By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 8, 2005
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 flourish:
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 replied:
"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 fun."
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 astute:
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 debilitating.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.