The people I communicate the most with via text are the ones with whom I trade the fewest sensical words. Each message bubble is carefully constructed so as not to include a hint of correct grammar or un-ironic jargon, with subjects made unnecessarily plural and l33t speak preferable to anything else. My friends are my friends because we speak the same butchered language and make a habit of verb-ing nouns. Cloaked in blankets we talk about what kind of bats we are and pick an accent for the day. We have forgotten most of our French.
I made one such friend listen to the Vampire Weekend song “M79,” and her reaction was that the band appeared to have a habit of just randomly combining words that sound good—“No excuse to be so callous / Dress yourself in bleeding madras / Charm your way across the Khyber Pass.” It was a perfect response for her to make, as the nonverbal communication between the two of us has taken the same form—words that sound funny are prioritized over the practical explication of meaning.
Is that not writing, though? Is that not music? Things that seem to bounce nicely to the beat, things whose meaning is nebulous enough that you can either assume it’s nonsense, or give the benefit of the doubt that some meaning behind it exists because somebody wrote it while thinking with his brain and one thought had to move into another and create this song. The latter method is what I think is the key to getting something out of any kind of artistry—you have to assume that there is something you are not getting right away, that what appears to you as nonsense must have a sensical explanation behind its front.
These intentionally incorrect messages and abstract conversations of ours are the best and most valuable way my closest friends and I can get our thoughts across to each other. It’s the same with how people take away interpretations of music and writing and art that appear devoid of meaning to some but make perfect sense to them. You just have to find your own flavor of nonsense, and then it becomes something clear.
Abstractions in poetry (and some prose) bring out this quality of art to shape-shift from confusion to understandable forms. When workshopping other students’ work in creative writing classes, watching the critiquers is like seeing a child sound out a quadrisyllabic mess of a word. They take one quality of a written piece at a time—first the structure, then the meter, the rhyme, repetitive vocabulary, punctuation, and finally the words and phrases themselves, sounding out a verse until the writer’s intentions meekly emerge. The process is taking what should be confusing and stripping it down and piecing it back together until you can see something. Nonsense, like art, is a lesson in long-term gratification. It doesn’t mean a thing until it does.
Even when we are very young we can witness humor found in bending rules of speech and humor. I remember in fourth grade spending a learning unit on state and local history, and how our Vermont county of Lamoille was named on a spelling error, the French “Lamoitte” mischaracterized slightly by a hand who didn’t cross the Ts. How funny, how acceptable—decades of geography based on a mistake. Even “The Office”’s B.J. Novak just gave this next generation his best-selling Book With No Pictures, indulging just in the flexible joys of rhythm and sound.
Nonsense is a lesson in long-term gratification, and so it is quite a helpful thing to think of when feeling stuck or lost or that life is not explaining itself very well. In some ways, it can be good to bask in the confusion and enjoy not knowing what it all means—whether that’s a work of art or future days ahead. This, right now, is the beginning of a brand new year and there are a great many things around me that haven’t sorted themselves out. I think I will wait, and stare at the sculpted verse of this year, until it speaks to me in my own tongue.