“Nonsense Language”

The first of the major types of nonsense that are important to my work is nonsense language, by which I mean instances of language in which an authors or speakers have radically reshaped the structure of their language in such a way that they have defeated forms of reading that depend on normative visions of the sense-making process—or in which readers or listeners rightly or wrongly perceive them to have done so.

My recently finished dissertation and the book project I’m currently developing focus on both poetics and perceptions of nonsense. A poetics of nonsense puts the onus of nonsense-making on authors and speakers. When the focus shifts to perceptions, however, readers and listeners get to decide what counts as nonsense.

Nonsense language, then, involves shifty interactions of intention and reception. It’s possible for an author to intend sense but for her work to be received as nonsense. It’s possible for an author to intend nonsense but for readers to make unexpected sense of his work. It’s possible for an author to make sense in a relatively ordinary matter but for readers to dismiss that work as nonsense, either because of misunderstanding or because of malice. It’s also possible, of course, for authors and readers to be on the same page about the sense/nonsense dynamics of a work.

Different combinations of intention and reception yield a number of discernible types of nonsense language (these mix together to a certain extent, so this should be understood as spectrum more than a series of demarcated categories).

Intended as sense-making, but received as nonsense

The scenario here, then, is that someone speaks or writes with the intention of conveying straightforward meaning, but the reader or listener does not understand it and therefore assumes that it does not actually mean anything.

This type of nonsense is important to my project because it characterizes the experience of much of the public during modernism. Difficult works that under closer scrutiny reveal deeper meanings were widely rejected as nonsense by a public that was either too close-minded or too lazy to pursue their meanings. This has been the scholarly characterization of most assertions of “nonsense!” during modernism. For some in the public, it clearly holds. The public experience of modernism was not nearly so monolithic, however, and a closer look at many of the rejections of modernism as nonsense actually reveals a surprising engagement with and interest in the new art and literature. So to a degree, the understanding of the public charge of “nonsense!” as straightforward rejection of the sense-making is one that my project seeks to complicate.

One can think of other clear examples of putatively sense-making language received as nonsense. To many in the public, academic language in particular has a way of sounding like nonsense—deficits in knowledge and terminology mean between academics and laypeople mean that the academic’s language will never make sense to many readers.

A complicated case of sense-making language being received as nonsense occurs in encounters with speakers of other languages. When a person who speaks only English has a chance encounter with someone who speaks a different language, the two are likely to make attempts to communicate, but both share an awareness that many of the linguistic tools available to them will fail to convey meaning and be perceived as nonsense.

A potentially more malicious version of this misunderstanding of the languages of others occurs when the speaker of one language refuses an effort to make mutual sense with the other speaker. By closing off any attempt at linguistic connection, that listener hears the speaker’s language as nonsense in a way that demeans the other person and the other person’s language. That is, the listener assumes that the other speaker’s language is inferior to the listener’s own and thereby dismisses the speaker as someone unworthy of communication.

One of the bases for nonsense literature, I would argue, lies in imagined experiences of the languages of others—in a way that lies somewhere between earnest attempt at connection and malicious refusal of communication. More to say on that front when I get to nonsense literature. For now, suffice it to say that this kind of nonsense language forms the basis of the type of nonsense literature I would describe as an “utterance willfully misheard” in a revision of John Stuart Mill’s classic gloss of lyric poetry as “an utterance overheard.”

Intended as nonsense, but received as sense-making

Here I’m verging into controversial territory. How can any language, especially any language presented as literature, be intended as nonsense? If nothing else, such language is presented with the intention to produce literature—so it is not really altogether devoid of meaning, even if that meaning comes from somewhere other than straightforward denotation.

When we need to look somewhere other than denotation for meaning, however, an author has presented us with a piece of writing far radically far removed from ordinary language. While many would argue that “nonsense” itself cannot exist because meaning accrues to a piece of writing in different contexts (and especially as an effect of the act of reading), here it’s useful to imagine a spectrum from the most transparent forms of language, those most full of clear sense to those closest to nonsense.

Considering such a spectrum, we might start by considering the word “STOP” printed in the middle of a red octagon and planted on a sign 6–8 ft. high at an intersection. As soon as we see the word, we know clearly what the government that posted the sign wants us to do: to stop.

We’d encounter a lot of language that looks more like the stop sign before we even come close to overtly literary language that seems full of straightforward denotative sense. The menus we order from in restaurants, for example, the instructions on a prescription, or a jury summons. Soon, we’d get into the slightly trickier territory of legal language. The goal of legal language is often to be as clear as possible. As the vast system of courts, lawyers, and laws to resolve disputes over the meaning of such language indicates, however, legal language is rarely so imbued with clear sense as many imagine it to be. The point is, though, that we’d probably move pretty far down the spectrum from “straightforward sense language” to nonsense language before we get to any language that would deign to call itself literary.

