An Animated Reading of “The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s Nonsense Poem That Somehow Manages to Make Sense

“I can explain all the poems that ever were in­ vented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” —Humpty Dumpty

“The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s classic poem from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There—the second installment of the most famously nonsensical adventure in literary history—is “full of seemingly nonsensical words that somehow manage to make sense,” says narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott in the animated reading above from TED-Ed Animation. That word, nonsense, is associated with Carroll’s fantasy world more than any other, but what does it mean for a story to be nonsense and be intelligible at the same time?

Carroll, a mathematician by training, understood the fundamental principle of nonsense, which “T.S. Eliot reminded us, is not an absence of sense but a parody of it,” as J. Patrick Lewis writes at The New York Times. “Some of the portmanteau words Carroll invented—chortle, burble, frabjous and others—are now fully vested members of the lexicon. And the verse’s structure is a mirror, as Alice discovered, of classical English poetry.” Carroll composed the first four lines ten years before Through the Looking Glass, as a parodic “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” to amuse his family.

It may help, or not, to keep in mind that Carroll is not only mocking English poetic forms and conventions, but a particular historical form of English that is mostly unrecognizable to modern readers, and certainly to Alice. But the poem’s syntax and structure are so familiar that we can easily piece together a monster-slaying narrative in which, as Alice remarks, “somebody killed something.”

The ever-humble Humpty Dumpty is happy to explain, as was Carroll in his original composition, to which he attached a glossary very similar to the egg’s definitions and gave “the literal English” of the first stanza as:

“It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill side; all unhappy were the parrots, and the grave turtles squeaked out“.

There were probably sun dials on the top of the hill, and the “borogoves” were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of “raths”, which ran out squeaking with fear on hearing the “toves” scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.

Does this help? It does explain the mood Carroll is after, and he achieves it. The Jabberwocky is funny and playful and all the rest, but it is also deeply unsettling in its obscure mysteries and frightening descriptions of its title character.

In John Tenniel’s famous illustration of the beast, it appears as a scaly, leathery dragon with a face somewhere between a deep-sea fish and an overgrown sewer rat. The animation by Sjaak Rood gives it a more classically dragon-like appearance, in the crazed style of Ralph Steadman, while the Bandersnatch looks like something Paul Klee would have invented. The choice of artistic influences here shows Rood connecting deeply with the nonsense tradition in modern art, one which also turns familiar forms into nightmarish beings that fill our heads with ideas.

Related Content:

O Frabjous Day! Neil Gaiman Recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” from Memory

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats

Here in Korea, where I live, cat owners aren’t called cat owners: they’re called goyangi jibsa, literally “cat butlers.” Clearly the idea that felines have flipped the domestic-animal script, not serving humans but being served by humans, transcends cultures. It also goes far back in history: witness the 12th-century verses recently tweeted out in translation by writer Xiran Jay Zhao, in which “Song dynasty poet Lu You” — one of the most prolific literary artists of his time and place — “poem-liveblogged his descent from cat owner to cat slave.”

The story begins in 1138, writes Zhao, when “Down On His Luck scholar-official Lu You gets a cat because rats keep munching on his books.” The eight poems in this series begin with praise for the animal — “It’s so soft to touch and warm to hold in bed / So brave and capable that it has ousted the rat nest” — and goes on to describe the cats he subsequently acquires, who selflessly vanquish the household rats while indulging in nothing more than the occasional catnip binge.

Or at least they do at first. “Night after night you used to massacre rats / Guarding the grain store so ferociously,” Lu asks one in “Poem for Pink-Nose.” “So why do you now act as if you live within palace walls / Eating fish every day and sleeping in my bed?”

As time goes on, Lu finds himself “serving fish on time” to his cats only to find them “sleeping without worry.” As the rats rampage, he poetically moans, “my books are getting ruined and the birds wake me before dawn.” Has it all been nothing more than “a ruse to get food from me?”

