Soundings December 2006

It May Sound Funny

Poet John Skoyles on the unexpected eloquence of the nonsense refrain. With readings by Skoyles, Greg Delanty, and Paul Muldoon.
Hear John Skoyles read this poem.

In his 1960 essay "What Is Not Poetry?" the poet and critic Karl Shapiro writes, "The meaning of poetry, as far as language is concerned, is the meaning of hey-nonny-nonny. To the poet, hey-nonny-nonny means what the other words in the poem failed to say." He points to the nonsense refrain from Shakespeare's As You Like It.

It was a lover and his lass —
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no —
That o'er the green cornfield did pass
    In springtime, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye —
    With a hey, and a ho, and hey-nonny-no —
These pretty country folks would lie
    In springtime, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour —
    With a hey, and a ho, and hey-nonny-no —
How that a life was but a flower
    In springtime, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And therefore take the present time —
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no -
For love is crowned with the prime
    In springtime, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.

In this twenty-four line poem, a mere eight lines tell the story (the first and third of each stanza) but the antic lyric element, the part that most intrigues, is all syllable and no sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Nonny-No" as "a refrain, especially one with no definite meaning,” but the reader of this poem needs no help in discerning what the lovers are doing. These syllables might be nonsensical, but they are telling and resonant. They lift the poem wholeheartedly into the realm of joy.

Such refrains are easy to find in popular songs, from Jimmy Durante's "Inka Dinka Doo," to The Beatles’ "Ob-la-di ob-la-da." My favorite is Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya":

I'm sitting here la la
Waiting for my Ya Ya
Ah huh
Sitting here la la
Waiting for my Ya Ya
Ah huh
It may sound funny
But I don't think she's coming home

It may sound funny, but the last line of that verse, which is repeated throughout the song, tells us it is anything but funny.

My delight in lines like these led me to look for poems that use the same device—and not in the world of nonsense verse. I wanted to see the nonsense refrain at home in a serious poem.

Hear Greg Delanty read William Butler Yeats's "The Pilgrim"

William Butler Yeats employed the refrain, "fol de rol," in at least two poems, "Crazy Jane Reproved," and "The Pilgrim," which follows:

I fasted for some forty days on bread and buttermilk,
For passing round the bottle with girls in rags or silk,
In country shawl or Paris cloak, had put my wits astray,
And what's the good of women, for all that they can say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.
Round Lough Derg's holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man, and though, I prayed all day
And that old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.
All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck
And that should mother seek her son she'd have but little luck
Because the fires of purgatory have ate their shapes away;
I swear to God I questioned them, and all they had to say
Was fol de rol de rolly O.
A great black ragged bird appeared when I was in the boat;
Some twenty feet from tip to tip had it stretched rightly out,
With flopping and with flapping it made a great display,
But I never stopped to question, what could the boatman say
But fol de rol de rolly O.
Now I am in the public-house and lean upon the wall,
So come in rags or come in silk, in cloak or country shawl,
And come with learned lovers or with what men you may,
For I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

This persona poem about the loss of faith contains a disillusionment in each stanza: with women; age; afterlife; and portents. None of them answers the pilgrim's question, and each replies with the nonsense line. The penultimate stanza prepares the way for the last. An earlier phrase, "all that they can say," is replaced by "what could the boatman say"—the pilgrim doesn't even bother to ask anymore; he no longer expects an answer. He admits, "I never stopped to question."

Presented by

John Skoyles's new collection of poems, The Situation, will be published this spring. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Emerson College. An earlier version of this essay was presented as a talk at Warren Wilson College.

Greg Delanty's Collected Poems 1986-2006 has just been published in the Carcanet Oxford Poets series. A native of Cork, Ireland, he now lives in Burlington, Vermont, and teaches at St. Michael's College.

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