Nonsense & Biology in Sunday’s New York Times blog

Author Richard Conniff wrote an entertaining post for the New York Times blog Opinionator yesterday. It starts off at sea in a Sieve with the Jumblies and ends in the Tulgey Wood, all to discuss the relation between the Nonsense poets’ zoology and the age of 19th Century scientific exploration, which turned up many fanciful new creatures. “Charles Darwin himself could sound as whimsical as Lewis Carroll,” writes Conniff. Read the whole article here, and here’s an excerpt:

A pigeon from one of Edward Lear’s books.

[…] But it never occurred to me that there might be a direct connection between the two worlds of nonsense verse and biology. Then one day I picked up an old print of a tropical pigeon species and noticed the “E. Lear” in the bottom corner. Though he is celebrated today mainly as the author of such works as “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Lear had started out as a naturalist. His first book, “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots,” drew favorable comparisons with Audubon when he published it in 1832, at age 19.

Like many naturalists, Lear described the natural world not just in literal-minded scientific detail, but also in fanciful doodles and verse. And when this blossomed into books for children, he often dispatched his characters, like naturalists, on wild explorations to the back of beyond. He also had them devote considerable energy to collecting the oddities of the country:

And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Nonsense was almost a byproduct of natural history. The twin themes of exploration and taxonomy, were “present in the genre as a whole, even in Lewis Carroll, who had no special interest in the subject,” according to the French scholar Jean-Jacques Lecercle, in his 1994 book “Philosophy of Nonsense”: “The reader of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is in the position of an explorer: the landscape is strikingly new … and a new species is encountered at every turn, each more exotic than the one before. Nonsense is full of fabulous beasts, mock turtles and garrulous eggs.”


Blog claims to have Lewis Carroll reading the Jabberwocky

While not impossible (Dodgson didn’t die till after the advent of sound recording), I was skeptical when this blog 22 Words claimed to have a recording of “Lewis Carroll reading ‘Jabberwocky.'” But I see they updated it with the comment “Oops! Sorry…This isn’t Lewis Carroll reading. Not sure how I made that mistake…” I can guess how they made the mistake: they had embedded the sound only from this strange YouTube animation. Its creator, Jim Clark, explains himself thusly: “Here is a virtual movie of Lewis Carroll reading his much loved poem Jabberwocky. The poem is read superbly by Justin Brett.”

There’s no known voice recordings of Carroll are there?


We’re mad as hatters down in Hatteras

The October 2010 issue of the tri-quarterly poetry  journal Blue Unicorn ($7), out of Kensington, California, contains an Alice-themed sonnet, “Hatteras Time,” by Gregory Perry. It has a quotation from Alice and the Hatter’s conversation on time as its epigram. The poem begins “We’re mad as hatters down in Hatteras.”  Ruth Berman reports that the piece “draws on imagery of teatime, the Queen of Hearts, a lack of ‘much of muchness to pursue,’ and having ‘buttery time to kill.'”


Seek it with thimbles, seek it with care, order it today from!

There is Thingumbob shouting! Mahendra Singh’s beautiful new illustrated version of The Hunting of the Snark is being released tomorrow, Tuesday, November 2nd (and we refuse to make any Election Day analogies) from Melville House Publishing. You can still pre-order it today for $10.08 on Amazon with free shipping (where it’s listed as a “graphic novel,” although where is the line between a graphic novel and a book with many, many pictures and conversations?) Singh, an LCSNA member and an editor of the Knight Letter, has been blogging about the creative process of this book for years with tons of sneak-peaks of the art at justtheplaceforasnark.

From Melville House’s blog MobyLives:

In 1879, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson–a.k.a. Lewis Carroll–published the classic “nonsense” poem, The Hunting of the Snark. Though often outshined by Carroll’s prose works like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Snark is beloved by Carroll fans and has been adapted in numerous iterations since it was originally published.

