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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, August 20, 2006

The comic versifier Ogden Nash is remembered for a few short rhymes that, for some tastes, have become almost folkloric: "Candy/ Is dandy/ But liquor/ Is quicker," for instance, and the ingenious four lines about the turtle that "lives between plated decks/ That practically conceal its sex," capped by the punch line "I think it clever of the turtle/ In such a fix to be so fertile."

The genial cleverness, even in these chestnuts, does not entirely conceal an interest in sex and in the inhibitions, obstacles or deceptions of courtship. As with other light entertainers, Nash's body of work reveals a certain edge and darkness. He was also a sophisticated writer, irritated by the immensely popular poet Edgar Guest of the generation before his own. Nash's poem entitled "Lines to a World-Famous Poet Who Failed to Complete a World-Famous Poem or Come Clean, Mr. Guest" begins: "Oft when I'm sitting without anything to read waiting for a train in a depot / I torment myself with the poet's dictum that to make a house a home, livin' is what it takes a heap o'."

Formally, this example relies on Nash's often repeated trick: two prolonged, wandering and often prosy lines creating a resourceful or outrageous couplet rhyme. As with rap music, the point is partly a joke on the English language, with its relative poverty of rhymes: The many different roots of our mongrel language -- Germanic, Norman French, Latin, other inventions and imports like "barbecue" and "googol" -- give it a rich vocabulary of synonyms but leave it with relatively few rhymes compared with Italian or French. Sometimes rap performance, like Nash's poetry, dramatizes the limits and resources of English in order to express a laughing frustration.

But Nash's sensibility has a bleak, sour quality that is not the stuff of popular music. Many of us think of him only as a charming, inventive and carefree goofer. It's surprising and maybe a little shocking to read this poem:

Old Men

People expect old men to die.

They do not really mourn old men.

Old men are different. People look

At them with eyes that wonder when . . .

People watch with unshocked eyes;

But the old men know when an old man dies.

It might be natural to assume that Nash wrote these lines as an oldster himself, maybe in a bout of old-age depression. But "Old Men" appears in his first book, Hard Lines , published in 1931, when the author was 29 years old.

Here, on the other hand, is a poem from Nash's The Old Dog Barks Backwards , published in 1972:

Which the Chicken, Which the Egg

He drinks because she scolds, he thinks;

She thinks she scolds because he drinks;

And neither will admit what's true,

That he's a sot and she's a shrew.

The mordant quality of these poems comes from their stoic determination not to be surprised by the worst in people, including the author. That biting, skeptical, even grouchy viewpoint is not the opposite or dark underside of Nash's gift for comedy. On the contrary, the way of writing fits the worldview: The comedy of moral imperfection goes with the formal joke of lines that break rules of measure and correctness to arrive at their rhyme.

P.G. Wodehouse described himself as the performing flea of English literature. Ogden Nash, too, achieves something nimble but small in scope. It would be wrong, though, to call that smallness "modest," much less "jovial" or "warm." It is based on a convinced and therefore half-forgiving solipsism. He writes, in "Compliments of a Friend":

For every sin that I produce

Kind Me can find some soft excuse,

And when I blow a final gasket,

Who but Me will share my casket?

Beside us, Pythias and Damon

Were just two unacquainted laymen.

Sneer not, for if you answer true,

Don't you feel that way about You?

Like all excellent comedy, Ogden Nash's verses, however charming, have a distinct unsettling element.

(Ogden Nash's poems "Lines to a World-Famous Poet Who Failed to Complete a World-Famous Poem or Come Clean, Mr. Guest," "Old Men," "Which the Chicken, Which the Egg," and "Compliments of a Friend" can be found in "Candy Is Dandy." Carlton Books Ltd. Copyright 1994)

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