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."

This is a deft transition to the final stanza, where we find the speaker back where he started, in the public house, reciting in a weary tone the nonsense line he now adopts as his own. "Fol de rol de rolly O," the evasive, meaningless dismissal he received earlier, an almost jaunty noli me tangere, takes on a new dimension when he says it. It is no longer a way of putting someone off, but an epiphany of disappointment. There is no lilt in the tone of these seven syllables, but a drop in register, a recitation born of resignation. This is Yeats's accomplishment: to make a long-standing bit of nonsense resonate darkly.

Hear a recording or watch a video of Paul Muldoon reading his poem "The Loaf." (Posted by the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry.)

The expatriate Irish poet Paul Muldoon uses the nonsense refrain in a recent poem, "The Loaf":

When I put my finger to the hole they've cut for a dimmer switch
in a wall of plaster stiffened with horsehair
it seems I've scratched a two-hundred-year-old itch
with a pink and a pink and pinkie-pick.
When I put my ear to the hole I'm suddenly aware
of spades and shovels turning up the gain
all the way from Raritan to the Delaware
with a clink and a clink and a clinky-click
When I put my nose to the hole I smell the flood-plain
of the canal after a hurricane
and the spots of green grass where thousands of Irish have lain
with a stink and a stink and a stinky-stick.
When I put my eye to the hole I see one holding horsedung to the rain
in the hope, indeed, indeed,
of washing out a few whole ears of grain
with a wink and a wink and winkie-wick
And when I do at last succeed
on putting my mouth to the horsehair-fringed niche
I can taste the small loaf of bread he baked from that whole seed
with a link and a link and linky-lick.

There is something magical and stirring about this litany bolstered by a refrain. At first glance, the refrain and its variations are baffling, but it becomes clear that the poem deals with each of the five senses, one to a stanza, and plays off them in the refrain line: the pinkie-pick for touch; the clinky-click for hearing; the stinky-stick for smell; winkie-wick for sight, and linky-lick for taste—this last also linking him to his ancestors. Muldoon's refrain risks the farcical, but he meets the challenge by making sure that grave details surround it. In this twenty-line poem, the eleventh line (as close to dead-center as a poem of this number of lines can be) contains its most urgent fact:

and the spots of green grass where thousands of Irish have lain.

The poem also moves from an image representing the workers ("spades and shovels") to the "thousands" mentioned above, to the "one" who in the last stanza becomes "he." In this way, the speaker merges with one particular man, and the tracing of the lineage (the "link and a link") is complete.

The refrain creates a beautiful and original symmetry; it tempts the reader to dismiss it as a kind of grade-school rhyme, and by veering so close to such playful sound, also invites him to embrace it. This strategy provides a tension the poem would otherwise lack.

These three poems cavort with language in a way not often seen, and bring a wild pleasure. Their daring and skill remind me of a remark T. E. Lawrence made of strategy in war: "Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals." When it works, the nonsense refrain moves the poem from the irrational to the comprehensible, and then to something beyond—a dimension the reader feels in his bones through the power of syllables freed from sense.


Hear John Skoyles read "Nonny no" Hear Greg Delanty read William Butler Yeats's "The Pilgrim" Hear Paul Muldoon read his poem "The Loaf"
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.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In