In November, Melville House is publishing the latest iteration, a lovely new graphic novel edition of The Hunting of the Snark, illustrated by the artist Mahendra Singh. (Singh has been blogging about the process of adapting this famous work over at justtheplaceforasnark–I encourage anyone who considers themselves aficionados of Carroll or graphic novels to check it out. His commentary about the process is incredibly fun and often brilliant.)

When you’re publishing something that’s already so well known, there’s no shortage of adaptations and interpretations out there. Each tends to say something not just about the original work, but about the time and place it was adapted. Yesterday I found this wonderful audio clip of Boris Karloff doing a reading of Snark. It’s lovely to hear Karloff’s eloquent rendering, to let it take you back to his time as he ruminates on Carroll’s playful language, and get wrapped up in all the “nonsense”…


Chicago’s Caffeine Theatre announces Old Father William’s Frabjous and Curious Poetry Contest

Caffeine Theatre and Chicago Opera Vanguard will be premiering Boojum! Nonsense, Truth, and Lewis Carroll on November 18th thru December 19th, 2010, at Chicago DCA’s Storefront Theater. (I understand the “Nonsense” and the “Lewis Carroll,” but will withhold judgment on the “Truth.”) Caffeine Theatre is hosting a nonsense poetry contest, the winners to be incorporated into the play! The guidelines, as posted by Emily Wong at Gapers Block:

Caffeine Theatre wants YOU — to send them your original poetry for their “Old Father William’s Frabjous and Curious Poetry Contest.” Just follow their rules:

  • Submissions may include any size or style of poem, as long as it is inspired in some way by the life or work of Lewis Carroll, or in some way speaks in conversation with that life or work.
  • Nonsense poems and poems exploring symbolic logic are especially encouraged.
  • Winners will be posted and podcast on Caffeine’s website, and performed at the Lewis Carroll Coffeehouse at the end of November.
  • Any new or previously written poem may be submitted (provided it can be republished/recorded/performed).

Submit your Lewis Carroll-inspired, nonsense poems by emailing the poems and a 3-5 sentence description of their relation to Lewis Carroll to the Caffeine Theatre Associate Artistic Director, Daniel Smith, at Make sure you have “Old Father William” in the subject heading! The deadline for submissions is October 31, 2010.

Meanwhile, while you’re waiting for Boojum!, Chicago’s Crown Point Community Theater is staging an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, opening this Friday, October 8th. “It’s a very playful adaptation,” said director Liz Love according to the Post-Tribune. “The other characters are all getting ready to perform ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but they have a problem. They have no Alice. But as luck would have it there just happens to be a girl named Alice and they help her find her way into the story.”


“All over a rattle”: Tweedle poem in The Benevolent Otherhood

Volume 1 of a new zine from Oakland and Berkeley writers, The Benevolent Otherhood, contains a nonsense poem by S. Sandrigon mentioning Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. The new “chapbook” was released this week at a reading at Oakland’s Mama Buzz before a packed house. A limited number of the zines are available, but there is a free digital version (embedded below.) The poem in question, “Sacred Massacre”, took some inspiration from Jon A. Lindseth’s article in Knight Letter Number 83, “A Tale of Two Tweedles.”  Lindseth traced the etymology of ‘tweedle’ and ‘dum/dub’ back to poems referencing “the sound of the bagpipe” and “the roll of drums”. “Sacred Massacre” uses these military sounds in every stanza, and compares the dangerous biblical feud between “a king & a baby” to Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee’s argument, “All over a rattle”. (Full disclosure: the poet is also an editor of this blog.) “Sacred Massacre” is on page 32:


“Like Alice, I have eaten eggs, certainly”: Wonderland-referencing poems in Asimov’s Science Fiction

The September 2010 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction hits newsstands today. The two poems in this issue both use Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland themes as their central metaphors. “The Now We Almost Inhabit” by Roger Dutcher and Robert Frazier uses the Cheshire Cat and Alice’s changing size “as images of changable realities”, and Ruth Berman’s poem “Egg Protection” (mistakenly called “Egg Production” in the table of contents) uses “the pigeon’s opinion of long-necked Alice as a predatory serpent as the opinion of birds in general regarding humans.” (Quotes describing the poems from Ruth Berman.) Here’s an excerpt from “Egg Protection”:

For about two weeks, two robins
Kept yelling at me
Every time I appeared outside the door
In (apparently) a cloud
Of flames and brimstone
Visible to birdseyes,
To grab the paper or the mail.