Yet it seems that Lu has no regrets about cat ownership, if ownership be the word. “Wind sweeps the world and rain darkens the village / Rumbles roll off the mountains like ocean waves churning,” he writes in 1192’s “A Rainstorm on the Fourth Day of the Eleventh Month.” Yet “the furnace is soothing and the rug is warm / Me and my cat are not leaving the house.” This is relatable content for the cat butlers of Korea (a culture thoroughly influenced by China in Lu’s day), or indeed anywhere else in the world. The patriotic poet would surely be pleased by the modern-day ascent of China — and perhaps just as much by the high and ever-rising status of the domestic cat.

via Xiran

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

William Blake’s Paintings Come to Life in Two Animations

The poet and painter William Blake toiled in obscurity, for the most part, and died in poverty.

Twenty some years after his death, his rebellious spirit gained traction with the Pre-Raphaelites.

By the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Blake was ripe to be venerated as a counter-cultural hero, for having flown in the face of convention, while championing gender and racial equality, nature, and free love.

Reclining half-naked on a “a fabulous couch in Harlem,” poet Allen Ginsburg had a hallucinatory encounter wherein Blake recited to him “in earthen measure.”

Ditto poet Michael McClure, though in his case, Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” served as something of a medium:

I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake’s voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating.

Blake’s work (and world view) continues to exert enormous influence on graphic noveliststheatermakers, and creatives of every stripe.

He’s also a dab hand at animation, collaborating from beyond the grave.

The short above, a commission for a late ‘70s Blake exhibition at The Tate, envisions a roundtrip journey from Heaven to Hell. Animator Sheila Graber parked herself in the Sculpture Hall to create it in public view, pairing Blake’s line “Energy is Eternal delight” with a personal observation:

Whether we use it to create or destroy—it’s the same energy. The practice of art can turn a person from a vandal to a builder!

More recently, the Tate gave director Sam Gainsborough access to super high-res imagery of Blake’s original paintings, in order to create a promo for last year’s blockbuster exhibition.

Gainsborough and animator Renaldho Pelle worked together to bring the chosen works to life, frame by frame, against a series of London buildings and streets that were well known to Blake himself.

The film opens with Blake’s Ghost of a Flea emerging from the walls of Broadwick Street, where its creator was born, then stalking off, bowl in hand, ceding the screen to God, The Ancient of Days, whose reach spreads like ink across the gritty facade of a white brick edifice.

Seymour Milton’s original music and Jasmine Blackborow’s narration of excerpts from Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” seem to anticipate the fraught current moment, as does the entire poem:

Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

A Robin Red breast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage 

A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons

Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions 

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State 

A Horse misusd upon the Road

Calls to Heaven for Human blood 

Each outcry of the hunted Hare

A fibre from the Brain does tear 

A Skylark wounded in the wing 

A Cherubim does cease to sing 

The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight

Does the Rising Sun affright 

Every Wolfs & Lions howl

Raises from Hell a Human Soul 

The wild deer, wandring here & there 

Keeps the Human Soul from Care 

The Lamb misusd breeds Public Strife

And yet forgives the Butchers knife 

The Bat that flits at close of Eve

Has left the Brain that wont Believe

The Owl that calls upon the Night

Speaks the Unbelievers fright

He who shall hurt the little Wren

Shall never be belovd by Men 

He who the Ox to wrath has movd

Shall never be by Woman lovd

The wanton Boy that kills the Fly

Shall feel the Spiders enmity 

He who torments the Chafers Sprite

Weaves a Bower in endless Night 

The Catterpiller on the Leaf

Repeats to thee thy Mothers grief 

Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly 

For the Last Judgment draweth nigh 

He who shall train the Horse to War

Shall never pass the Polar Bar 

The Beggars Dog & Widows Cat 

Feed them & thou wilt grow fat 

The Gnat that sings his Summers Song

Poison gets from Slanders tongue 

The poison of the Snake & Newt

Is the sweat of Envys Foot 

The poison of the Honey Bee

Is the Artists Jealousy

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags

Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags 

A Truth thats told with bad intent

Beats all the Lies you can invent 

It is right it should be so 

Man was made for Joy & Woe 

And when this we rightly know 

Thro the World we safely go 

Joy & Woe are woven fine 

A Clothing for the soul divine 

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine 

The Babe is more than swadling Bands

Throughout all these Human Lands

Tools were made & Born were hands 

Every Farmer Understands

Every Tear from Every Eye

Becomes a Babe in Eternity 

This is caught by Females bright

And returnd to its own delight 

The Bleat the Bark Bellow & Roar 

Are Waves that Beat on Heavens Shore 

The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath

Writes Revenge in realms of Death 

The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air

Does to Rags the Heavens tear 

The Soldier armd with Sword & Gun 

Palsied strikes the Summers Sun

The poor Mans Farthing is worth more

Than all the Gold on Africs Shore

One Mite wrung from the Labrers hands

Shall buy & sell the Misers Lands 

Or if protected from on high 

Does that whole Nation sell & buy 

He who mocks the Infants Faith

Shall be mockd in Age & Death 

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt

The rotting Grave shall neer get out 

He who respects the Infants faith

Triumphs over Hell & Death 

The Childs Toys & the Old Mans Reasons

Are the Fruits of the Two seasons 

The Questioner who sits so sly 

Shall never know how to Reply 

He who replies to words of Doubt

Doth put the Light of Knowledge out 

The Strongest Poison ever known

Came from Caesars Laurel Crown 

Nought can Deform the Human Race

Like to the Armours iron brace 

When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow

To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow 

A Riddle or the Crickets Cry

Is to Doubt a fit Reply 

The Emmets Inch & Eagles Mile

Make Lame Philosophy to smile 

He who Doubts from what he sees

Will neer Believe do what you Please 

If the Sun & Moon should Doubt 

Theyd immediately Go out 

To be in a Passion you Good may Do 

But no Good if a Passion is in you 

The Whore & Gambler by the State

Licencd build that Nations Fate 

The Harlots cry from Street to Street 

Shall weave Old Englands winding Sheet 

The Winners Shout the Losers Curse 

Dance before dead Englands Hearse 

Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born 

Every Morn and every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to Endless Night 

We are led to Believe a Lie

When we see not Thro the Eye

Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night 

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Patti Smith’s First Poetry Reading, Accompanied by Her Longtime Guitarist Lenny Kaye (St. Mark’s Church, 1971)

There are so many origin stories of punk that no single history can count as definitive. But there’s also no disputing its roots in the New York poetry scene from which Patti Smith emerged in the 1960s and 70s. She learned from Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso and Sam Shepherd inspired the poetry/rock hybrid that would become the music of Horses.

Corso, who called himself a “punk debauche” in his 1960 poem “1959,” lived up to the label. He would heckle poets “during their listless performances,” writes Kembrew McLeod in Downtown Pop Underground, “yelling, ‘Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!’ Sitting at Corso’s side,” during poetry readings hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, “Smith made a mental note not to be boring.”

She followed her friend Sam Shepard’s advice to add music to her first public reading and called guitar player Lenny Kaye to accompany her. “It was primarily a solo poetry reading,” McLeod writes, “with occasional guitar accompaniment.” The 1971 appearance, which you can hear in the recording above, set the tone for almost all of her subsequent performances for the next several decades.

“We did ‘Mack the Knife,” Kaye recalls, “because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and then I came back for the last three musical pieces. I hesitate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pursue.” Oddly, that year also marked the first usage of “punk” to describe a style of music, though it was applied to the garage rock of ? and the Mysterians, not to Smith and Kaye’s music. She herself has said she didn’t consider what they were doing to be “punk” at all.

This doesn’t much matter. It was attitude and the energy Smith translated from St. Marks to the CBGBs scene that secures her “Godmother” status. She was impressed, as she says above, by Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. She was also impressed by a 1971 essay written by Andrew Wylie, who published her first book after her St. Mark’s reading. “Living as we were in an extremely violent, fragile time,” Smith’s Unauthorized Biography recounts, “[Wylie] was drawn to short, almost amputated works.” He concluded that “just to be alive in such times was an act of violence.”

