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beware the jabberwock, right?

February 17, 2011

when i was wee, my mum took me to the alice in wonderland exhibit at casa loma. i’m pretty sure i had a major crush on the mad hatter (does that surprise ANYONE) but it was another character that had a real lasting effect on me. part of the basement of casa loma was supposed to made into a marble and gold swimming pool, but henry pellatt ran out of dough and so it’s a concrete bunker, a big hole in the ground. some genius at casa loma decided that the concrete bunker (with the lights OFF) was the best place to MAKE A HUGE JABBERWOCKY. i remember the scene – the lighting was dark and purple, and there was a strobe light, and i remember the jabberwocky looking like a skeleton of a t-rex, and in the background some deep voiced man was reciting the jabberwock poem. it was absolutely terrifying. granted, i was a suck of a child. i made my dad leave at the end of aladdin because i was scared of jafar going into the lamp. and when my father (my poor father) took me to dino-land (pulled me out of school so we could have a day together, no less) i freaked out when we entered the section where the dinosaurs were mechanical and moved, and i made him leave. anyway, i was so terrified of the jabberwocky exhibit but i’ll never forget it.

years later i looked up the jabberwocky to see what it was all about.

can you see why i was terrified?


lewis carroll was a disgusting man. he had a version of peter pan syndrome. he abandoned alice as soon as she started to show signs of puberty. he took disquieting photos of her and of other children. i do not like him. i do not like his writing as a rule. alice and wonderland always disturbed me when i was younger. but his poem – the jabberwock – is genius.

anyway, here it is:

’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 hast 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.


he may be presenting himself as a sort of sound poet, but i can follow the story of the poem regardless. and the words are deep and they trip you up and make you sit and think. it is not a poem to be thrown off at a reading, with everyone nodding in agreement. it is a poem to work for, to sit and re-read and then laugh at, to bellow out loud. it’s called the “greatest nonsense poem in the english language” but it’s not so much a nonsense poem. it’s not ursonate. it has a story.

i get in crap for using weird words. people are sometimes made uncomfortable with my odd diction, my off syntax. i like to use swear words as punctuation sometimes. i use words where they should not be used – “anointed” in place of “smeared”. i hyphenate things that should not be hyphenated – “bird-snared bodies.” and then i get frustrated, because sometimes i believe that people that read and edit my writing are far too dogmatic in editing and writing. sometimes the people in my program believe too much in the value of solid, unbreakable grammar golden rules and in the value of the oxford english dictionary.


we are given words and words are pliable. words are all made up anyway. languages didn’t exist, and then all of a sudden they did exist. every year new words are added to the dictionary – “email”, “vuvuzela”, “buzzkill” – why can’t i play with words? no, that word that i put into my poem doesn’t exist in the OED, but it does exist in my writing, and that makes it real. i’m not a sound poet. i’m not a dada writer who is totally unconcerned about word verity, as lewis carroll sort of is in his writing of the jabberwock. i have not let go of all of the conventions of the written word and the page. but there is a true mettle and grace to the writers who follow that strand because they have released the grip of the page.

i’m going to fiddle around with portmanteaus. i’m definitely going to use odd adjectives, odd  verbs in places where they shouldn’t be used. i’m at (arguably) the best writing facility in canada. why on earth would i not challenge my classmates? why on earth would i stick to boring words, rote words, language that did not thrill me in every way? i want to do it, and what better time in my life than now?



one time i owned much dance ’97, and a dance version of this song was on it. but if you know me – and you do – you know that a youtube video of a solid gold performance makes my whole day, and that i get my blood boiling over shmaltzy 80s music. and sometimes when i feel uber down, this is on my “get up get up stop being a sucky loser” playlist. so watch this and die with joy:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2011 1:32 pm

    Oh dear – hopefully you know my didactic lecture last week wasn’t aimed at you! 🙂

  2. February 17, 2011 2:27 pm

    I LOVE Jabberwocky. Obviously. I would.
    I’m never sure about word invention. I am a pedant, but I also like Jabberwocky and Shakespeare and wordgaming in general. I suppose my condition is that it is done well (as with everything). It needs to seem worth overriding my pedantry. I’m all for unusual word choice or hyphenization, though.

    Also I went to the Casa Loma thing, and saw the Jabberwock, and was terrified. I only remember two things–the Jabberwock and a pillow shaped like a rabbit’s foot.

    • February 18, 2011 10:22 am

      I don’t remember that pillow. But hilarious that we were both at that thing. I only remember following the Mad Hatter and the March Hare around the whole castle. I also had a jumping competition with the Hatter. Excitement abounded.


  1. sign, signifier, signified. « everywhere leonine.

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