Like Alice, I have eaten eggs, certainly,
But I don’t want theirs.
Birds consider only the first bit.
They don’t take a human’s word for the rest.

To read the whole poem, please consider purchasing September’s Asimov’s Science Fiction, where all fine magazines are sold!


The Brum and the Oologist

The Brum and the Oologist
Were walking hand in hand;
They grinned to see so many birds
On cliff, and rock, and sand.
“If we could only get their eggs,”
Said they, “it would be grand.”

“Oh Seabirds,” said the Midland man,
“Let’s take a pleasant walk!
Perhaps among you we may find
The Great – or lesser- Auk;
And you might possibly enjoy
A scientific talk.”

The skuas and the cormarants,
And all the puffin clan,
The stormy petrels, gulls and terns,
They hopped and skipped and ran
With very injudicious speed
To join that oily man.

“The time has come,” remarked the Brum,
“For ‘talking without tears’
Of birds unhappily extinct,
Yet known in former years;
And how much cash an egg will fetch
In Naturalistic spheres.”

“But not our eggs!” replied the birds,
Feeling a little hot.
“You surely would not rob our nests
After this pleasant trot?”
The Midland man said nothing but,
“I guess he’s cleared the lot!”

“Well!” said that bland Oologist.
“We’ve had a lot of fun.
Next year, perhaps, these Shetland birds
We’ll visit – with a gun;
When – as we’ve taken all their eggs –
There’ll probably be none!”

This poem was sent to us by LCSNA member Mary DeYoung, who found it in a “little book” called Bird Brain-Teasers by Patrick Merrell. Ms. DeYoung writes:

The compiler of this little book, Mr. Merrell, says that this poem, abridged, was written in 1891, appearing in Punch. Brum is slang for Birmingham England, he says. I am certain there were and are many takes on The Walrus and the Carpenter; this is a gem.

And I found you can see the original page from Punch using Google Books here.


Ode to the Blingrupt

Check out Laura Rich’s (Recessionwire) “Jabberwocky” parody, “Ode to the Blingrupt” using economic-crisis terms coined by Trevor Butterworth:

‘Twas ponzipaloosa, and the slithy brokerers
Did scofit and fraudit in the Davy Jones Index;
All bankholed were the financial sucktor,
And the drivelatives quantitatively fassets teased...

Arty Alice

Sue Johnson’s “Alice Redux” panorama will be on display at New York City’s Schroeder Romero/Winkleman Gallery Project Space through April 26. “The 20-foot-long panorama imagines Alice grown up and finding her way through a dream world cluttered by the flotsam and jetsam of modern consumer culture. Advertising images of everyday products appear alongside allusions to the Lewis Carroll tale, making the work a contemporary fantasia of incongruous imagery.”

A belated congratulations to Bryan Talbot: His Alice in Sunderland was placed on the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Novel award back in January. Winners will be announced at Eastercon this coming week:

Some of you may have read the review in the most recent Knight Letter about the Theatre Gajes ( “stilted” open air performance in Germany. The group recently toured in Toronto, where LCSNA member Tania Ianovskaia attended and took photos:

Last but not least, the one of the winners of the New York Times “Pi Day” (3/14) Poetry Contest ( is Mike Keith’s Cadaeic Cadenza, in which each succeeding word of the poem has the same number of letters as the corresponding digit of pi… to the 3,835th digit! Section 3 of the poem is a strange, but clever parody of “Jabberwocky.”