[Paleopsych] Book World: (Odgen Nash) A Gleeful Splash of Ogden Nash

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A Gleeful Splash of Ogden Nash
Washington Post Book World, 5.5.8

    By Jonathan Yardley

    The Life and Work of America's Laureate of Light Verse
    By Douglas M. Parker. Ivan R. Dee. 316 pp. $27.50

    At the end of the 1920s Ogden Nash was in his late twenties, living in
    New York City, working as a copywriter in the advertising department
    of Doubleday, the prominent book publisher, and trying his hand at
    poetry. It didn't take long, Douglas M. Parker writes, for him to
    reach "the important conclusion that he simply lacked the talent to
    become a serious poet: 'There was a ludicrous aspect to what I was
    trying to do; my emotional and naked beauty stuff just didn't turn out
    as I had intended.' " Instead he ventured into light verse, which
    enjoyed a more significant readership then than it does today. This
    was one of his earliest efforts:

    The turtle lives twixt plated decks

    That practically conceal its sex.

    I think it clever of the turtle

    In such a fix to be so fertile.

    The poem "made a remarkable impression on the humorist Corey Ford" and
    others as well. Soon Nash came up with this:

    The hunter crouches in his blind

    Mid camouflage of every kind.

    He conjures up a quaking noise

    To lend allure to his decoys.

    This grownup man, with pluck and luck

    Is hoping to outwit a duck.

    For my money, poetry doesn't get much better than that, whether
    "light" or "serious," and Nash did just that for four more decades,
    until his death in Baltimore on May 19, 1971. It was often said during
    his lifetime that he and Robert Frost were the only American poets who
    were able to support themselves and their families on the income from
    their work as poets, a claim that almost certainly cannot be made for
    a single American poet today, with the possible exception of Billy
    Collins. In just about all other respects Nash and Frost could not
    have been more different, but we can look back on them now as the last
    vestiges of an age when poetry still mattered in the United States,
    not just to academics and other poets but to the great mass of
    ordinary readers.

    To say that Nash mattered in my own family is gross understatement. My
    parents -- like Nash, members of the educated but far from wealthy
    middle class -- awaited each new issue of the New Yorker with the
    eager expectation that a new Nash poem would be found therein. For a
    couple of summers my family vacationed on New Hampshire's tiny
    coastline, where my father chatted up the great man on the beach. I
    caught the infection as a teenager and in high-school senior English
    wrote my class paper on Nash. My teacher, whom I revered, declared
    that "your comments are delicate and restrained," that "you express
    your admiration for Mr. Nash tastefully and with tact," and handed me
    an A-, a truly rare event in my sorry academic history.

    That same teacher also noted, tactfully, that Nash's "poetic credo is
    perhaps stated in 'Very Like a Whale' and perhaps will interest you."
    This poem is indeed a key to Nash. It begins, "One thing that
    literature would be greatly the better for/ Would be a more restrained
    employment by authors of simile and metaphor," takes note of Byron's
    "the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold" and then takes
    exception to it -- "No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this
    Assyrian was actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;/ Did
    he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth
    and big white teeth and did he say Woof woof?" -- and closes with a

    That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets, from
    Homer to Tennyson;

    They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison.

    And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after
    a winter storm.

    Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
    snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket
    material and we'll see which one keeps warm,

    And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly

    What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

    It's all right there: Nash's irreverence, his delayed and often
    improbable rhymes ("dimly" and "simile"), his long, death-defying
    lines of verse, his delight in tweaking the pompous and pretentious.
    He liked to say that since he never could be anything more than a bad
    good poet he would settle for being a good bad poet, but there was
    nothing bad about his verse, as was commonly recognized by other
    poets, writers and critics. W.H. Auden thought he was "one of the best
    poets in America," Clifton Fadiman praised his "dazzling assortment of
    puns, syntactical distortions and word coinages," and when Scott
    Fitzgerald's daughter sent her father a bad imitation of Nash, he

