Nonsense wanted—all media
March 21, 2022 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a unit on literary nonsense to a group of mostly 8th and 9th graders. I'm looking to expand my stock of examples of the genre, especially in other media; we've already listened to some "nonsense music" and I would love to extend our scope to visual art, film, or even games!

Let's assume there are no hard boundaries on what counts as artistic nonsense. However, for those unfamiliar with the term, it's most associated with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and it isn't meant to imply that a work is meaningless, but rather that it creates meaning in playful and expectation-subverting ways.

So far we've read or sampled works by Lear, Carroll, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Donald Barthelme, Hugo Ball, Alastair Reed, Carl Sandburg, and Velimir Khlebnikov, and listened to F'loom, Slim Gaillard, and "Prisencolinensinainciusol" (all right!). Students also brought up Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. This list is meant for inspiration, not limitation (i.e. I don't necessarily just want "more of this"). Oh yeah, and I'm aware that this is a list of mostly dead white men; I'd like to diversify it. Help!
posted by aws17576 to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if it's quite 'nonsense' but and the demotivating posters hits this for me.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2022

e e cummings
Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America or In Watermelon Sugar (edited for content)
Poetry by Laura Richards

I wonder about maybe The Yellow Wallpaper? Not that it's nonsense, but there might be a fruitful discussion about what happens when women perceive or produce nonsense, and how often that's been interpreted as mental illness (or witchcraft). Maybe even The Crucible or primary sources from the Salem Witch Trials could take you there?

What about Astrid Lindgren, who wrote Pippi Longstocking? It's full of ridiculous events and tall tales, though intended for younger children.

Also wondering about showing some videos as texts of female comedians, like Baroness von Sketch or similar. The use of nonsense in improv/sketch comedy is definitely a genre of its own.

You have me thinking a lot about why there are fewer women nonsense-creators - in addition to all the usual reasons women are underrepresented in the arts of the past, there's also a reality that nonsense is more of a risk for women because of that stigma of hysteria. Also, a lot of stuff women write has been belittled as nonsense by others - thinking particularly of romances here. The very idea of "nonsense" implies that there's something that is serious and should be taken seriously, and some things fail to meet the bar. Intentionally creating nonsense is subversive because it rejects that standard, but not everybody can afford to be subversive.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Not sure if my example fits, but there's an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H (season 6, episode 18) where Hawkeye and BJ are playing a game with chess pieces, checkers pieces, and playing cards. The game is called "Double Kranko", and it doesn't seem to have any rules – or, at least, not any logical/coherent rules.
posted by alex1965 at 9:03 AM on March 21, 2022

Weird Al Yancovic?
This Hour Has 22 Minutes (Female comedians included)

On phone--sorry I can't give links
posted by purplesludge at 9:09 AM on March 21, 2022

Oh! Also, for audio, I just remembered a creative writing class in high school where we listened to "text-sound art," particularly Charles Amirkhanian's works Seatbelt Seatbelt from Lexical Music (which interrupts my thinking on a regular basis to mutter "cryptic quack, cryptic cryptic quack"), though he has many others.

N. H. Pritchard is a Black Arts poet who experimented a lot with the appearance of poetry on the page (some printed images here).

Also, what about jazz scat singers? Scat is really nonsense syllables, and there were a lot of female and/or Black musicians in the form - check out Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, etc.

Also, your students are lucky to have you as their teacher, bringing them such fun and adventurous and informative content. As a former kid that loved language and reading, I'd have eaten this up!
posted by Miko at 9:11 AM on March 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D'Antin Manuscript is a book of what is presented, rather academically and dryly, as archiac French dialect poetry - which reads to French speakers as nonsense - but which turns out to be English nursery rhymes. Fun to get bewildered Francophones to read aloud:
Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent

posted by rongorongo at 9:13 AM on March 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

Billy Bragg and Wilco - Hoodoo Voodoo

Jackson Pollock
Ceci n'est pas une pipe

How about something like perfect reproductions of living things created out of unexpected materials? Like the crochet coral reef? Or just generally yarn bombing?
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:13 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Monty Python.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:14 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Any Disworld book might do, but Terry Pratchett's tales of the Unseen University often deal with rigorously observed nonsense. I call your particular attention to the Librarian ("Oook!") and the works of Bloody Stupid Johnson.
posted by SPrintF at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2022

Mornington Crescent
posted by shesbookish at 9:28 AM on March 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Professor Stanley Unwin was a great exponent of this partiulish subjuctole, as whereby in his multitudipilunous rotatey diskers on the matterhorn and I recommode them with deep joy isn't it.

