September 23, 2019

If Ogden Nash were here today he would have a lot to say

The recently issued Ogden Nash 37-cent postage stamp spurred a memory from 35 or so years ago. When I was a seventh-grader at the Buckley School in New York City, Mr. Nash, the light verse master, paid a visit to our English class. He was the grandfather of Nick Eberstadt, one of my classmates.

Alerted several days earlier to Nash’s appearance, we were asked to write a poem about the parts of speech that we could share with the esteemed poet. Two lines from my effort, composed with my mother’s help, remain with me to this day: “Parts of speech,/ There are eight./Learn them all/and grammar’s great.” The rest of the poem, if memory serves, dealt rather awkwardly with verbs, adjectives, nouns, etc. I don’t recall reciting it, but do remember obtaining Mr. Nash’s autograph, which I’ve held onto all these years.

At the time he visited Buckley in 1967, Frederick Ogden Nash (1902-1971) was a legend. He had put “light verse” on the map of this country’s poetry, making it a sophisticated, universally admired art form. His poetry had appeared in the major magazines, from The New Yorker (which published 353 of his poems over a 42-year stretch) to Sports Illustrated, Life and The Saturday Evening Post.

Following an abbreviated college career – a year at Harvard – Nash worked for several publishing houses and did a brief stint at The New Yorker (he was replaced by James Cain, author of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”). He published his first poem, “The Bishop’s Christmas Wish,” in Country Life in 1926. His success as a writer, beginning with Hard Lines, published in January 1931, led to years in Hollywood working on scripts, as well as appearances on radio and TV shows. He co-authored a successful Broadway show (“One Touch of Venus” starring Mary Martin) and traveled to all corners of the U.S. on the lecture circuit. He eventually divided his time between Baltimore and Little Boar’s Head on the coast of New Hampshire (he once wrote a poem inspired by a moose sighting on Rye Beach).

Nash’s poetry was humorous and satirical in a genial and mostly gentle way. His clever verse may have owed something to Gilbert & Sullivan, Edward Lear, Hillaire Belloc and a few others, but not much. His poetry had a particularly American feel to it – like Dr. Seuss, the Marx Brothers, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker (his friend) and New Yorker cartoons.

Along with marvelous wordplay, Nash developed a singular prosody that often featured oddly rhymed polysyllabic lines – as if the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins had busted wide open. As a reviewer in The New York Times put it, “Ogden Nash is the only American except Walt Whitman who has created a new poetic form and has imposed it on the world.” According to biographer David Stuart, Nash was deeply disappointed to have never received the Pulitzer Prize.

At their best, Nash’s poems are brilliant takes on American foibles. Current events inspired the poems, as did such timeless subjects as homework, middle age, bad golf, the battle of the sexes, bankers, the common cold, dieting and TV commercials. He generally steered clear of politics, although he was quite capable of turning out a witty line on this subject – “Tammany cooks spoil the broth,” for example.

Often Nash utilized popular lingo in interesting ways, as in the deployment of “simonize” in the following limerick:

There was an old miser named Clarence,

Who simonized both of his parents.

“The initial expense,”

He remarked, “was immense,

But I’ll save it on wearance and tearance.”

Going by the popularity of a few of Nash’s short rhymes-“Candy/Is dandy/But Liquor/Is quicker” or “A bit of talcum/Is always walcum”-you might think he was something of an epigrammatist. Indeed, the postal service managed to fit six Nash selections (sans titles) on its stamp. The type is too tiny for my eyes, so my teenage daughter read the poems to me, including this tribute to the turtle, which made her blush:

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks

Which practically conceal its sex.

I think it’s clever of the turtle

In such a fix to be so fertile.

A master of the short form he was, yet Nash could also work in a more expansive mode, some of his poems running several pages. Sometimes his titles are funnier than the poem that follows: “Jangle Bells,” “Allergy in a Country Churchyard,” “Curl Up and Diet,” “Pride Goeth before a Raise or Ah, There, Mrs. Cadwallader-Smith!”

Some poems were inspired by passages from newspapers or books, wherefrom was born The New Yorker’s classic “Shouts and Murmurs” feature. He also may have been the inspiration for Roger Angell’s famous annual Christmas poem that ingeniously incorporated the names of famous figures from the previous year. He often turned to literature for inspiration, as in the poem “A Boy’s Will is the Wind’s Will?”:

Mr. Longfellow spoke only part of the truth,

Though a fatherly poet of pre-eminent rank;

A girl’s will is the twister’s will.

It can drive a parent through a two-inch plank.

“Selected Poetry of Ogden Nash,” a stout collection of 650 of the poet’s rhymes, verses, lyrics and poems, was a part of the light verse library handed down to me from my father, Jack Little. Dad was a light verse writer in his own right and a great fan of the genre. Through him I was privileged to meet some of the master practitioners of this poetics, including Gavin Ewart and the late Willard Espy and Bill Cole.

Light verse writers continue to bemoan the fact that the New Yorker stopped publishing their poetry decades ago, thereby striking a blow to its reputation as a literary form worthy of that famous magazine’s discerning readers. Fortunately, aficionados of this rich vein of American poetry have the Chicago-based Light Quarterly, which proudly calls itself “the only periodical of Light Verse in this country” (note the capitalization).

A good deal of Nash’s verse has an uncanny relevance to what is going on in the world today. Take these opening lines of “To My Valentine”: “More than a catbird hates a cat,/Or a criminal hates a clue,/Or the Axis hates the United States,/That’s how much I love you.”

We need someone like Nash right now to help shed some humor on the inanities and insanities of modern-day America. What a field day he would have with reality TV, billion-dollar lawsuits, self-storage and Enron. No doubt he would write a poem titled “Between Iraq and a Hard Place.”

Sure, there’s Dave Barry, Andy Rooney and a few other fun-loving ribbers, but Ogden Nash, once referred to as “America’s comic poet laureate,” turned humorous commentary into an art form. Aside from a posthumous Pulitzer, probably the best way to honor the man is to read his poetry – on a postage stamp or otherwise.

Carl Little is an author and arts critic who lives on Mount Desert Island.

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