Even once we get into the territory of literary language, many literary examples are clearly closer to straightforward sense than to nonsense. Though it points to all kinds of stuff that’s not on the page, Ernest Hemingway’s relatively unadorned prose should be mentioned here, as should the prose in many popular novels. In poetry, we might point to the efforts of the Imagists to produce a purer language that more closely resembles the ideas it seeks to convey. One writer I’ve spent significant time considering, Laura (Riding) Jackson, also deserves mention here. I’d argue pretty emphatically that I don’t think she succeeds in doing so, but she devoted most of her career to trying to find a language that more exactly means what it says. Especially after she gave up the project of poetry altogether and devoted her efforts to works like The Telling and A Dictionary of Rational Language, Riding seeks a language that defies post-Saussurean assumptions about the arbitrariness of the signifier. She holds to the idea (generally dismissed in literary studies) that there really is a right word to represent the right idea, that is.

As we progress to the other end of this spectrum, however, we’ll begin to encounter authors who demand significantly different forms of sense-making from their readers. In my modernist context, we can start with the kinds of modernists whose work seems to demand a comprehensive reference guide for successful reading. The Ezra Pound of The Cantos, for example, for example, juxtaposes cultural references that seem detached from each other and asks readers to fill in the connective gaps. Yet his work still retains clear, traceable reference to meanings from the world around it. The case of the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake is similar—the reader can build up an involved mythology of what is “actually going on” at any given point in the Wake, and she can track down the various allusions Joyce makes throughout. But it’s hard to say that such research actually gets us much closer to what Joyce “meant” in the language of the Wake.

Farther along, we’ll find authors so close to the nonsense end of the spectrum that I think it’s only critically honest to describe much of their work as “nonsense.” It’s this category of poets working close the nonsense end of the spectrum to which I refer when I call their language “intended as nonsense.” To be clear, as throughout, I do not intend to dismiss such authors by calling their language nonsense—only to properly characterize their writing as nonsense, a category of writing I find both interesting and valuable.

The Edith Sitwell of Façade, for example, retains some of the kinds of reference that Joyce and Pound do, but I would argue that she takes things further: her emphasis falls more heavily on the non-semantic sounds and shapes of words than it does on the meanings that words represent. This passage  from “Sir Beelzebub” is an example:

When
Sir
Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell
Where Proserpine first fell,
Blue as the gendarmerie were the waves of the sea,
(Rocking and shocking the barmaid).

Nobody comes to give him his rum but the
Rim of the sky hippopotamus-glum
Enhances the chances to bless with a benison
Alfred Lord Tennyson crossing the bar laid
With cold vegetation from pale deputations
Of temperance workers (all signed In Memoriam)
Hoping with glory to trip up the Laureate’s feet,
(Moving in classical metres) …

The experimental work of Gertrude Stein falls squarely within my category of “intended as nonsense.” I tend to believe that readings that “decode” Tender Buttons, as an influential reading by Lisa Ruddick does, are basically incorrect.

Avant-garde poetry, of course, sometimes takes things even further than Stein did. The Zaum poets of Russian futurism, like Stein, might focus on repetition of a word, but their poems tended to avoid even the structures of grammar with which Stein so often plays. Dada sound poetry—Hugo Ball’s is the most prominent example (see an earlier post)—explicitly tries to use no word that has ever been used before (and thereby seeks to find a newly politicized pure language). Further down the spectrum is poetry that avoids the very appearance of words. When poetry begins to take place as non-verbal images, as concrete poetry does, or when it uses recorded, non-verbal sounds, as the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters often does, we’ve gotten as far down the spectrum of sense and nonsense from the clearly denotative “STOP” sign (whose consistent visual framing begins to circle back around to concrete poetry) as I’m interested in exploring.

So, when I say “nonsense language,” it’s not to dismiss such authors as purely non-meaning or insignificant, but rather to acknowledge their distance from the transparent, sense-making end of the spectrum and their closeness to the messier nonsense-making end of the spectrum that might be represented by total gibberish.

How do we read such language?

First, we acknowledge that the reader’s subjective experience of such language can matter as much as its objective meaning. That is, readers make meaning even when meaning doesn’t seem to be there. Stein describes this scenario: “I made innumerable effort to make words write without sense and I found it impossible. Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them” (Transatlantic Interview 18). Pablo Picasso makes a similar observation about non-representational painting: “We can write and paint anything—n’importe quoi—as there will always be somebody who will understand it… Somebody will always get it.”

