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Touch Monkeys

Touch Monkeys: Nonsense Strategies for Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry

Marnie Parsons
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 262
  • Book Info
    Touch Monkeys
    Book Description:

    All too often Nonsense is relegated to the nursery. Marnie Parsons argues that, rather than being mere child's play, nonsense is a major force in poetic language. In Touch Monkeys she presents us with an original reading of a much-maligned linguistic pursuit.

    Parsons distinguishes between nonsense language and Nonsense, the genre. Her major chapters work towards a vision of nonsense language as palimpsestic - the overlaying of several ways of making meaning onto a verbal sense system, and the consequent disruption of that system. This reading of nonsense is itself an intersection, bringing together historical and contemporary criticism of literary Nonsense and a wide range of poetic and literary theories. Using Carroll and Lear as examples of Nonsense, Parsons provides a survey of existing Nonsense criticism in English, and then extends and elaborates nonsense in theoretical directions set by Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva among others, and by the poetics of such writers as Charles Olson, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery, Louis Zukofsky and Daphne Marlatt.

    Following each chapter is a close reading of work by writers as varied as Rudyard Kipling, Colleen Thibaudeau, Adrienne Rich, and Lyn Hejinian. These readings provide practical applications of nonsense theory and establish the interdependence between theory and practice. Nonsense both inhabits and challenges traditional forms simultaneously; in Touch Monkeys Parsons enters into the spirit of the genre.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8270-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Preface ‘No room! No room!’: Guest List for a New Mad Tea-Party
    (pp. xvii-xx)

    • ‘Loppleton Leery’
      (pp. 3-9)

      The first three lines or ‘argument’ in Colleen Thibaudeau’s fromThrogmoggle & Engestchin: A relationship(1991, 151–2) contain its only English sentence, or its onlysensibleEnglish sentence:

      Inwhich you meet Throgmoggle and Engestchin and you

      may feel that the latter is not a fully developed

      character and you are probably right.

      The rest of the poem is a phonic romp through the nonsensical potentialities of language. Thibaudeau doesn’t write ‘standard’ English in her poem; but she does make ‘words’ that are phonetically possible in English by bringing together phonemes utilizing the standard sound conjunctions of the language. As...

    • ONE Runcible Relations: A Taxonomy of Nonsense Criticism and Theory
      (pp. 10-49)

      A casual read throughThe Artemesia Bookdoesn’t prepare one forfrom Throgmoggle & Engestchin,even if Thibaudeau’s occasional portmanteau-esque and abbreviated words in other poems (for instance,‘anyfool wd know it wd have to be / a muchlessfargone Head’inSt. Thomas: the Great Heat Wave of ’36[1991, 118]) have registered themselves as more than rare forays into linguistic invention. Thibaudeau, an undeservedly unsung poet who has published five books and two chap-books in a career spanning more than forty-five years, is something of a chameleon, trying on poetic forms and styles – lyric, narrative, concrete, sound and prose,...

    • ‘Nobody’
      (pp. 50-54)

      The White King’s astonishment at Alice’s ability to see Nobody, and from such a great distance, is another proof that the Nonsense universe is composed of words, and that its pratfalls are linguistic. The King thinks that Alice reallycansee Nobody, that ‘nobody’ has an existence, a status similar to that of somebody, anybody, everybody else, in Looking-Glassland. Carroll is exemplifying not only the miscommunication so common in his Nonsense, but also the personification or objectification that marks one aspect of nonsense language.

      This playful use of pronouns is not limited to Nonsense; in fact, e.e. cummings, one of...


    • TWO ‘Touch Monkeys’: A Semanalytic Approach to Nonsense
      (pp. 57-82)

      Generic Nonsense is a family tree threatening to branch out in almost any direction for just about any length of time. Such expansive rooting and off-shooting of relations seems overwhelming. Indeed it leads one to suspect that nonsense inheres in all language. But let’s shelve such suspicions for the time being, as things are ‘shelved’ in Carroll’s Sheep Shop (where they linger, tantalizing, on the periphery of vision); whatever those larger implications may be, my focus is on a highly specialized type of language – ‘poetic language.’ I use the as Julia Kristeva does: as applying to language that is more...

