How to Write a Jabberwocky-Style Poem
"Jabberwocky" is a poem written by Lewis Carroll, also known by his birth name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. It was first published in the pages of "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There," Carroll's 1872 sequel to his 1865 bestseller "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
In the novel, Alice, likely dreaming, happens upon a book that can be read only when held to the surface of a mirror. Within is "Jabberwocky," one of the most famous examples of nonsense verse ever written.
"Jabberwocky" tells the story of a young man who sets out to slay a monster known as the Jabberwock, a beast with "eyes of flame." The hero takes "his vorpal sword in hand" and waits for his "manxome foe" in the forest, "by the Tumtum tree." When the Jabberwock comes "whiffling through the tulgey wood," the hero quickly slaughters the creature. He takes the its head and goes "galumphing back" home.
Translating the Poem
There are touchstones in "Jabberwocky" -- real words and phrases, like "eyes of flame" and "sword in hand" and "foe" and "tree" and "through" and "wood" -- that give context to nonsense words like "vorpal" and "manxome" and "whiffling" and "galumphing." It's this context that removes the nonsense poem from the world of totally baffling gobbledygook and makes the work semi-understandable.
How Nonsense Verse Works
The trick behind nonsense poetry, including "Jabberwocky," is that the verse is composed largely of words from a language totally made-up by the poet. That's why true nonsense verse has an air of otherworldliness, as though it were born of a place similar to our own, but just foreign enough to seem enigmatic.
Creating Your Own Nonsense Verse
As Carroll did, following the rules of English grammar when writing nonsense verse makes your poem seem more than gibberish. However, feel free to invent as many new words as possible to stand in for your nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. That said, you need not know what every word "really" means; the poem should only sound as if it could be translated.
Establishing Your Goals
Nonsense verse is meant to tickle and satisfy the minds of your readers. That said, successful nonsense verse is surprisingly difficult to write; your words must sound consistent in their origins and polished while, at the same time, they run a little wild. Balancing both is a challenge to achieve. What's more, there's a real difference between good, solid nonsense and plain old silliness. That difference can be decidedly subjective.
Preparing Yourself to Write
As with most writing, the best way to figure out how a certain form or genre can be reproduced is to read the work of others who've published their own successful examples. Read as much nonsense verse from as many different poets as you can find. You'll discover that some works appeal to you more than others. With experience, you'll determine what it is you'd like to emulate and what you'd like to avoid.
Doing the Work
When you finally start writing, don't worry about the results. Write until you feel you have created a new world with your language, a feeling similar to what you sensed when you first read "Jabberwocky." Stop every now and then to read aloud what you've written. Let your ear tell you when the poem sounds finished. Then read your work to children. If they smile and giggle, chances are you've succeeded.
- Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There: Lewis Carroll
- The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms: Ron Padgett
Ruth Nix began her career teaching a variety of writing classes at the University of Florida. She also worked as a columnist and editorial fellow for "Esquire" magazine. In 2012, Nix was featured in the annual "Best New Poets" anthology and received the Calvin A. VanderWerf Award for excellence in teaching from the University of Florida.