Published in Parnassus 32, Vols 1 & 2 (2011)
Ogden Nash. The Best of Ogden Nash. Edited by Linell Nash Smith. Ivan R. Dee 2007. 465 pp. $28.95.
American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse. Edited by John Hollander. Library of America 2003. 194 pp. $20.00
The Norton Book of Light Verse. Edited by Russell Baker. W. W. Norton 1986. 447 pp. $17.95.
The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. Edited by John Gross. Oxford University Press 1994. 512 pp. $19.95 (paper).
Andrew Hudgins. Shut Up, You’re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children. Drawings by Barry Moser. Overlook Press 2009. 113 pp. $14.95.
Ben Milder. What’s So Funny About the Golden Years. Time Being Books 2008. 88 pp. $15.95 (paper).
Edward Lear. So Much Nonsense. Introduction by Quentin Blake. Bodleian Library 2007. Unpaginated. $25.00
In my wayward teens I took it for gospel that real poetry had to be rhymed and metrical. I even wrote a scattering of such poems, until a high school teacher, taking undue advantage of his authority, told me brutally how bad he thought they were. This put me off writing poetry but, luckily, not off reading it. In this constellation of formal poetry, light verse was the fun part, the slightly Victorian stuff I relished most, but I also loved the work of Ogden Nash, who took spectacular liberties. His lines, inflated by a breathless rush of prose, usually didn’t scan, and his rhymes often were clever or devious rather than inevitable. Perpetually at play, he made up words or bent words to fit the rhyme. He came on as a complainer, a man chronically out of sorts. With his customary tone of mild irritation, he seemed haplessly at sea in the modern world. The elastic, pell-mell form of his verse contributed to this sense that life somehow never matched one’s expectations. Bubbling over with details, he was always getting carried away, as if he had too much to say to confine himself to the words in the dictionary, the shape of a regular line, or any easily anticipated rhyme.
An Ogden Nash poem typically begins with a great title, often a long one, the prosier the better, such as “Hearts of Gold, or A Good Excuse Is Worse Than None.” This one opens with a paradox, pinpointing a source of exasperation with the social habits of his fellow man:
There are some people who are very resourceful
At being remorseful,
And who apparently feel that the best way to make friends
Is to do something terrible and then make amends.
The lines vary in length, and their rhythm defies the metronomic tick-tock that grounds the beat in most light verse. The tone is not the serious poet’s tone, not vatic, terse, or meditative, but that of the familiar essayist, of E. B. White and Thurber and Benchley—in short, the peevish accents of The New Yorker in its early incarnation as the upstart American cousin of Punch . Continue reading →