    "Ogden Nash's poems are not careless, they all have an extraordinary
    inner rhythm. They could not possibly be written by someone who in his
    mind had not calculated the feet and meters to the last iambus or
    trochee. His method is simply to glide a certain number of feet and
    come up smack against his rhyming line. Read over a poem of his and
    you will see what I mean." Indeed. That astute judgment is borne out
    in just about everything Nash wrote, as well as in the utter failure
    of all those -- their numbers were (and are) uncountable -- who tried
    to imitate him. To say that he was the best American light poet of his
    or any other day is true beyond argument, but it is scarcely the whole
    story. He was one of the best American poets of his or any other day,
    period, and it is a great injustice that critics customarily
    pigeonhole (and dismiss) him as a mere entertainer because he
    committed the unpardonable sin of being funny.

    Nash emerges, in Parker's capable if conventional biography, as a
    decent man whose inner life probably was a lot more complicated than
    his verse suggests. He was born into comfortable circumstances in
    suburban New York, but those circumstances changed dramatically with
    his father's business failure. Nash put in only a year at college
    before going to New York City and the real world, but he was
    exceptionally well read and universally esteemed among his many
    friends for the brilliance of his mind. He tended to drink a bit too
    much and was prone to depression, especially in later life, but people
    loved to be with him. "We hung onto him," one friend said. "He was a
    great lifesaver for everybody. . . . He was lovely and amusing and

    The great love of his life was Frances Leonard, a belle of Baltimore
    whom he met there in 1928, courted assiduously (sometimes desperately)
    and at last married three years later. She was charming, beautiful
    and, when the occasion called for it, difficult. He learned how to
    deal with her moods, and his "devotion to Frances never wavered." They
    had two daughters, whom he adored and about whom he wrote many poems,
    some of them agreeably sentimental, some of them funny, all of them

    I have a funny daddy

    Who goes in and out with me,

    And everything that baby does

    My daddy's sure to see

    And everything that baby says,

    My daddy's sure to tell

    You must have read my daddy's verse

    I hope he fries in hell. Though Nash earned a decent income off the
    poems he sold to the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post and other
    magazines, he and Frances had expensive tastes, and he had ambitions
    beyond poetry. Like many other writers of his day, he wanted to
    succeed in the Broadway theater. Unlike most others, he actually did,
    with "One Touch of Venus," a musical by Kurt Weill for which he wrote
    the lyrics and collaborated with S.J. Perelman on the book. The show
    opened in October 1943 and ran for an impressive 567 performances. One
    of the songs, "Speak Low," remains a classic of cabaret and jazz and
    has been recorded by many of the country's best singers.

    Strictly for money, Nash went onto the lecture circuit in 1945. His
    "tours would occupy Nash for several weeks a year for nearly twenty
    years and have a significant impact on his life and health." The tours
    were exhausting, but audiences invariably were large and welcoming;
    Nash was gratified by this direct contact with his readers and kept on
    the circuit long after its effect on his health had become
    deleterious. Never robust, by the time he hit his sixties he suffered
    from numerous ailments, many of them intestinal and some of them

    Toward the end of his life Nash agreed to deliver the commencement
    address at his daughter Linell's boarding school. Perhaps
    subconsciously aware of the approaching end, he made it "his own
    valedictory." He spoke up for humor: "It is not brash, it is not
    cheap, it is not heartless. Among other things I think humor is a
    shield, a weapon, a survival kit. . . . So here we are several billion
    of us, crowded into our global concentration camp for the duration.
    How are we to survive? Solemnity is not the answer, any more than
    witless and irresponsible frivolity is. I think our best chance lies
    in humor, which in this case means a wry acceptance of our
    predicament. We don't have to like it but we can at least recognize
    its ridiculous aspects, one of which is ourselves." Today, when we
    need to laugh perhaps more than ever before, we can only thank God for
    Ogden Nash. ·

    Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj at washpost.com.

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