Spike Milligan's scripts for the Goon Show (British radio, 1950s) weren't exactly nonsense (though he later wrote much nonsense verse), possibly closer to absurdism played for laughs, but 'What Time Is It Eccles?' is a perfect exercise in circular nonsense logic. Eccles is played by Milligan, Bluebottle (the other voice) is Peter Sellars. Bluebottle was killed in many of the episodes ("You rotten swine! You've deaded me again!"), predating Kenny in South Park by about 45 years.
posted by Hogshead at 9:30 AM on March 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Do twitterbots with semirandom output fall under your definition of nonsense? It's still been a good chunk of your students' lives since those were new and cool, but they're at least newer.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2022

Nonsense? That's Numberwang!
posted by quatsch at 9:47 AM on March 21, 2022 [7 favorites]

Puirt à beul, or mouth music (example) are work songs with lyrics to be danced to.

Borges's list of animals comes up quite a lot.
posted by rongorongo at 9:49 AM on March 21, 2022

Several "Pre-Surrealist" parlor games generate nonsense. I'd point especially to the game of Consequences--the earliest description that I think anyone's found comes from the diaries of Anne Lister, a significant figure in LGBTQ history. But all the English parlor game books there have nonsense-generating games. If your French is OK, there are even more, including one named for but not equal to the term amphigory (nonsense poem) which may be a helpful search term.

Charles Bernstein's syllabus for an experimental writing seminar on "Constraints & Collaborations" has many, many examples you could use, e.g. the Oulipian "N+7" a.k.a. "S+7" technique described there.

Janelle Shane's book and/or Twitter feed of fun things generated by AI may also be useful--her work is often linked on the blue.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:57 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Laurie Anderson: Works that spring to mind:

O Superman
Private Property
Mach 20
Sharkey's Day
Yankee Doodle
Difficult Music
Like Pictures

The visuals that go with it really enhance the experience. Most of these works can be found in clips on YouTube. She has a huge body of work. Even entire films.
posted by effluvia at 10:08 AM on March 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sean Tejaratchi for sure.

I mean look at Apple Cabin Foods and tell me that isn't nonsense.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 10:21 AM on March 21, 2022

I think you may love "The Universal Language" from David Ives' play All in the Timing

Also possibly
Victor Borge - Phonetic Punctuation
posted by Mchelly at 10:24 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

John Lennon and Viv Stanshall, both better known for their music, also wrote many nonsensical short essays and stories. So did Bob Dylan: several of his self-penned album liner notes fit this bill.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:52 AM on March 21, 2022

The Bald Soprano.
posted by Melismata at 10:54 AM on March 21, 2022

In music, Negativland and the Over The Edge radio program might count. You'll need to curate it for 9th graders; it can be pretty saucy. I'll drop back in to recommend kid-friendly tracks when I get home. (I have no idea what any of them are called by name.)

Several of The Book's albums are worth considering. "Music For a French Elevator" may be the example most devoid of explicit narrative.

Perhaps William S. Burroughs' cut-ups might count. That also requires some care in selection for kids.

Nabokov's Pale Fire may not actually be nonsense verse. But, it certainly touches upon it.

There's a fun album by someone calling themselves something like "Les Explosionistes." I absolutely cannot find it online, but will check that I have the right name and am happy to send a copy if it's actually no on the internet.
posted by eotvos at 10:55 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Kurt Schwitters wrote a lovely piece of music, a tone poem or piece of sound art, called Ursonate . It's a long series of meaningless syllables with repetitions and phrasing that feels comprehensible and rhythmic, a
pseudo-language of its own. According to wikipedia: "The poem was influenced by Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbw" which Schwitters heard recited by Hausmann in Prague, 1921".

