How Writers Can Find Meaning in Nonsense

The author Jesse Ball discusses Lewis Carroll's ‘Jabberwocky’ and how precise prose doesn’t always make for powerful work.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

When I spoke to Jesse Ball, the author of A Cure for Suicide, he forged into the dense, alliterative groves of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Carroll’s poem famously relies on a strange, idiosyncratic language—but, Ball argues, it’s far from meaningless.

In our conversation for this series, Ball described the process by which nonsense verse—when done well—achieves powerful emotional effects, while at the same time deflecting “objective” or intellectualized interpretations. More broadly, the poem illustrates the kind of literature Ball likes best: driven by sound, urgently communicative, and yet able to sustain a range of private meanings.

A Cure for Suicide, Ball’s fifth book, begins without providing any context: we’re plunked down in a tiny, unnamed town, as a woman teaches an male amnesiac how to be human again. At first the lessons are basic and literal—this is how a chair is used, here is how to greet a stranger—but they grow in difficulty and complexity. Slowly, as the man gains confidence, and his past starts to materialize—as does the a vision of a society that flees from hurt, numbing the tormented in order to save them.

Jesse Ball’s other novels include Samedi the Deafness and Silence Once Begun. He’s won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and his been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He teaches in the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA in Writing program, and he spoke to me by phone.

Jesse Ball: When I was a child, my father would read out loud to my brother, my mother, and me. Several times in the course of my childhood, he would read Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass over a few weeks. They were a great favorite with all of us.

We had a very tight-knit little family, and we lived on the outskirts of a Long Island town by these train tracks. My brother and I would run around in the woods all day, and when my father came home it was always a big event. We were pretty poor, and my mother always tried to turn little things into big events—so my father coming home from work would be a big thing. As we ran out of the woods to meet him, he’d come up and would always say:

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

This was very exciting for my brother and me. I don't think I thought I was a “beamish boy” per se, but I certainly liked to think I'd been out slaying jabberwocks in the woods.

I had a lot of trouble in school to begin with. I got left back in kindergarten, and I was in special education. My teachers didn't have very much faith in me. At one point, there was a psychological evaluation—which I actually saw about a year ago, when we were going through boxes at my mom's house. It was a very lengthy test, and it scored all my different attributes and proclivities and possibilities. I scored very low indeed. In fact, the assessment was that potentially I had some kind of cerebral damage, which—well, luckily, if it's true, I've managed to carry on all this time.

But there was one attribute that I scored extremely high on, in fact, exceeded all adult levels for: the repeating of long, nonsensical phrases. I guess I was not only above my age group but above all possible results on the test. That was very notable for me looking at this now, because nonsense has been at the heart at my lifelong, ridiculous endeavor.

There’s a misunderstanding about what nonsensical things are—the idea that they're just funny, and that's the beginning and the end of it. Nonsense is not “not sense”—it operates at the edge of sense. It teems with sense—at the same time, it resists any kind of universal understanding.

I believe Carroll first wrote “Jabberwocky” as a stanza of Anglo-Saxon poetry. (Nonsense tends to play off and puncture some known landscape.) Here, he's playing off the language of all these wonderful things from The Canterbury Tales to The Pearl to one of my personal favorites, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As well as older texts like the Exeter Book riddles. He’s tapping into those wonderfully alliterative verses, that rich history of sound, within the Old English and Middle English traditions. What comes out is this:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

It’s not in favor of some other sensical thing that could be said. In fact, it's very precise. You couldn't supply another object that would do a better job of what it's doing in its place. The poem preserves a truth Carroll feels within himself of the sounds of those Anglo-Saxon words, their color and direction.

There’s a question of what master are you serving when you write something. If you want to tell someone that they have to go unplug the toilet, that's a very specific sentiment: Go, and unplug the toilet. It can succeed, or not. But what if the master you want to serve is to somehow communicate the entirety of your experience of Anglo-Saxon poetry, in a single poem? That’s when something like nonsense comes into its own. The wonder of it is not that it makes something out of nothing, or that it is without sense—but actually that it’s exploding with sense. It's not for when you have nothing to say, but when you have many things to say at once.

