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Here’s to Nash/ For whom we have a pash

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on: Mar 15, 2019
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It’s time we raised a toast to Ogden Nash, one of the wackiest wordsmiths ever

One wonders what it would’ve been like to run into someone like Ogden Nash at a cocktail party, especially in an era like this one, when the concept of a popular poet — especially one whose lines get stuck inside your head — is nearing extinction, Instagram notwithstanding. A few glasses down the hatch, Nash may have broken into an impromptu recital of his two-liner, aptly called Reflections on Ice-Breaking : “Candy is dandy/ But liquor is quicker”.

It’s no secret that the Baltimore poet (1902-1971), renowned for his comic verses, was fond of knocking back a drink or three. One of his most beloved poems is still the bravura A Drink With Something in It . It includes these lines: “There is something about an old-fashioned /That kindles a cardiac glow; / It is soothing and soft and impassioned/ As a lyric by Swinburne or Poe”.

Nash started rhyming when he was six, and the happy knack was cemented in his youth, when he worked as a copywriter for an ad firm called Barron Collier. There’s something to be said, certainly, for ad jingles and neologism; Nash would frequently make up or deliberately misspell words to aid his rhyming. (“Who wants my jellyfish / I am not sellyfish”.)

Signature Nash traits also include puns, simple, replicable rhyme structures, couplets with comically mismatched line lengths, a certain over-the-top grandiosity and a fondness for incorporating animals and babies into his verses. His dog Spangle got a poem all to herself; it famously ended with the lines: “She’s as much a part / Of the house as the mortgage; / Spangle, I wish you / A ripe old dortgage”. In Song to be Sung by the Father of Infant Female Children , he expresses a delightful hatred of little boys, for he feared they’d grow up to be potential suitors for his daughters. “Given a score of years or so/ The roses will turn to stubble/ He’ll sell a bond, or he’ll write a book/ And his eyes will get that acquisitive look/ And raging and ravenous for the kill/ He’ll boldly ask for the hand of Jill”.

He is not all that fond of the child as an infant, though. In his Reflection on babies , he writes: “A bit of talcum/is always walcum”. But he is often introspective, and sometimes a bit of a literary critic, as you’d know from these two lines in a poem called the Caterpillar : “I find among the poems of Schiller/No mention of the caterpillar.”

Given Nash’s talent for creating highly enjoyable nonsense, it is tempting to relegate his work as such. But a thorough reading of his life’s work reveals a stoic side to the man as well — his thoughts on ageing, fatherhood, material pursuit and ethics are nuanced and quite woke for his lifetime. In Look for the Silver Lining , a poem denouncing optimists, he signs off by saying, “Kismet, they say it’s Fate. What is to be, will be. Buck up! Take heart!/ Kismet indeed! Nobody can make me grateful for the Paris Green in the soup just by assuring me that it comes that way Allah carte”. However, it is worth pointing out that until the end, he remained wary of being seen as a ‘public intellectual’.

Indeed, in a latter-day poem called If Fun is Fun, Isn’t That Enough? , he wrote, “Child, the temptation please resist/ To deify the humourist/ Simply because we’re stuck with solons/ Whose minds resemble lazy colons/ Do not assume our current jesters/ Are therefore Solomons and Nestors”.

Between 1931 and 1972, Nash’s comic verses were published in as many as 14 volumes. During his lifetime, he contributed over 300 poems to The New Yorker . In 1983, over a decade after his death, a ‘best of’ compilation called Candy is Dandy appeared for the first time, selected by his daughters and with a special, Nash-style verse introduction by Anthony Burgess, another great who knew a thing or two about making up words.

“What kind of writer is he — serious or jocular? / Is he demotically beerbarrelish or classically pocular?/ In the works of literary reference, where the serious have traditionally dominated/ You will not find Ogden Nash so much as nominated.”

Burgess is right, of course, and this travesty is indicative of more than just our attitude towards Nash — it’s also why, say, out-and-out comedies almost never win at the Oscars, career funny-men like Jim Carrey are seldom taken seriously as dramatic actors or why funny books never get the Nobel. So, here’s a heartfelt toast to the man from a doting fan:

In the words of a rogue, a bit of a mongrel,

Who remains best known for his dogged doggerel,

‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker’,

I have this line stamped on a sticker

Among other pearls, both simple and profound

Gathered in a scrapbook from Lost and Found

A joyous collection, a veritable mashup

I’m awful fond of my Ogden Nashup.

Aditya Mani Jha is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Published on March 15, 2019

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