The text can be found hosted here on ubuweb (a trove of experimental art), it looks great on the page (I've cut and pasted a small sample below). Jaap Blonk has become an adept performer of Ursonate, he's incredibly expressive and enunciates every vowel and consonant with stimulating precision. Ursonography (full video here) involves Blonk performing the piece while the text is projected / displayed in real time, in sync with his rendition.

Rakete bee bee
Zikete bee bee ennze
Rinnzekete bee bee ennze
Rakete bee bee ennze
Zikete bee bee nnz krr
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr
Rakete bee bee nnz krr
Zikete bee bee nnz krr müüüü
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü
Rakete bee bee nnz krr müüüü
Zikete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu
Rakete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu
Zikete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze
Rakete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze
Zikete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze ziiuu rinnzkrrmüüüü
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze ziiuu rinnzkrrmüüüü
Rakete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze ziiuu rinnzkrrmüüüü
posted by Joeruckus at 10:56 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]


Gibberish Opera is an improv game where someone plays piano/keyboard and the singers/comedy players improvise a song with lyrics that are just gibberish. It's fun to perform because you can focus on emoting and playing off other people and making beautiful music without having to come up with actual words.
posted by amtho at 10:57 AM on March 21, 2022

The works of Gilbert and Sullivan in general. Nonsense, yes, perhaps - but oh, what precious nonsense!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:04 AM on March 21, 2022

Thomas Hood is white male dead a generation before Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Faithless Nellie Gray is punny:
Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
And used to war's alarms;
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms.

etc etc for another 15 verses

AP Herbert's Misleading Cases aka Uncommon Law exposed the absurdities of English law in the mid 20thC. Made into a TV Series by the BBC. Larf track gets in the way but gives an idea of the book.

Beachcomber aka JB Morton inspired Spike Milligan and later absurdist comedians. Samples.

Rossini's Cat Duet is nicely transgressive
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:06 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Remy Charlip, Arm in Arm (1969). Small, delightful, paradoxical stories & nonsensical gags, with vaguely psychedelic watercolor illustrations & optical illusions.

Edward Gorey's best known for the fetishized Victorian/Edwardian morbid stuff, but he drew & wrote some surreal nonsense as well. Something from the Amphigorey anthologies may fit the bill. ("The Inanimate Tragedy" is the only one I can remember for sure.)

Also: You said Carl Sandburg so I assume you know about Rootabaga Stories & Rootabaga Pigeons--if not, look at those!
posted by miles per flower at 12:08 PM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Nthing Ella Fitzgerald's scat singing! This live performance of Swingin' at the Savoy from 1957 melts my face off every time I hear it - about to go listen again.

Frieda Kahlo - so many things.
Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup
PDQ Bach's Music For An Awful Lot Of Winds And Percussion

If any part of the play is to also see how silliness can encode or play with conventional meaning, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:11 PM on March 21, 2022

Exquisite corpse games, either with images or language, could be a lot of fun to play, too!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:12 PM on March 21, 2022

PC Games include the click-adventure There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension. It's very silly, a lot of the puzzles are meta and the game references a number of other game tropes to mess with you.
posted by k3ninho at 3:09 PM on March 21, 2022

What English Sounds Like To Non-Native English Speakers This is a short film that is almost English. There are some swear words when the couple fights.
posted by effluvia at 4:31 PM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Almost forgot this--Gibberish, with Eric Idle and Henry Wolff, from Rutland Weekend Television. Worth watching if only for Idle's masterful delivery, machine wrapped with butter.
posted by Hogshead at 5:46 PM on March 21, 2022

You absolutely must play them The Fish Head Song. That link is to a short film directed by Bill Paxton & Rocky Schenck which just takes the nonsense and increases it by several orders of magnitude, it really can't be missed.

I would also submit the dream episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (S4 ep22) which is obviously better if you have watched the series, but even if you haven't is still a great example of nonsense/sense.

There's a kind of variation on Exquisite Corpse which alternates words and pictures and can be played either with paper and writing/drawing implements or apparently online. Basically you alternate a phrase/illustration of the phrase/description of the illustration/new illustration. It most commonly seems to be called Telephone Pictionary, and many of the descriptions online involve a whole sheet of paper for each stage but you can do it with a single one - just fold to conceal all but the previous step before you pass. Anyway great nonsense and fun.

