Poetry Wednesday: Good Snark Hunting

If—and the thing is wildly possible—the charge of writing nonsense were ever brought against the author of this brief but instructive poem, it would be based, I feel convinced, on the line (in p.4)

“Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”

In view of this painful possibility, I will not (as I might) appeal indignantly to my other writings as a proof that I am incapable of such a deed: I will not (as I might) point to the strong moral purpose of this poem itself, to the arithmetical principles so cautiously inculcated in it, or to its noble teachings in Natural History — I will take the more prosaic course of simply explaining how it happened.

—-Lewis Carroll, Preface to “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits”

Last week, I had one of those days when I’d worked flat out but the piles on my desk never shrank and then I dropped my stapler just right and it exploded into many sharp pieces.  I may have said a few things in my special Road Rage voice.

A passing co-worker said, “Tough day?”

“All my snarks have turned out to be Boojums,” I said.

She blinked.  “I’m sorry?”

“Snarks?  Boojums?  Lewis Carroll?”  I stared at her.  “The guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland?”

“Oh.  I didn’t know he wrote another book.”

“He did, but it’s not a book, it’s a poem.  Like Jabberwocky.”  I paused to check for a flash of recognition.  “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the . . . You know what?  I’ll send you a link.”

And I did, because holy cow.  I mean, how on earth did she spend her childhood? Making friends?  Playing outside?  Sheesh.

But honestly, “The Hunting of the Snark” is one of the most influential poems no one bothers to read anymore.  The title barely registers, which is a shame, because it’s referenced everywhere and bits and pieces of it have found their way into everything from opera to Star Trek, from government hearings to scientific terminology.*  It’s part and parcel of Western cultural literacy.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”Ocean Chart

Just think of all the inside references you’ll miss by not reading this poem.   Which you should do, right now, even if you’ve read it before, because the University of Adelaide has provided free access to  a beautiful eBook  that includes illustrations by Henry Holiday, whose map of the ocean is indeed a wonder.

And if that doesn’t sway you . . . C’mon, it’s Lewis Carroll—the Alice in Wonderland guy, who is a lot less sweetly goofy than Disney would have you think.

“Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again
The five unmistakable marks
By which you may know, wheresoever you go,
The warranted genuine Snarks.

“Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,
Which is meagre and hollow, but crisp:
Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,
With a flavour of Will-o’-the-wisp.

“Its habit of getting up late you’ll agree
That it carries too far, when I say
That it frequently breakfasts at five-o’clock tea,
And dines on the following day.

“The third is its slowness in taking a jest.
Should you happen to venture on one,
It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:
And it always looks grave at a pun.

“The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes—
A sentiment open to doubt.

“The fifth is ambition. It next will be right
To describe each particular batch:
Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,
And those that have whiskers, and scratch.

“For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,
Yet, I feel it my duty to say,
Some are Boojums—” The Bellman broke off in alarm,
For the Baker had fainted away.

Okay, he’s goofy, but sharply intelligent with it—I promise.

And this particular poem becomes spookier and more dangerous as it goes, like a dream that spirals into the stranger areas of one’s subconscious, until the hunters realize the true nature of the prey they’ve been foolishly tracking . . .

“ ‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!’

Go on . . . strike a blow for cultural literacy.

You know you want to.


*I’m not sure if this poem is responsible for the contemporary term, “snark,” meaning “the way Sarah voices her opinions on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, genealogists who don’t cite their sources, and people who talk loudly on cell phones in the library,” but it wouldn’t surprise me.  Is there an etymologist in the house who would like to do the heavy lifting on this?  I’m all tuckered out . . .


Poetry Wednesday: Lewis Carroll to the Rescue!

I was not prepared at all for today’s post.*

I’ve been honestly overwhelmed the past couple of days for all sorts of reasons, most of which tempted me to schlep my coconut shell away from the rest of the reef, climb in, and nail it shut from the inside. So it wasn’t until I finally finished editing chapter two of my WIP** around eleven last night, that I realized it was Tuesday and at that point the only poem I could bring to mind was a certain limerick featuring Nantucket.***

So I dragged out my poetry clipping file,^ dropped it on top of my laptop, and called it a day.

This morning—after shower, before caffeine—I opened the folder . . . and immediately found an old friend.

As I’ve indicated before, I’ve loved me some Lewis Carroll since before I learned the Snark was a Boojum. The one poem I wrote in college that I remember as not being execrable—safe enough, as I probably won’t ever see it again—was in homage to his Wonderland.

Plus, what could be more fitting than a poem about how (not)  to write poetry?


Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur
(Lewis Carroll)

“How shall I be a poet?
How shall I write in rhyme?
You told me once ‘the very wish
Partook of the sublime.’
The tell me how! Don’t put me off
With your ‘another time’!”

The old man smiled to see him,
To hear his sudden sally;
He liked the lad to speak his mind
And thought “There’s no hum-drum in him,
Nor any shilly-shally.”

“And would you be a poet
Before you’ve been to school?
Ah, well! I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic —
A very simple rule.

“For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.

‘Then, if you’d be impressive,
Remember what I say,
That abstract qualities begin
With capitals alway:
The True, the Good, the Beautiful —
Those are the things that pay!

“Next, when we are describing
A shape, or sound, or tint;
Don’t state the matter plainly,
But put it in a hint;
And learn to look at all things
With a sort of mental squint.”

“For instance, if I wished, Sir,
Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say ‘dreams of fleecy flocks
Pent in a wheaten cell’?”
“Why, yes,” the old man said: “that phrase
Would answer very well.

