limericks (or "nonsenses," as he called them, the modern term not having been coined yet) have no such punch line. They are nonsensical because of their circularity, their absurdity, their misappropriations and neologisms, and their parody of logic, but not because of the form itself. His use of the same word for the ends of the first and last lines, for instance, creates the circularity and lack of resolution absent in modern limericks. Light verse, another form often used for nonsense, is also not necessarily so. Silliness, humor, and inconsequentiality may sometimes be by-products of nonsense but do not constitute it.
Riddles only appear to be nonsense until the answer is found. The most famous nonsense riddle is only so because it originally had no answer. In Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter asks Alice "Why is a raven like a writing-desk? When Alice gives up, the Hatter replies that he does not know either, creating an answer-less riddle, a nonsense. Of course, clever answers have since been invented to fit the original, such as "Poe wrote on both."
There are also some texts which appear to be nonsense verse, but actually are not, such as the popular 40's song "Mairzy Doats".
Some of the most talented writers in English who have contributed to the genre are: Mervyn Peake, Spike Milligan, Ivor Cutler, Edward Gorey, Flann O'Brien, Alan Watts, Dr. Seuss, Carl Sandburg, Laura E. Richards, Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, John Lennon, Michael Rosen, Anushka Ravishankar, Fran Ross, Mike Gordon, Nicholas Daly, James Thurber, and, most recently, Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey (Dave Eggers and his brother Bill).
David Byrne, front man of the art rock group Talking Heads, employs a similar technique in songwriting. With Talking Heads, Byrne often combined coherent yet unrelated phrases to make up nonsensical lyrics in songs such as: "Burning Down the House", "Making Flippy Floppy" and "Girlfriend Is Better".
In comic strips, Glen Baxter's work is often nonsensical, relying on the baffling interplay between word and image.
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