Andreas Wittenstein

© 2006..2009 by Andreas Wittenstein. Some rights reserved. (CC)

One of the greatest influences on my poetry-writing style was the anonymous author of the nursery rhyme that sounds like “Marezy dotes 'n dozy dotes 'n liddle amzy divey, a kiddly divey too, wooden shoe?” I still clearly recall the moment I realized, after hearing it for the umpteenth time, that “wooden shoe” sounds just like “wouldn't you”. And I still recall how, many years later, to my private embarrassment and delight, the rest of the ditty suddenly revealed itself to me.

The idea that one could conceal sense within nonsense in such a way that it could continue for many years to elicit surprise hooked me. It's like unwrapping a gift and enjoying it for a long time before discovering that within lies wrapped another more-meaningful gift. In contrast, any number of popular tongue-twisters left me somehow disappointed, because when I unwrapped them, I found there was nothing inside. And then there were other nonsensical ditties such as the Pledge of Legions that opened up to reveal even greater nonsense.

Thus the poems presented here are all in a style I call ‘sensical nonsense’. On first hearing, the more extreme ones sound like completely unintelligible babble, their rampant sound-play tangling up in listeners' ears. Even after several hearings, some of these poems (such as Denial) leave listeners with their brains tied in knots that have to be painstakingly untied before the words and their meaning are clear. Seeing the words makes it easier, but some of the poems (such as Laughter and Snake) are merciless tongue-twisters, and cannot be recited smoothly without a lot of practice. And a few (notably Missing), are puzzling just to read.

Other than the strict syllable count of the Love Haiku, these poems make no attempt to fit into traditional metric forms, rhyme schemes, or alliteration patterns; and to the extent that they do, it is purely by accident. Rather, the phonological constraints here are better characterized as ‘isophony’, a generalized form of homophony in which the sounds of phrases resemble each other holistically. Perhaps the best example of this is the Rose poem, a three-by-three set of stanzas, each containing three lines, each of which contains two feet, each of which sounds like “a rose” —some exactly, some only loosely so. Of course, just as it's easy to rhyme the ending or alliterate the beginning of a word with a repetition of the same word, it would be easy, if tedious, to isophonize a word with itself, as some of the best tongue twisters do. But even in the poems here with a refrain, such as Bumblebee, Duck, and Swan, the refrain contains subtle variations to keep it interesting.

It's also easy to achieve isophony by inventing words and names, as many nonsense rhymes do. And indeed, some readers have whined that I make up a lot of the words in these poems. If that's true, then it's interesting that other people have independently made up the same words. Ironically, the only such word I've never seen used elsewhere is ‘coaqueduct’, whose authenticity I've never heard anyone misdoubt. In any case, to a linguist, such an accusation is fascinating. The English language has a highly ossified lexical morphology, with scant means for producing new words within the language. The native word-forming mechanisms still so productive in other modern Germanic languages were rejected by our Norman forebears centuries ago. Instead, when we need to coin a new term for the English language, we almost always reach back to foreign Greek and Latin roots, and then mangle the spelling and pronunciation as though we had inherited the word through French. In languages with a highly productive morphology, the very notion of an "unabridged" dictionary listing all acceptable words is inconceivable, because simply stringing together the morphemes necessary to express a new everyday thought is likely to result in words the speaker has never heard before. Considering how poor languages are as it is at communicating the diversity and subtlety of our experiences, hiring word-police to impound neologisms would be a deplorable policy. As anyone who speaks more than one language fluently can attest, a language can never have enough words. To this day I decry the loss of one of my favorite words, ‘misle’ (meaning to deceive), wrested from me by the realization that other people pronounce it quite differently and use it only in the past tense.

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