Really tangential but I wonder if things that challenge "traditional" concepts of art and music might be further discussion for the class? Others have already mentioned surrealism (artistic movement); similarly for music John Cage, Steve Reich, the Kronos Quartet could be worth exploring, though may not suit your age group. Or even the Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs (though definitely cursing etc in some of them).
posted by Athanassiel at 6:09 PM on March 21, 2022

Tove Jansson and Moomintrolls
T S Eliot's "Book of Practical Cats"
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:37 PM on March 21, 2022

Audio: Firesign Theater - I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971) Ahhh, the memories of college!
posted by forthright at 6:57 PM on March 21, 2022

In the TV show "Better Off Ted," Ted and Veronica give a high-energy, completely nonsensical business presentation for Jabberwocky, a product that "will revolutionize the industry" and also doesn't exist. Business nonsense at it's finest!
posted by platinum at 7:43 PM on March 21, 2022

Following up on my comment above:

video: give me the mermaid (very pop-culture, but visually interesting) [edit: checking my links, I realize it does show 2 seconds of a real person being hung. I'm not sure how that works in school.]
A few music tracks that don't seem terribly extreme for 9th graders: Yellow Black and Rectangular, International Time Zones, The Perfect Cut (White Rabbit and a Dog Named Gidget).

Also, I stupidly confused the name of an album with the name of a band above and also spelled it wrong, which explains why I couldn't find it online. I was thinking of Le Societe des Timides a la Parade Des Oiseaux.

Also in music, and much more gentle, are some fantastic tracks from David Byrne's Knee Plays that are just lists of things. e.g., Things To Do (I've Tried) and In the Future.
posted by eotvos at 8:29 PM on March 21, 2022

Sorry to thread-sit, but there's also Kerouac's Silly Goofball Poems. (I realize I'm only actually providing literature and music, which isn't actually what the poster asked for. But, perhaps it won't hurt.)
posted by eotvos at 8:40 PM on March 21, 2022

One more random thought - in video, maybe Svankmajer or Gilliam?
posted by eotvos at 8:53 PM on March 21, 2022

Does computer-generated nonsense count? There's a FPP about The Surrealist Compliment Generator, part of a long line of madlib-esque generators and chatbots dating back to at least ELIZA in 1964. The 80s brought us Racter (who wrote a book, sort of) And people are now using AI to generate nonsense art from text prompts.
posted by credulous at 12:09 AM on March 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh! Oh!

Dada stuff, particularly the poetry of Hugo Ball. Dada can be almost aggressively nonsensical; Ball has a couple of good entry points, though. For instance - here's this clip of Marie Osmond from a Ripley's Believe It Or Not episode, where she discusses Ball's work and recites one of his "sound poems" from memory. Another work of Ball's inspired the lyrics to Talking Heads' song I Zimbra (which I think was used in the latest Spider Man movie, incidentally).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:18 AM on March 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Seconding the idea of Surrealism and para-Surrealist movements like the Oulipo. In that vein (but moreso!), you should check out 'pataphysics which is sort of a science of nonsense (there are many definitions and explanations, and that's kind of the point.

On the play side of things, there is Ich, Kurbisgeist which is written in a strange language amalgamation, and also God's Ear, which is written in an incredibly nuanced nonsense-like language used to depict real grief.
posted by taltalim at 2:06 PM on March 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Also, the Codex Seraphinianus, which is written in a language that the author made up, about a world that the author made up. If you're teaching younger students, be aware that one of the covers (and a couple of illustrations) are NSFW, but you should be able to find examples that are fine.
posted by taltalim at 2:09 PM on March 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Does Nude Descending a Staircase work? I actually had a colleague talk about using this work in his class today! He prefaced it by saying that they were going to view a nude woman descending a staircase, and then embarked on a really cool discussion of modernism, etc.
posted by Snowishberlin at 3:51 PM on March 22, 2022

Look no further than Reggie Watts
posted by pmaxwell at 10:03 PM on March 22, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! I'd mark best answers, but there are just too many. I will definitely be sharing several of these with my students.
posted by aws17576 at 11:38 AM on March 29, 2022

The Fast Show - Channel9 weather
posted by fiercekitten at 9:21 PM on June 16, 2022

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