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.”


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.”


Free Downloads of Storypods Nonsense Contest Winners

Andrew Sellon, President of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, has partnered with Oxford-based Storypods Audiobooks to provide free audio downloads of the two poems that won Storypod’s 2010 Nonsense competition.  Storypods launched the contest as a tribute to Lewis Carroll, and received many entertaining submisssions.  To listen to the winners and download the audio files, click the image on the right.  Enjoy!


“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:


Alice laughed: Amusing auto-abbreviations in yesterday's Atlantic

Writing online for the Atlantic, staff writer Niraj Chokshi yesterday noted the surprisingly poetic nonsense that is generated by Microsoft Word’s “autosummarize” feature. Appropriately, he tested the feature on Through the Looking-Glass and the result is rather striking:

Alice began. Alice asked.
Alice asked. Alice laughed. Alice laughed. Alice pleaded. Alice explained.
Alice interrupted.
Alice enquired.
Queen Alice

What this might suggest about the priorities of the 21st century office environment and the software developers who serve it, I can only begin to fathom.

The full article, Microsoft Word: A Poet in the Machine, is inspired by “New Media Artist” Jason Huff, who used Word’s “autosummarize'” feature to generate ten-sentence abstracts of the top 100 most-downloaded, out-of-copyright works. Previews of the resulting book, AutoSummarize, can be found on his website and make very entertaining reading.


Oxford StoryPods Nonsense Contest and Mad Hatter Lunch Party

Liz and Francis of Oxford Storypods, the talented folks who put out a very nice audio version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland paired with a great selection of poems and letters, have just announced a contest for nonsense writing in a Carrollian vein.  You can read the details by clicking here.  It’s a particularly challenging contest, since your submission must be very brief (max 200 words) as well as good!  Two winners will be selected and awarded the aforementioned Storypods audio book, which is well worth a little nonsensical effort.  The winning entries may also be professionally recorded.

7/20 PLEASE NOTE: The contest deadline has been extended to August 15th, 2010, to allow you nonsensical writers more time to flex your imaginations.  Storypods has asked that you keep your submissions to the 200 word limit.  The two winners will be announced on or about August 25th.

Liz and Francis also hosted a A Mad Hatter’s Lunch Party that sounds delightful.