At the same time the poem provides this very specific insight about the sound and of Anglo-Saxon poetry, it also evades clear interpretation. Many times, when someone writes something, they hope for some precision of communication—they want to provide some precise statement that exists in one mind, and make it exist in your mind. But I think Carroll’s understanding of communication was more interesting than that. He understands that the text that you create is an object that collides with the mind with the reader—and that some third thing, which is completely unknowable, is made. He was completely content with that, and that contentment allows him to make this object “Jabberwocky” as interesting and beautiful and lovely as an object as it can be. The poem’s construction allows you to be sent somewhere along the vector of “Jabberwocky,” though no one but you can say just where.

But this experience requires trust. That’s why the poem veers between sense and nonsense: With the heroic tale of this hero who goes out to do battle with a wonderful creature, Carroll gives us some solid ground to stand on. That’s sufficient to give the reader a confidence and sureness of interpretation of what things mean. It works because you’ve developed an enormous trust that you're in the most immaculate hands with Carroll. He's such a logician, a lover of games, and an extremely—probably even exhaustingly—exacting person. Then, when he decides to be nonsensical, you give him the entirety of your being because he's earned that trust completely.

The crucial thing in any work of any kind is that it must be a gift—the reader must possess it even more than the person who wrote it. It must be given completely. “Jabberwocky” is given in this way, so that you can feel assured that joining of your internal world to it is not an error. You should have no fear you have made an error. It's your poem, that’s the important thing.

When I write, it isn’t so important to me that the page itself be beautiful to look at or somehow unimpeachable. It's simply that it gestures in the right direction, such that something happens within the mind of the reader. In the other direction, unfortunately, it’s possible to create page after page of beautiful perfect-looking prose that is kind of tepid. It's hard to say anything against it because it all figures out perfectly. You look through it, and it’s all there, it’s all correct, whatever. But something that is ragged and strange-looking might in fact be completely practical and efficacious as writing, because it causes the explosion that’s necessary in the mind.

For me, a central principle of writing comes from Daniil Kharms, who said:

A poem, if thrown at a pane of glass, should break the glass.

The effect is the crucial thing. That’s the approach I try to take: not to be vain with the success of the writing as writing, but rather its effect.

This is a practicality of means, based upon the immense shortness of time that we have. Imagine I said to you, “Your grandmother is going to die in five minutes. You have to go in and just tell her something wonderful: She wants to hear a beautiful thing.” You’re not going to try to create a prose object that can be judged by some committee of your peers, something perfectly in harmony and well-balanced and wry and witty and correct. Or something someone writing an essay in The New Yorker would pronounce a good work. You’re just going to—within the language that’s shared between your grandmother and yourself—attempt to burst all bounds and create a resonance. That resonance is your only aim. Anything that is not the resonance, you discard. That’s the real work.

In this, thinking about words as sound is essential. When you read, after all, you hear the words in your head. Sound provides a good test for what is artificial and geriatric about written language, and what is essential and real. If you read some work and much of what is there is lost to the listener, then it may be it’s necessary to have as a buttress of all these tablets of culture to decipher what is meant. But there’s no excuse to say a person needs to read 50 other books in order to appreciate this one. A work must contain all of its tools, and sound gives us clues about what is necessary and real.

I think when I’m writing in the first place, when I really get going, I’m murmuring what I’m writing in a half-breath as I’m working. It’s probably embarrassing if I’m in some public place, sitting there ranting to myself. (Usually I try to sit far enough away from other people.) They say that after you write a work, and finally look at it, you can’t tell what’s there any more. How can you actually see the work in order to judge it? One way is to read it out loud—to somebody who you’re a little afraid of, whose opinion matters to you. When you read it aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along. But you can judge the work more clearly when you hear and feel its sound.

My father’s use of “Jabberwocky” as a means of strengthening and celebrating this daily moment of his homecoming to my family—it was a wonderful way to use poetry. There’s no right way or wrong way to use literature. But to use sounds that are passed down, spoken and re-spoken to create beautiful moments of ritual: This is an excellent use of the poem. Maybe it’s something we all can strive for.