Friday, February 1, 2008

Ogden Nash

In the 50s and 60s, Ogden Nash was probably America's most popular poet.

Sounds like faint praise, I know. These days, just about the only people who read poetry for pleasure are poets themselves. It didn't used to be that way. A century ago, Americans loved poetry. Newspapers had a daily poem. At any important event -- a holiday or the opening of a museum or courthouse -- a poem was commissioned for the occasion. Families would memorize poems and recite them.

Of course, poetry lost its popularity as the 20th century wore on. I think this was mostly due to the change to free verse. Free verse has produced some fine poetry, but it made poetry into an art for the literati and not the general public. People just like rhymes (not that rhyming poetry was superior -- many of the daily newspaper poems were really second-rate doggerel, too.)

Nash was popular as poetry died in popularity. And not just relatively popular: his work appeared in places like Life Magazine, as mass market as you got (other than TV). Some of his poems are instantly recognizable. For instance, I'm sure you all know his "Reflections on Ice-Breaking." It --

What? The name's unfamiliar? What about the words:

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

Recognize it now?

Nash wrote light verse, filled with puns and surprising and funny rhymes ("streptomycin" with "aging bison," for instance or "Siam" and "Scram"). But what really made him stand out was something that he made uniquely his own: poems with one line considerably longer than another. An example (I'm using bullets to show the two lines because HTML formatting is flaky) :

  • "But his great-aunt spreads the word you are a quack
  • Because she read an article in the paper last Sunday where some Roumanian savant stated that tonsillectomy is a thing of the past and the Balkan hospitals are bulging with people standing in line to have their tonsils put back."

This is an extreme example, but Nash did this sort of thing all the time, with one line considerably shorter or longer than the previous one. Interestingly enough, the poems still had a sense of rhythm, as though the "beat" of the poem would adjust itself (or wait) until the rhyme was finished.

You could say his work was doggerel, but it was high-class doggerel. The poems were funny (and sometimes serious) but always a delight to read.

Nash chose some funny and mundane subjects -- animals (Myself, I rather like "The Bat" and, of course, "The llama"), the foibles of social gatherings, sports, and much else.

He lived in Baltimore and was a big Colts fan, so when they won the NFL Championship in 1968, Life commissioned him to write a bunch of poems about the team. When the Jets beat them in the Super Bowl, he grudgingly wrote a poem praising New York.

Nash died in 1971. His reputation went into eclipse very quickly. Serious poets and critics ignored him because he wrote humorous poetry (and rhymed it). His public aged and, with poems being considered a chore to read, no new audience developed. Nash was forgotten.

That may be on the verge of being remedied. A couple of books came out last year, reviving his work for a new audience. There's a new collection of 500 of his poems on Amazon. Give it a look.

1 comment:

Steve in Greensboro said...

I've nevet seen a purple cow.
I hope I never see one.
But I can tell you anyhow
I'd rather see than be one.