I’ve always been a bit in awe of people who can drop poems on a dinner party – those savants who can just pull out a fully formed Yeats, Cummings, Whitman, Dickinson, or Baraka to fit the mood. It’s such a romantic skill to possess, but I’ve never had the wherewithal to sit down and study the craft. I know exactly one complete poem by heart:
I eat my peas with honey;
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.
This poem goes back to my childhood, and yes, my brothers and I tried the peas with honey trick. It didn’t work, but that was fine by me (I hate peas). The poem was first recited in 1944 on a radio show called “It Pays to Be Ignorant,” a parody of high-minded academic quiz shows, which is just perfect, given that its author is the decidedly not highbrow (and Harvard dropout) Ogden Nash. He would have been 112 this week, and we’re here today to celebrate one of America’s finest whimsical minds.
Nash didn’t start out as a poet. After his brief Ivy League stint, he tried his hand on Wall Street, flamed out, and went into advertising. While working a day job as a copywriter, Nash tried his hand at serious poetry at night. It didn’t take, so he decided to “laugh at myself before anyone laughed at me,” which saw him focus his frivolity on “my field – the minor idiocies of humanity.” He would go on to have a wonderful career, writing fifty or so books, appearing in the New Yorker for decades, penning screenplays, appearing frequently on radio and television, and even co-authoring the hit 1943 Broadway musical One Touch of Venus.
And yet, for all his success, Nash remains removed from the realm of "important" poets. He doesn’t have a single verse in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. What giveth, criteths?
“Nash is underrated by critics and teachers, not by the public. He is a poet of extraordinary energy, wit, and invention. He is a rare sort of artist – an experimentalist who is popular. His work is innovative and modernist, but he wrote for a broader readership, and the public responded,” said Dana Gioia, poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and author of the foreword for Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse. “Comic writers are generally underrated by critics. I'm not entirely sure why, except that it's harder for a critic to upstage a comedian. The writer has all of the best lines. And it's sometimes hard to seem serious if you are talking about a writer who likes to be silly.”
Silliness is hard to do well, and few have done it better than Nash. His love of wordplay didn’t follow the bounds of English protocol, which is the main reason it’s so funny. And deceptively simple. Take this line for example: “Better yet, if called by a panther, don’t anther.” Like fellow syntax creators Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll, it's Nash’s commitment that defines his greatness.
“Nash did not try to write about the extremes of human experience – there is no agony or tragedy in his work. He wrote mostly about quotidian existence. He was a comic writer and a gentle satirist,” said Gioia. “His work is also accessible, despite its elaborate and sophisticated wit, so there isn't a lot for a critic to explain beyond Nash's idiosyncratic verse technique, which often mixes verse and prose linked by clever rhymes and puns.”
Nash was an urbanite through and through, and used the daily nonsense of living in New York City as the backdrop for many of his poems. Taxi rides, cocktail parties (and the dreaded morning-afters; save this one for January 1), baseball, and even the masters of the universe who make, and break, all the rules. He was occupying Wall Street as far back as 1935 with “Bankers Are Just Like Everybody Else, Except Richer.”
He wasn’t completely immune to serious matters, though. “Old Men” is a rather somber and poignant forty-one-word rumination on death, but he is best known for gaiety, and that’s why kids should be exposed to him early. I’ve taught my daughter about peas and honey and am waiting for her to give it the old pre-K try. What’s great for young readers is Nash’s accessibility. Kids gravitate to nonsense and will repeat “Who wants my jellyfish? I’m not sellyfish” ad nauseam.
In modern times, poetry has been shunted to the depressingly narrowcast “fine arts” category, which is too bad, because it should be a heyday for verse. Kids may not be proficient in the William Carlos Williams canon, but they love the rhymes of Jay Z, A$AP Mob, and Kendrick Lamar. If you need more proof that the debate over whether hip-hop lyrics constitute “real” poetry is tiresome and pompous, just know that Ogden Nash has been annotated by the Rap Genius family.
“Studying poetry should be exciting. We've so often made it stiff, dull, and pretentious,” said Gioia, who has been writing about the diminished role of poetry in American society for a long time. “Nash should be one of the first authors a child learns in school. He is clever, inventive, and fun. His sense of language would improve a student's reading and vocabulary. And, most important, Nash is best heard aloud. Contemporary education has taken most of the fun out of poetry. Nash is an easy way to bring fun back into the classroom.”
It’s an important consideration, but today is not the day of mourning. We’re here to remember Ogden Nash, poet laureate of nuttiness, with the glee he so deserves.