Punk poetry, or whatever we want to call it, was born in a church on St. Mark’s Place in New York City in 1971. From then on, whatever other strains came together to make punk rock, Smith’s channeling of Corso, Shepard, Burroughs, Morrison, etc., backed by Kaye’s steady guitar work, has resonated through the music into the present.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Documentary Portraits of Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton & Other American Poets (1965)

The annals of American history offer little in the way of documentarian-poets. But luckily for us today — and especially for those of us who enjoy American poetry of the mid-2oth century — one of the country’s few such hyphenates lived an uncommonly productive life. Though known primarily as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance, Richard O. Moore also had a career in independent and public media, beginning in 1949 with the very first broadcast of Berkeley’s KPFA. In the early 1950s he moved to San Francisco’s newly founded KQED, one of the country’s first public television stations. After a stint at Columbia studying Wittgenstein, Moore returned to KQED in 1961, whereupon he began producing a wide variety of documentaries.

As subject matter, poetry may not naturally lend itself to television. But given Moore’s connections to major American poets on both coasts and elsewhere besides, if anyone could make it work, he could. It certainly helped that so many of those poets had compelling personalities, not least Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the stars of one episode of Moore’s 1965 documentary series USA: Poetry. “The footage he captured is nothing short of miraculous, a national treasure type time capsule of another, more literary age,” says the web side of Santa Cruz’s Bad Animal Books, which has gathered a selection of episodes together on one page. “Moore provided a rare glimpse of some of the finest American poets of the twentieth century at the summit of their powers,” a lineup also including Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, Ed Sanders, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder.

Moore’s documentary portraits unfailingly include readings of the subjects’ work, but they don’t stop there. They also offer glimpses into these poets’ lives, professional, domestic, and otherwise, showing us the cities, towns, homes, bookstores, and libraries they inhabit. A few of these subjects, like Sanders, Snyder, and the especially venerable Ferlinghetti continue to inhabit them, though most have by now shuffled off this mortal coil. William Carlos Williams had already done so by the time of USA: Poetry‘s episode about him, and so in addition to footage illustrating the bard of Paterson’s verse and letters (sights that may remind modern-day viewers of Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s tribute to the workaday American poet), Moore features Williams’ son William E. Williams. Though Williams fils didn’t follow Williams père into poetry, he did follow him into medicine, which constituted not just the poet’s day job but —as we hear read aloud — “my food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Scenes of Ezra Pound Wandering Through Venice and Reading from His Famous Pisan Cantos (1967)

Ezra Pound is a problem for Modernist literary studies in the same way Martin Heidegger is for Continental philosophy: it’s impossible to deny the overwhelming influence of either figure—and impossible to deny that both were devoted anti-Semitic fascists from at least the 1930s to the end of their days. Heidegger kept his views mostly hidden in his “Black Notebooks.” Pound, on the other hand, became an enthusiastic mouthpiece. He publicly idolized Benito Mussolini, signed letters with “Heil Hitler,” and broadcast paranoid anti-Semitic hate speech on Italian radio in over a hundred propaganda pieces for the Axis powers during the war.

Pound was to be sentenced for treason in 1945 but was saved by an insanity defense promoted by Ernest Hemingway (who convinced himself Pound must have been insane to say such things.) After a stay in St. Elizabeth’s, Pound recanted, but privately he never changed. If he were a lesser poet, critics and readers might assure themselves they’d never read the likes of him today. But not only is he inseparable from literary history as an influential editor and booster (without Pound, no Eliot’s The Waste Land), but he is rightly recognized as one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century.

“Is it wrong to love a fascist?” asked Ash Sarkar in a take on the Pound problem that lists him among many “problematic faves, along with The Simpsons and Vybz Kartel.” The “vituperative” anti-Semitism of Pound’s later years finds its way into his later Cantos—the massive, unfinished, eclectic, erudite, and deeply obscure series of epic poems he worked on from 1915 to 1962. “Canto XLV,” notes Sarkar, “one of his many attacks on financiers, is suffused with antisemitic language and imagery.”

Canto XVI contains what Mark Ford calls “a characteristic specimen of Pound’s mimicry,” which Mussolini found “entertaining” during their first and only meeting. (“It’s my idea of how a Continental Jew would speak English,” Pound supposedly told Il Duce.) Such moments of racist mockery alternate in the Pisan Cantos—published in 1948 and written during the war—with elegies, economic and political theories, and archaic lines in which many readers hear echoes of blood and soil mythology. We may hear such an echo in Canto LXXXI, from which Pound reads above, over footage of him wandering around Venice.