    • ‘Hunting Song of the Bandar-Logician’
      (pp. 83-86)

      The Jungle Bookisn’t unlike this study, at least structurally. Between its prose chapters or stories are poems – tight poems, quite formal in rhyme, rhythm, and stanza, augmenting some aspect of the story they’re ‘attached’ to. Poetic eruptions in the midst of a prose miscellany, their presence creates a tension, a linear disruption in line with the temporal and geographic nonconformity of the volume. While Kipling is hardly an iconoclastic or experimental poet, when he surrounds one of his poems with less materially-structured language he calls attention to the discrepancy between styles of language; the material or poetic elements of...

    • THREE ‘There was an Old Man with a nose’: Nonsense and the Body
      (pp. 87-114)

      Nonsense’s relation to the body goes much deeper than the obvious thematic one. True, much classical Nonsense uses the body, the grotesque body, as a springboard for its humour. Lear’s work is peopled with bodies seemingly out of control; andAlice’s Adventures in Wonderlandstill thrills strict Freudians precisely because Alice’s body is, at least until her metabolism adjusts to the rhythms of Wonderland, uncontrollable: hysteria working from the outside in. An intensely psychological reading would argue that Lear and Carroll both use Nonsense as a means of working out their own ‘socially unacceptable’ sexuality and physicality, as frustrated assaults...

    • ‘Becoming Visceral’
      (pp. 115-119)

      ‘Our whole life a translation / the permissible fibs,’ begins Adrienne Rich’sOur Whole Life,a poem of vivid social and political commitment, one in which wordsmeanintensely according to their ‘accepted’ definitions, despite Rich’s cry against the limitations of language, the curbing of political minorities’ speech by official (oppressive) language. In this poem two apparent paradoxes resonate: the first, that Rich writes such a powerful poem in a language that (so the poem itself suggests) oppresses her – language may not be true to her experience, but it allows her to voice her objections; the second, that a poem...

    • FOUR ‘as birds as well as words’: Nonsense and Sound
      (pp. 120-164)

      The Duchess was wrong, or partly wrong. ‘Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves,’ she advises Alice (Carroll [1865] 1971, 97); but in Carroll’s Wonderland, and in Nonsense generally, sounds not only take care of themselves, they ‘take care’ of sense too. Even her moral is proof. While she moralizes, taking care with the sense, a slight phonemic shift grants a traditional axiom (Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves’) a liberation of sound; the very liberation, independence, which her moral implies.

      Of course, such phonic liberation reverberates...

    • ‘O jongleurs, O belly laughs’
      (pp. 165-169)

      The first thing the eye meets on the page of Tim Lilburn’sPumpkins(1986, 42–3) is a huge patch of os; big and little, they proliferate, reckoning the shape of the pumpkins whose praises the poem sings. The page is the garden, thick with vegetable letters, a ‘rioting plot’ whose long lines tumble about, sinuous vines stringing together those pumpkinesque vowels. The other thing that immediately strikes the looker – Lilburn is a poet whose embrace is as wide as the page, sometimes wider.

      But this poem is not just a rush and tangle of verbiage or herbiage. Lilburn takes...

    • FIVE ‘A Silly Corpse’?: The ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ Poets, Stein, and the Nonsense of Reference
      (pp. 170-205)

      Writing about a paragraph of experimental prose by Barret Watten, Ron Silliman wittily comments, ‘Referentiality is not merely dead, it makes for a silly corpse’ (1987a, 78). Silliman’s comment isn’t only a quip, however; it’s indicative of a serious query, about the status of reference and referentiality in language, which is central to much of the work of those writers loosely called ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ poets. Not surprisingly, that query finds many and various answers in the experimental works of this ‘group,’ but all of these answers involve the relationship between the world and the word, and the ways language helps construct...

    • ‘What then is a window’
      (pp. 206-216)

      Lyn Hejinian’sMy Lifemeanders lovingly over its own minutiae. Or perhaps leaps is a better word for the vigorous shifts and the continual non sequiturs that mark this ‘autobiography,’ with its probing and passionate language ebbing and flowing over a lifetime. In both the first and the second editions Hejinian withholds the stable reassurances of genre and form. Rather than titled or numbered chapters, there are long paragraphs – thirty-seven in the first edition, forty-five in the second. Each paragraph begins with an italicized phrase, seemingly unrelated to what follows, and each, Hejinian suggests, is ‘a time and place, not...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 217-236)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-250)
  9. Index
    (pp. 251-262)