“Then fourthly, there are epithets
That suit with any word —
As well as Harvey’s Reading Sauce
With fish, or flesh, or bird —
Of these, ‘wild,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘weary,’ ‘strange,’
Are much to be preferred.”

“And will it do, O will it do
To take them in a lump —
As ‘the wild man went his weary way
To a strange and lonely pump’?”
“Nay, nay! You must not hastily
To such conclusions jump.

“Such epithets, like pepper,
Give zest to what you write;
And, if you strew them sparely,
They whet the appetite:
But if you lay them on too thick,
You spoil the matter quite!

“Last, as to the arrangement:
Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.

“Therefore to test his patience —
How much he can endure —
Mention no places, names, or dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
Consistently obscure.

“First fix upon the limit
To which it shall extend:
Then fill it up with ‘Padding’
(Beg some of any friend)
You place towards the end.”

“And what is a Sensation,
Grandfather, tell me, pray?
I think I never heard the word
So used before to-day:
Be kind enough to mention one
‘Exempli gratiâ'”

And the old man, looking sadly
Across the garden-lawn,
Where here and there a dew-drop
Yet glittered in the dawn,
Said “Go to the Adelphi,
And see the ‘Colleen Bawn.’

“The word is due to Boucicault —
The theory is his,
Where Life becomes a Spasm,
And History a Whiz:
If that is not Sensation,
I don’t know what it is,

“Now try your hand, ere Fancy
Have lost its present glow –”
“And then,” his grandson added,
“We’ll publish it, you know:
Green cloth — gold-lettered at the back —
In duodecimo!”

Then proudly smiled that old man
To see the eager lad
Rush madly for his pen and ink
And for his blotting-pad —
But, when he thought of publishing,
His face grew stern and sad.

I should wing Wednesdays more often . . .

Okay, show of hands: how many of you practiced pronouncing “Enthusiastically” until it scanned and rhymed—and grinned as you did it? The brilliance of the man’s wordplay—and play it was—cannot be denied.

And the whole poem is even better when you remember—or, google, yes, hush—that poeta nascitur, non fit means a poet is born, not made.  Kind of throws the whole poem in reverse all by itself, doesn’t it?


* To those of you who are surprised that this is news, I offer a hearty raspberry and a brief quotation from the Fifth Amendment. You know the one.

** Until the next draft, anyway . . . And if you thought you detected some invisible and highly graphic language in front of most of the nouns and a verbs in the sentence this footnote belongs to, you’re right.

*** And I’m saving that one for another poetry contest.  Stay tuned.

^ What, doesn’t everybody?

Poetry Wednesday: Snicker-snack, y’all

It’s National Poetry Month in the States, so I thought I’d post a favorite poem or two each Wednesday until we run out of April.  Which I suppose we have.

Decades ago, I took a college speech class— it was a requirement for education majors.  The first assignment was to memorize a favorite poem and recite it dramatically before the class.

I chose Lewis Carroll’s  “Jabberwocky” and performed it with hand gestures, teeth-gnashing, and a fencing saber.  I may have hammed.  A bit.

But according to the notes from the TA, I received a B solely because I’d chosen “a nonsense poem that  doesn’t make sense.”

I know.

So, for the first and only time in my academic career, I challenged a grade.  I argued my case in front of the Head of the Education department.

My point wasn’t that the assignment instructions were faulty, but  that the poem did too make sense.  In fact, the invented language was so deft and onomatopoetic and the structure so classic that the story itself was perfectly clear.

The Head, who was also an English professor, saw it my way.  My B was upgraded and I earned the enmity of the TA for the rest of the semester.

But it was so worth it.

(Lewis Carroll)

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

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

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

Bravo, Mr. Carroll.


. . . A clerk came to the front, leading a jabberwocky by a pink leash and talking to a largish woman in a purple dress with a pink fur collar.  “Don’t worry, ma’am,” he said.  “Just keep her nails trimmed and make sure she’s got plenty of chew toys.”

The woman nodded.  “But what if she tries to climb on my furniture?”

He pointed to her shiny green shopping bag, the words Designer Pet World glowing on the side in fancy gold letters.  “Just show her the vorpal sword, and you shouldn’t have any problems.”  He handed her the leash.

The woman bent over and caressed the muzzled snout with beringed hands.  “Is ‘oo ready to go home, mama’s little pwecious?  Is ‘oo?  Kiss-kiss.” 

The beast burbled, and the woman led it away, her heels snicker-snacking in counterpoint to her new pet’s whiffling armaments.

“Home protection, I can see,” I said.  “But kiss-kiss?”

The clerk turned to me and beamed.  “Can I interest you in a pet, sir?  We’re running a special on cold-heat phoenices.”

“What’s a pheenicee?”

“Phoenices,” he said, drawing out the final zee.  “The plural of phoenix.”

I stared at him.  “There’s no plural of phoenix,” I told him.  “There’s only supposed to be one at a time.”

He turned up the sincerity in his smile.  “They’re very popular.  Hours of entertainment.  You can even set the rebirth cycle to suit your convenience.”

I shuddered.  “No, thanks.”

“Are you sure?  They’re solar-powered.”


“I can offer gryphons and manticores.  Or maybe a Vatican-endorsed unicorn?  Guaranteed virgin-sensitive.”

I turned to go.

“We just got in a sphinx,” he called.

“I know the riddle already,” I said over my shoulder.  What was the plural of sphinx supposed to be? 


 (“Bootleg Dog,” Sarah’s File of Shipwrecked Stories, page 3)