In a great article called “Reading Nonsense: The Experience of Contemporary Poetry,” Leonard Diepeveen breaks down the reader’s process of meaning-making upon an encounter with nonsense along these lines. According to cognitive theory, Diepeveen argues, “The reader perceives the text, and tests it against a structure in the mind” (28). Because reading “is an active form of problem solving” (31), readers do their damnedest to make meaning from even the most seemingly incomprehensible texts: “rather than feeling liberated by pure nonsense, the human mind tends to try to limit its effects. With its purposeful seeking, the human mind ensures that nonsense always borders on sense” (31–32). Therefore, “There is no pure nonsense; there are only tendencies to nonsense. The history of nonsense, of removing sense, is always a history of failure” (35).

Diepeveen’s description of this reading scenario is spot on, and a similar idea has been used effectively by Steve McCaffery to describe the impact of Hugo Ball’s sound poetry. But I’d add a twist, too. The reader in such a scenario closely resembles the ideal reader the New Critics imagined as part of their imagination of the reading act—that is, the ideal reader of modernist work is patient, careful, learned, and diligent. But many of the readers of nonsense language over the years bear little resemblance to that ideal reader. So their experience of nonsense language is characterized as much by discomfited, disoriented, or laughing affective response as it is by care and diligence. So whatever meaning they draw from such texts is impacted by the material contexts of those texts to an even greater degree than most critics have supposed. In the context of my dissertation, then, the nonsense language of Gertrude Stein is heavily affected by the book object of Tender Buttons (and the cultural scene surrounding Stein). The audience’s interpretation of Hugo Ball’s sound poetry is affected significantly by the outlandish costumes he wore at the Cabaret Voltaire as he performed them. The reader’s interpretation of a book on Bob Brown’s machine is even more straightforwardly affected by the machine on which that reader reads (and which can be said to be performing a technological deformance-into-nonsense of that text). So I try to bring the context of the reading experience and the peripheral emotions of that experience into the picture of reading nonsense language.

So in the category of language intended as nonsense but perceived as sense-making, I offer three key points:

  1. Literary language sometimes comes close enough to nonsense that it’s useful to think of it as nonsense.
  2. When confronted with such language, readers strive to create meaning even when no meaning presents itself easily.
  3. The reader’s meaning-making is affected significantly by the material contexts in which that meaning-making occurs and by the reader’s (irrational) emotions during the reading act.

Sense-making, in a sense, but intended to be received as nonsense

Consider the example of Wallace Stevens’s “Bantams in Pine-Woods”:

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.

A first reading of this poem suggests a kind of nonsense—the reader’s attention is drawn as much to the sounds of these words as to a scene the words represent. But the language parses. The words have definitions. In the end, this is an inter-chicken conversation, and it can be read as such. Indeed, in a memorable essay Rachel Blau Duplessis puts the poem in context and reads it convincingly as Stevens’s response to a blackface performance of Vachel Lindsay’s Congo—the pieces fit, and Duplessis has convinced me that the chicken-conversation refers directly to Stevens’s real-world experience of Vachel Lindsay’s poetry.

But how can we not call this poem nonsense? The point here is that our academic readings of such a poem are useful and illuminating. But they shouldn’t foreclose our ability to revisit a more naive experience of the poem, which arguably is the experience the vast majority of readers will have with it (and arguably the experience Stevens imagined for the vast majority of his readers). Such a poem, then, “makes sense”—but it also seems intended to make nonsense, to emphasize the non-semantic sounds and shapes of the poem’s words as much as its signified meanings.

That naive experience of the disorienting sounds and shapes of words defamiliarized by poetry is something that I think academic critics should strive to recover—because language can make sense, but it also carries the weight of less definable versions of sense that aren’t explainable in other words, that are, in a sense, nonsense.


So that’s my long summary of what I mean by nonsense language. I could go on, considering, for example, explanations for nonsense language in culture—glossolalia, play, literary intention, etc. But this is already a really long post.

I think three key points distinguish my approach to nonsense language from those that have come before.

First, I think we can think of nonsense language as something that operates differently from literary language considered more generally, even if there is no such thing as pure nonsense. The group of authors that fall toward the nonsense end of the spectrum require different forms of reading.

Second, it’s useful to think of nonsense not just in terms of poetics but also in terms of perceptions. That is, any useful version of nonsense language needs to consider it as form in conversation with authors and readers, not as form alone.

Finally, I think we should strive to keep nonsense nonsense. That is, even when we read carefully and fill in all the blanks of allusion, reference, etc. in the fabric of a literary work, we should recover a more naive, more emotional response to language that at first doesn’t seem to mean.

Coming soon: glossary entries on nonsense literature, logical nonsense, and ridiculing nonsense.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 3,001 words; month-to-date 5,144. Clearly not going to be close to 50,000 words, but inspired to keep writing nonetheless.

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