That Old Feeling: Ode to Ogden

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   Let us grant an indulgence, plenary or perennial,
   To Ogden Nash on his centenary, or centennial.
   He trod 'mongst giants like Eliot and cummings and Thomas and Kazantzakis and Frost and Yevtushenko and Neruda and Schwartz (now all dead)
   In a day when poets were not only renowned but read.
   True, Nash did not quite roost in the exalted company of these Everest nest-dwellers,
   But he published more than 20 volumes of extremely popular light verse, and if he dwelt in cellars, they were best-cellars.
   He wrote, he lectured, and he was not too arch or arty
   To appear as a panelist on TV's "Masquerade Party."
   He called himself not a poet but a "worsifier,"
   But to me Nash was wit's November breeze or the funnyman of freon or the iceman comic or whatever suggests a synonym for coolness and the reversifier.
   There were other poets whom academe might choose to throw glory at,
   But Nash was our light-poet laureate.
   If you doubt that Nash is the perfect bedside midnight snack, if not a feast to dine on, then I urge you to find a copy of "Verses from 1929 On,"
Where 800 or so examples of Nashiana will set you briskly browsing
   Until you realize it's dawn and you realize you've been laughing but not sleeping, or even drowsing.

Ogden Nash
Writer Ogden Nash in 1937


   I never heard a word of Nash in my college courses on New Criticism,
   So I will now exert all my analytic powers to convert his witticism to Holy Writicism.
   His forte was the metrical line so unbalanced as to be bonkers,
For while other poets, even after they had renounced rhyming as old-hat, would still compose verse in a familiar meter, Nash would keep a line going longer than a Bishop Sheen speech or a Jerry Colonna note, while winding toward some tortured rhyme and keeping readers guessing whether he'd finish up in Yonkers,
   or call certain people schwankers, or summon up mountain climbers known as Mont-Blanckers,
   and just when you'd exhausted yourself guessing how low Nash would stoop for a rhyme, you'd learn at the end of the line that he never stoops, he conquers.
   An editor's note in the recent collection "Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker" (which includes five Nash poems) describes this trope as his "uniquely anarchic prosody."
   But the truth is, he flouted these rules to flaunt his jocosity.
   Here's one example,
   About bankers who got into television as a new field, not to tread in but to trample:

The jingle of coins multiplying at two per cent per annum has given way to the jingle of the singing commercial,
And their advertisements, implying that anyone who doesn't turn in his this year's car for a next year's model with all the latest accessories and borrow the difference from them is a frugal old fogy, range from the supplicatory to the coercial.

   When Nash's lines didn't run on longer than a sentence by Faulkner or Joyce,
   They were so short that intoning them would not have strained Calvin Coolidge's voice:

I don't mind eels
Except as meals.

   For Nash, terseness was a valuable rhetorical device, breaking seven words into four lines for "Reflection on Ice-Breaking":

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

   A Nash couplet was just the thing for a dull day to let a little pizzazz in,
   As in:

Who wants my jellyfish?
I'm not sellyfish!

   At times he'd junk this anarch's mission,
   Disdain sprung rhythm, embrace tradition,
    And with resolve as firm as Priam's,
    He'd versify in four-foot iambs:

O Lady of the lucent hair,
Why do you play at solitaire?...
Let two-and-fifty rivals hiss me —
For God's sake, girl, come here and kiss me.

   Most poets toiled as an iambler,
   But few as smooth as this Nash rambler.


   Any tribute to Ogden Nash's verse
    Requires a little life portrait of the man — what Time editors call bio-perse.
   Nash was the maternal grandson of a noted Louisville, Ky., feminist
    Who educated his own daughters and had them apply to Harvard using only their first initials on the applications and had the pleasure of seeing them accepted, then the pain of seeing them rejected for their sex, because at the time Harvard admitted no female, even if she was the world's leading Egyptian authority or Saudi scholar or Yemenist.
    Frederic Ogden Nash was born on August 19, 1902, in Rye, New Yorque.
In print he might have signed himself Fred Nash, except that it lacks class, rhythm, torque.
   And if, like his mother and aunts, he had initialized his first name, Nash's literary rise might have been imperiled
   Since the F. Middle-name Last-name format had been copyrighted by Scott Fitzgeriled.
   When he was a lad he suffered a severe eye infection that required him to be in the dark for a year,
   So his mother schooled him in the classics, which helped him develop an imposing memory, not to mention the ability to read by ear.
   Being of the male sex, he was allowed to do a year at Hahvard,
   And then, instead of waiting to be discahvard,
   Our poet left school to support himself at one odd job or another.
   First he taught at his old high school, then he tried Wall Street, which he found very trying indeed, since in 18 months he sold only one bond, and that to his godmother.
   He then landed a job at Doubleday, Doran, which among publishers was a very good house,
   And as an editor there he got to kibitz and tipple with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Stephen Vincent Benet and P.G. Woodhouse.
    One day his boss Don Lockwood said to Nash, "Why don't you send some of your verse to The New Yorker, you old salty fish, you?"
   Ogden obliged, and his first poem appeared in the January 11, 1930, issue.
   He kept hoping to serve his muse and write verse that was serious,
   But with his marriage to Frances Leonard in 1931, followed quickly by the emergence of two daughters, he also hoped to make a living, so he continued at what people paid him (very well) to do, which was to fill the space between prose and ads with verse that was alternately and sometimes simultaneously cheerious and sneerious.
   He wrote children's books, screenplays and a hit song ("Speak Low") for the Broadway show "One Touch of Venus,"
   But his bread-and-butter, which after a while was caviar and Dom Perignon, was magazine work in the light-verse genus.
   In a 40-year career he wrote for Life and Look, for Harper's and Harper's Bazaar, for Woman's Day and Playboy, and even for Hallmark.
   And if Sam Walton has asked him to, Nash might have produced verse for Wal-mart, except that to force a rhyme he would've called it Wallmark.
    But his main place of business was The New Yorker, which over a period of 40 years, or approximately 520 moons,
   Published some 300 of his pieces as the verbal equivalent to their famous cartoons.


