The mind works in mysterious ways. There are things buried deep within that make their way out when you least expect it and give you an eery sense of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, as Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently would say. These are the building blocks that make us, the mitochondria of our consciousness, the reoccurring themes, the influences, the inspirations that guide and shape us.
Today as I walked to work my mind was also wandering. I was trying to come up with the title for a post I am planning about a recently finished project (more in Makings later). For reasons that will become clear, I was searching my metaphysical archives for spoon related references. Then, before I was really aware of what was happening, I found myself repeating, over and over, the Owl and the Pussy Cat, and not just the first four lines the whole poem.
It’s not an uncommon rhyme but when had it seeped in to my memory and why was it at the forefront of my thoughts now? My internal microfiche revealed the answer. When I was about five years old, my class was put through a series of tests, the beginnings of educational segregation. There was counting and basic subtraction and addition using an abacus of brightly coloured wooden beads; I was asked to decide which out of a number of objects would float or sink if I put them in a tank of water, and then to do so; finally we had to read out loud the Owl and the Pussy Cat. I went a step further and learnt it off by heart.
My brain fastforwards six years. Now I am eleven, standing in front of a classroom of relative strangers, my first few weeks at secondary school. I am reciting, again from memory, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.
What is it that connects these two experiences? Why is it that educators encourage children to engage with Nonsense Rhymes? In all likelihood the Owl and the Pussy Cat was chosen for purely practical reasons:-
1. Young children can identify with owls and cats, pigs and turkeys. They know what a boat is, and honey.
2. The rhythm of the poem lends itself to rote learning. It carries the reader, or reciter, forwards even with a relatively new and stumbling tongue.
3. It contains a mix of ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ words suitable for the purposes of measuring attainment. Most should manage ‘five’, ‘love’ and ‘year’ but few will successfully navigate ‘tarried’, less will know what it means.
I hope, though I can’t be sure, that the Jabberwocky was chosen for other, creative purposes. It certainly isn’t simple to read or to learn. The meter is more complex, the nonsense more profound. We sound out the unfamiliar words as though learning to read for the first time and this enforced concentration, the focused enunciation, lends an unexpected gravitas to what may otherwise seem absurd. The Beamish Boy is elevated to the status of Beowulf, the Jabberwock becomes Grendal. Through the transformative power of poetry we are introduced to the toolkit of the writer, to the magic of onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhyme and metaphor. We come to realise that there is more to word choice, word order, than a dictionary definition. Sensations, pictures, understanding, all can be created from sound alone, the Babel Fish in our ear taking in the nonsense and making it clear.
This is a valuable lesson for children starting out on their literary adventure to be taught and, once you set out on the sea, there are many more discoveries to be made. Another lesson to be learnt from nonsense rhymes is that there is more than one way to tell a story and also that certain stories recur many times. They say to the inspiring writer, do not be afraid if your voice is different, if the tale you have to tell is unique and strange, you will still be understood. Equally, never think that you have nothing interesting to say, even stories as old as the world (Boy/Owl meets Girl/Pussy Cat, after a number of adventures and some sticky moments, they marry and live happily ever after) (A boy on the cusp of adulthood must put his fears aside, undertake a walkabout alone, kill the fearsome beast and return to his people a man) will be special and new because they come from you.
I am truly grateful to the teachers that sowed the seeds of nonsense within me, the vorpal blade and runcible spoon are powerful weapons to face the world with.