Won’t You Join The Dance? On Purposeful Questions and Nonsense Poems

‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,
‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are dancing on the shingle - will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?’

The first verse of the Lobster Quadrille, sung by the Mock Turtle in Alice In Wonderland.  A nonsense rhyme.  A parody of a nursery rhyme (‘won’t you come into my parlour…’).  A curious song.

Maybe it’s just children’s entertainment.  Or maybe it hides a powerful, purposeful question.

I like to think so anyway.  ‘Won’t you join the dance?’ is such a great question, working on so many different levels.  As my brain still seems to be stuck on how questions work, here are some thoughts on the source of its power.

The Milton Model of Language

This is going to take us back to NLP again, in particular to the work of Milton Erickson, a hypnotherapist.  He was exceptionally skilled at using language to help his clients relax, to tap into their own resources and to find the answers that would work for them.  He did this by being ambiguous and artfully vague.  His approach to language use is known as the Milton Model.

There are some elements of what we’d now call the Milton Model in the Lobster Quadrille.  It:

  • Is general and unspecific: ‘the dance’ can mean whatever the listener chooses it to mean
  • Distracts the conscious mind: how can these fish be dancing? leaving the poet free to ask the bigger question of the unconscious mind: won’t you join the dance?
  • Includes ambiguity: I can’t help wondering if that porpoise is really a purpose chasing after us… the conscious mind gets distracted trying to fathom it out
  • Deals with general understandings: the poem is nonsense, it has no logical or literal meaning, so the only way we can understand it is in a general, personal to us way
  • Gets past resistance: ‘will you join the dance’ might get a ‘no!’.  ‘Won’t you’ is more of an invitation. Can you feel the different reaction you get to the two questions?
  • Has an embedded command: the words emphasise the most important part, the bit we’re supposed to remember (in bold).  It’s a command as well as a question: ‘will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?’
  • Uses story and metaphor: the poem tells a story, paints a vivid picture and works beautifully at that level… and the deeper one too, if we’re ready to hear the question (and answer it, of course)

I have to confess my intention with these questions from poems was simply to include some favourites.  But this one has long had a powerful effect on me and I’m curious as to how it works.  Curious too (and curiouser, as Alice might say) about nonsense, and how it works, and what we can learn from it about skilful, artful language use that helps to create positive change.

Have you got any favourite nonsense poems that ‘speak’ to you despite their lack of obvious meaning?  Or is it best treated as nonsense, without sense, entertainment to make us smile and nothing deeper than that?

This is a contribution to the reader involvement project sharing questions (from poems) that have

stuck in our minds,
lingered in our imaginations, worked their way into our hearts, changed
the way we live our lives.

If you’d like to join in you’ll find out how, what and when in this introductory post.

For more on NLP, as before I’d recommend the NLP Workbook.  It covers the Milton Model but if you’re looking for examples and stories from Erickson’s work you could try My Voice Will Go With You.  If anyone is aware of any work on nonsense rhymes and hypnotic language… please do let me know!

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

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12 Responses to “Won’t You Join The Dance? On Purposeful Questions and Nonsense Poems”

  1. On June 17, 2008 at 11:15 pm SpaceAgeSage responded with... #

    Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll has always fascinated me — that a story could be told amid seeming nonsense. It’s as if some mystery is hidden within the poem, a mystery of storytelling.

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

  2. On June 17, 2008 at 11:16 pm Joe responded with... #

    Always like that poem, and for some reason like Dr Seuss books too. Probably because they made me think.

    And did you ever wonder
    How he missed the ball

    The first miss of the game
    Everyone sees but no one saw

    The intent to pass to a partner
    So she could be the Heroine for one and all?

  3. On June 18, 2008 at 2:17 am Bo responded with... #

    One of my favorites is a poem I memorized in 5th grade and still mostly remember.

    The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
    In a beautiful pea green boat,
    They took some honey, and plenty of money,
    Wrapped up in a five pound note.
    The Owl looked up to the stars above,
    And sang to a small guitar…

    Edward Lear wrote The Owl and the Pussycat in 1871! I just looked it up and was amazed it is that old. Of course he does use words like quince and runcible,

    my favorite is the ending…

    “They danced by the light of the moon,
    the moon,
    They danced by the light of the moon.”

  4. On June 18, 2008 at 2:26 am Meryl K. Evans responded with... #

    While reading Joanna’s fascinating article — The Owl and the Pussycat came to mind and Bo mentions it! I loved that poem as a kid — I think something about the way it flows and sounds drew me in.

    I also love Poe’s “Eldorado” and still have it memorized after all these years.

    Gaily bedight,
    A gallant knight,
    In sunshine and in shadow,
    Had journeyed long,
    Singing a song,
    In search of Eldorado.

    “The Highwayman” is a depressing poem, but I loved repeating the first part:

    The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding—
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

  5. On June 18, 2008 at 10:48 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi everyone, sorry about the problem with commenting earlier - comments disappearing and coming out 3 times - seems to have been a typepad glitch during the night. Hopefully we have everything here though!

    Thanks for sharing such wonderful excerpts of poems. What a delight to wake up to.

    Space Age Sage: Jabberwocky is one of my favourites too. Interesting you mention it re storytelling. It was included in my manual for a storytelling course I was on, and when I got it the poem stopped me dead in my tracks. It seemed to be telling my story in the uncanniest and most powerful of ways. I guess that’s how ‘nonsense’ works - it allows us to apply our own meaning.

    Joe, thanks for reminding me of Dr Seuss. I didn’t get treated to them as a child so must go back and read them now. That section you’ve quoted is wonderful - very powerful, with such simple language. “Everyone sees but no one saw” - what layers of story that conveys.

    Bo, that’s a favourite of mine too and thanks for quoting so much of it. The end lines are beautiful, and another invitation to dance. Or live out loud. Or be married the way we’re supposed to be. Just lovely.

    Meryl, you’re right, the rhythm and flow is probably what’s working for each of these poems. That’s also what helps to emphasise the important bits (join the dance, the light of the moon). I don’t know Eldorado - another one to add to the list, thank you. The Highwayman is one I haven’t heard since school - what a great throwback - but what I remember is the feeling of danger and excitement, of darkness and thrill - which is often when what we’re searching for as children (and adults too, even if we pretend otherwise)


  6. On June 18, 2008 at 5:30 pm Joe responded with... #

    Joanna, that wasn’t a quote from Dr Seuss, that was original about a Pool Game in Chicago. ;-)

  7. On June 18, 2008 at 6:19 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Joe, one of these days I’ll catch up with your wit. Here I am going doh! again.

    Of course it is.

    Thanks for letting me (attempt to) be a heroine.


  8. On June 23, 2008 at 2:12 am Robyn responded with... #

    Joanna, here’s a fun question posed in Van Morrison’s lyrics…

    “If my heart could do my thinking,
    would my brain begin to feel?”

  9. On June 23, 2008 at 10:49 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Robyn, that is a great question, and one that I think will continue to rumble around in my head (or my heart?!)


  10. On June 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm Robyn responded with... #

    Joanna I loved the nature of it and thought you would as well. Rumbling’s fun!



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