   In the '50s The New Yorker was the gracious home to John Cheever and S.J. Perelman and A.J. Liebling and Charles Addams,
   And though the magazine was supposed to be edited for a "little old lady in Dubuque," it was more typically the favorite reading and kindling material for a commuting crowd of Manhattan monsieurs and their homemaking Westchester maddams.
   But it also came to a home in the Carpenter Woods section of Philadelphia,
   To a neighborhood full of kids, where you'd play ball on the street and come home when your mom would yellphia.
    I was one of those kids, with the average boy's life of schoolboy, scrimmager, moviegoer and TV gawker,
    But I also read the magazines that came through our mail slot, like Time, Reader's Digest, the Saturday Evening Post and, yes, The New Yawker.
   I enjoyed the humor in these magazines more than any child of my acquaintance,
   And of all the humorists, Ogden Nash was the one who in my little reliquary acquired patron-saintance.
   Soon my Nashophilia had so far ripened
   That I plopped down 35 cents of my hard-begged weekly stipend
And bought "The Pocket Book of Ogden Nash," for its was worth all that money
   To possess a collection of Nash's best poems, or at least those that the editor Louis Untermeyer thought were funny.
   Thus began the Nashomania
   Of a 10-year-old at 6910 Heyward Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
   While other kids sat soldered to a TV set that pummeled them with Ovaltine commercials and hair-dye ads,
   I curled up with Nash's couplets, quatrains, limericks and occasional jeremiads.
   While other boys wore their Captain Video T shirts, Howdy Doody kerchiefs and other haberdashery,
   I sported my Ogdennashery.
   I found that I could make the most obstreperous classmate behave
    By reciting a Nash limerick, like this laundered rewrite of the old locker-room classic about the hermit named Dave:

There was an old miser named Clarence,
Who simonized both of his parents.
"The initial expense,"
He remarked, "is immense,
But I'll save it on wearance and tearance."

   At the playground, I would quote, to the nearest George or Georgia:

What would you do if you were up a dark alley with Caesar Borgia
And he was coming torgia...

    Actually I wouldn't quote it, I'd declaim it as mine, as if I was not a verse thief or poem-forgia.
   I also watched Nash on TV, where with Perelman, George S. Kaufman and Fred Allen he formed an informal group of sour-faced humorists who drawled cunning sarcasm
   So lacerating that anyone on the receiving end would collapse as if thrown down a Yellowstone National Park chasm.
   Without rising from behind the panel, they showed the world their rumps
And defined the '50s wit as a fellow with a tone somewhere between gramps and grumps.
    Years later, as a movie critic I would sometimes be censured for a tendency to slander and slash,
   And I'd say, don't blame me, blame the insidious influence of television, or more specifically the Gang of Four: Perelman, Kaufman, Allen and Nash.


   In time I put Nash aside for Ernie Kovacs, Harvey Kurtzman, Lenny Bruce and the more aggressive comic geniuses of that decade,
   For I had determined that wit needed to explode, not simmer, and that a good joke was one so convulsively head-turning that it sent you to the hospital for swiveling-neck aid,
    And that it was harder to be funny than to be droll, as it is harder to create a joke than a platitude,
   Since a comedian requires ingenuity, while a humorist can coast on a querulous attitude.
   As the '50s ceded to the '60s, and the psychological to the psychedelic,
Nash acquired the attic odor of a literary relic.
   The simple notion of an exact, if eccentric rhyme,
   Which Nash shared with the best lyricists of his generation, no longer applied in a day when songwriters twinned "June" with "broom" and "time" with "mine."
   Like Parker and Peter Arno, he represented The New Yorker's vanished ages.
   He vanished from the magazine's history, never once mentioned by Brendan Gill in "Here at The New Yorker's 428 pages.
    He died May 19, 1971, and by then,
   His passing was hardly more remarked than the ones he elegized in "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.


   His work hasn't changed; it's I who am different.
   I'm older, much older, my joints much stifferent.
   The Nash I grew out of, I've grown into again.
   He seems much the wisest of the funny old men:
   Not grouchy but gracious, not silly — sagacious,
   Not restless but patious in all the right placious,
   Indulgent observer of each human foible,
   Like the lady whose birthday is hardly enjoible:

Miranda in Miranda's sight
Is old and gray and dirty;
Twenty-nine she was last night;
This morning she is thirty. ...

Oh, Night will not see thirty again,
Yet soft her wing, Miranda;
Pick up your glass and tell me, then —
How old is Spring, Miranda?

   I smile at his take on bad romances
   And moisten at his love poems to Frances.
   One couplet I'm so adamant to save,
   I might have it engraved upon my grave:

Man is a victim of dope
In the incurable form of hope.

   And as hope springs eternal, so does Nash's verse on fresh turf,
   For it is all over the Internet, in blithe disregard of copyright law, for any kid today to surf.
   A generation of websters can splash
   In his odes to the hippopotamus and the socialite and good dogs and diaper rash.
   Today's 10-year-olds can discover for themselves my long-ago pash:
   To put aside the weeping and gnashing of teeth and instead luxuriate in the reaping and teething of Nash.