Ogden Nash 1902-1971
(This column was first published in the August 19, 2002 Buffalo News.)
Today we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Ogden Nash, arguably the finest writer in history of brief comic verse. The poet died over thirty years ago but his lines remain as fresh as this morning’s dew.
Happily, many of Nash’s poems are about nature and, like the very best caricatures, they capture his delight in the subjects about which he wrote. But nature or not, every one of his ditties speaks to the human condition -- to us. Consider in this regard, for example, “The Ant”:
The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?
Or “The Centipede”:
I objurgate the centipede,
A bug we do not really need.
At sleepy-time he beats a path
Straight to the bedroom or the bath.
You always wallop where he’s not,
Or, if he is, he makes a spot.
In no way is the poet trying to introduce us to the life history of the centipede. Rather, he is reviewing for us in a gently twisted way, our usual interaction with the animal about which he writes. Here, for example, he has captured a commonplace experience with this tiny denizen, but he has described it in a way that none of us could match.
To me these little poems sparkle like gems. No haiku can improve upon them. Some of them are still shorter, couplets or triplets. He writes of “The Fly”:
The Lord in his wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.
But my favorites remain the quatrains:
Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.
Not all of Ogden Nash’s nature-oriented poetry spoke of individual species. In “The Purist”, he tells us about the conscientious scientist, Professor Twist, who lost his wife in the jungle:
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
‘You mean,’ he said, ‘a crocodile.’
The historical novelist Kenneth Roberts once wrote a wonderful essay entitled “Roads of Remembrance.” In it he made a powerful case against the signs littering the New England roads that follow the lines of march of our nation’s early military campaigns. In the four simple lines of his poem, “Song of the Open Road,” Nash conveys the same message almost as strongly:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard as lovely as a tree.
Perhaps unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
Like his New Yorker colleague, James Thurber, Nash had poor eyesight that made bird watching difficult for him. Here are parts of his poem about his problems:
Since I'm both myopic and astigmatic,
My aim turned out to be erratic,
And I, bespectacled and binocular,
Exposed myself to comment jocular.
We don't need too much birdlore, do we,
To tell a flamingo from a towhee;
Yet I cannot, and never will,
Unless the silly birds stand still.
And he finishes in spectacular fashion:
But I sometimes visualize in my gin
The Audubon that I audubin.
This delightful poet richly deserves the many honors bestowed upon him including the postage stamp just issued in his name. -- Gerry Rising