Allen Ginsberg described Canto LXXXI as “a collage of Pound’s prison mental gossip (thinking to himself in prison, notating down… little nostalgic recollections of pre-World War I.)” There are, however, gestures toward more recent events. He refers to the “friends of Franco” in one line, for example, and Hélène Aji identifies Pound’s reference to Thomas Jefferson as an allusion to Mussolini. How did Pound himself square his nationalism with his cosmopolitan modernism? Literary scholar David Barnes speculates:

The writer would have seen no conflict here. Pound could easily switch from his Hitlerian fantasies to a recommendation of the kind of artists (Joyce, Marinetti) that Führer would have classed as “degenerate.” In his mind, the sharp lines of modernism seem to have been equated or even interchangeable with the totalitarian politics of Nazi Fascism.

Except it wasn’t Nazi Fascism that Pound mostly hawked—though he enthusiastically recommended Mein Kampf. It was the Italian original. Mussolini did not share Hitler’s extreme antipathy for modern artists. He too saw modernism and fascism as interchangeable, as did the many Italian artists he coopted as propagandists. Pound was not especially unique in such circumstances.

It’s not clear when this film footage was shot, but the reading was recorded in Spoleto, Italy during the summer of 1967. You can listen to the full recording above, and hear another version, and dozens more recordings of Pound, at Penn Sound.

via Ubuweb

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet the World’s First Known Author: Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna

Watchers of Westworld will have heard a character in the most recent episode utter the line, “for the first time, history has an author.” It’s as loaded a bit of dialogue as the series has dropped on fans, not least for its suggestion that in the absence of a god we should be better off with an all-knowing machine.

The line might bend the ear of literary scholars for another reason. The idea of authorship is a complicated one. In one sense, maybe, everyone is an author of history, and in another, perhaps no one is. But it’s difficult to comprehend these abstractions—we crave stories with strong characters, hence our veneration of Great Men and Women of the past.

Still, in many times and places, individual authorship was irrelevant. Renaissance thinkers revalued the author as an auctoritas, a worthy figure of influence and renown. “Death of the author” theorists pointed out that the appearance of a literary text could never be reduced to a single, unchanging personality. In religious studies, questions of authorship open onto minefield after minefield. There may be no commonly agreed-upon way to think about what an author is.

Does it make sense, then, to talk about the “world’s first author”? Perhaps. In the TED-Ed lesson above by Soraya Field Fiorio, we learn that the first known person to use written language for literary purposes was named was Enheduanna, a powerful Mesopotamian high priestess who wrote forty-two hymns and three epic poems in cuneiform 4,3000 hundred years ago.

Daughter of Sargon of Akkad, who placed her in a position to rule, Enheduanna lived about “1,500 years before Homer and about 500 years before the Biblical patriarch Abraham.” (There’s considerable doubt, of course, about whether either of those people existed, whether they wrote the works attributed to them, or whether such works were penned by committee, so to speak.)

Sargon was also an author, having composed an autobiography, The Legend of Sargon, that “exerted a powerful influence over the Sumerians he sought to conquer,” notes Joshua J. Mark at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. But first, Enheduanna used her position as high priestess to unify her father’s empire with religious hymns that praised the gods of each major Sumerian city. “In her writing, she humanized the once aloof gods,” just as Homer would hundreds of years later. “Now they suffered, fought, loved, and responded to human pleading.”

Her hymns to Inanna are her most defining literary achievement, but Enheduanna has somehow been completely left out of history. “We know who the first novelist is,” writes Charles Halton at Lit Hub, “eleventh century Japanese Noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the Tale of Genji.” Likewise, we know the first novelist of the western world, Miguel de Cervantes, and the first essayist, Michel de Montaigne. But “ask any person in your life who wrote the first poem and they’re apt to draw a blank.”

Maybe this is because, unlike novels, we don’t think of poetry as being invented by a single individual. It seems as though it must have sprung from the collective psyche not long after humans began using language. Yet from the point of view of literary history—which, like most histories, consists of a succession of great names—Enheduanna certainly deserves the honor as the world’s first known poet and first known author.  Learn more about her in the lesson above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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