It’s just a matter of time before they come for Ogden Nash. Since his specialty was light verse, not a popular literary format today, his work has probably flown under the radar. Nash was anything but controversial in his day. Of course, the same is true of a lot of people whose writings, interviews, speeches, or statues are targeted for extinction today.
Light verse is something of a lost art. Britannica defines it as “poetry on trivial or playful themes that is written primarily to amuse and entertain and that often involves the use of nonsense and wordplay.” In other words, witty and whimsical, adjectives that are totally out of synch with contemporary culture.
Light verse used to be something of a staple in publishing. It was not just the province of poets. Newspaper columnists – even sportswriters – were known to dabble in it. Among elitists, the greatest drawback of light verse was that it resonated with the great unwashed. That was certainly true of Ogden Nash’s poetry, which dealt with everyday things…family life, social gatherings, sports, minor annoyances of modern life, etc. The reader did not need a background in literature or the classics to “get” the poem. It was readily understandable to anyone who could read. English lit majors who like to wax windy with interpretations would find few gray areas up for grabs.
Perhaps Nash’s greatest sin against elitism was that his verse always rhymed, even if he had to resort to a procrustean mangling of syllables. There was no blank verse or free verse in Nash’s light verse. If the culture mavens conceded that Ogden Nash was the champion of light verse, it was like saying he had won a minor league batting title.
Born in 1902, Nash started writing light verse while working as an advertising copywriter in New York. He started selling his poems to magazines and later published collections in book form. He defied the odds by actually earning a living as a poet during the Depression – and in the succeeding decades.
In his heyday, Ogden Nash was about as close to being a household word as a poet gets in America. His primary intent was to entertain, but as is the case with the best humorists and stand-up comics, on occasion he did more than just leave ‘em laughing.
One of his recurring themes was the battle of the sexes. In Nash’s day it wasn’t a life and death struggle fraught with political implications. It was the birthright of every heterosexual male to offer opinions, humorous or otherwise, of the opposite sex (if it’s still permissible to use that term). Today, however, Nash’s verse would be considered misogynistic, even though it was mostly in good fun. “Fun” and “feminism,” however, rarely appear in the same sentence.
The feminist Exhibit A would be “Reflections on Ice-Breaking,” perhaps Nash’s most famous couplet:
Positively reeks of rape culture, doesn’t it? Actually, in just seven words, Nash evokes the customs of a more refined era falling victim to the emancipated women, suffragettes, and flappers of his young manhood. A terse truism about changing times and tastes, to which one might add:
Too much candy,
too much liquor.
Which of the two
will make you sicker?
Yet another couplet, “Biological Reflection,” dealt with the importance of cosmetics in attracting male attention:
A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain’t.
“What’s the Use” is another poem that might have evoked chuckles in its day but would likely raise eyebrows today, as it provides a rejoinder to the age-old question of “Does my butt look too big?” while commenting on the then-unusual sight of women donning trousers:
Sure, deck, your limbs in pants;
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance –
Have you seen yourself retreating?
In “I Had No Idea It Was So Late,” he deals with the popular male view that the female of the species is not known for punctuality. For a man:
How sublime it is
to know what time it is.
Not so for women:
In this sexual conflict in attitude toward time who am I to tip the scales?
I only know that more males wait for females than females wait for males.
In “I Do, I Will, I Have,” he explores stereotypical sex differences, such as a husband wanting the bedroom window open while his wife wants it shut, and the fact that men forget birthdays while women remember them. Pretty routine stuff…till the closing lines:
So I hope husbands and wives will continue to debate and
combat over everything debatable and combatable,
Because I believe a little incompatibility is the spice of life,
particularly if he has income and she is pattable.
Much of Ogden’s gender-oriented poetry fits into the old “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” school of humor, long a staple of comedy in its various manifestations. Nash, however, sometimes ventured beyond that. One of his oft-cited quotes gets to the heart of the matter: “Women would rather be right than reasonable.”
He expounds on this in “A Word to Husbands”:
To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
He covers similar terrain in “I Never Even Suggested It,” wherein he asserts many less-than-flattering observations about the sheer unreasonableness of the human female:
Yes, many the swain who has finally admitted that the earth is flat
Simply to sidestep a spat,
Many the masculine Positively or Absolutely which has been diluted
to an If
Simply to avert a tiff,
Many the two-fisted executive whose domestic conversation is limited
to a tactfully interpolated Yes,
And then he is amazed to find that he is being raked backwards over
a bed of coals nonetheless.
Nash concludes the poem with this zinger:
It is my duty, gentlemen, to inform you that women are dictators all,
and I recommend to you this moral:
In real life it takes only one to make a quarrel.
In “Lines to a Three-Name Lady,” he takes on pretentious, opinionated women and develops this theme even further:
Your native mental processes
Imply some secret canker;
Instead of thoughts, antipathies;
Instead of reason, rancor.
You three-name women, Mrs. [Hattie Boomer] Spink,
You puzzle me a lot.
Do you, I wonder, ever think?
And if you do, of what?
Perhaps the most trenchant treatment of women in Nash’s poetry occurs in “The Seven Spiritual Ages of Mrs. Marmaduke Moore,” in which he delineates the “progress” of a modern free-thinking woman decade by decade. A healthy, corn-fed country girl, at age 10, at age 20 she marries a sophisticated urbanite:
Where she soon forgot her childhood piety
And joined in the orgies of high society.
Unfortunately, the marriage doesn’t last. Finding herself alone at age 30, she seeks solace in religion:
Then, finding theosophy rather dry,
Found peace in the sweet Bahai and Bahai.
At age 40 she turns to the secular religion of psychoanalysis and makes a pilgrimage to Vienna:
She paid a professor a huge emolument
To demonstrate what his ponderous volume meant.
Returning she preached to the unemployed
The gospel according to St. Freud.
By 50 she has become a patroness of the arts:
Her salon was full of frangipani,
Roumanian, Russian and Hindustani,
And she conquered par as well as bogey
By reading a book and going Yogi.
Then at age 60, she gets religion again:
Mrs. Moore gave a joyous whoop,
And immersed herself in the Oxford group.
[The Oxford Group was a popular Christian – but non-hierarchical and non- dogmatic – movement in the 1930s.]
Finally, at age 70 she is still flirting with various religions, so Nash ends the poem with a knock-out punch:
Mohammed may be her Lord and master,
Or Zeus, or Mithros or Zoroaster.
For when a lady is badly sexed
God knows what god is coming next.
Wow, read that poem in its entirety aloud in English class and you might be charged with a hate crime! Yesterday’s light verse could be too heavy for today’s readers.
When he died in 1971, Nash was still “America’s Laureate of Light Verse,” as he was dubbed by Douglas Parker, the author of a 2005 biography. Nash was done in by a bowel infection after ingesting some tainted coleslaw. Of course, he didn’t choose the cause of his demise, but if I were a humorist, I think death by coleslaw would be good for a laugh or two among the readers of my obituary.
If Ogden Nash were around today, could he apply his droll sense of humor to family law courts, affirmative action, gender studies, circumcision, or the MGTOW movement? I suspect the zeitgeist would work against it, but I’d like to see the results.