OGDEN NASH WAS THAT RARE BIRD in the 20th century, a poet who lived by his wit. T.S. Eliot, who had experience both in business management and literature, held on as a director and editor at Faber and Faber, and only became a multimillionaire posthumously with the staging of Cats. William Carlos Williams, a physician and head of the local hospital, delivered some 2,000 babies over 40 years to support his poetry habit. Robert Frost lived on a farm with good fences in New Hampshire, although he taught at Amherst for over 20 years. Only Nash woke up each day with the financial need to face the tyranny of a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper, slinging out the lariat of his imagination to pluck exactly the right words out of the air that would bring a postman to his door with a check.
Nerve-wracking as his choice was, Nash had a nice little living with a commodious house in Baltimore, an apartment in Manhattan, and a summer place at Little Boar’s Head in New Hampshire. True, it was nothing extravagant, providing a kind of shabby-chic existence interspersed with long, exhausting book tours to promote sales, but it also included a few ocean-steamer trips to Europe, and a group of loyal family retainers, one of whom followed him to the family grave plot at Little Boar’s Head. Despite his poetry’s becoming one of the defining elements of the New Yorker’s style in the '40s and '50s and despite his hanging out with a wild literary and theatre crowd, he lived in happy, lifelong domesticity with his beloved wife Frances and his two literary daughters, Linell and Isabel. Indeed, the fatherly advice he gave to his daughters growing up was much more sage than the wicked wit of his bachelor days.
Nash’s career included a stint with the Doubleday publishing house in New York. He also lasted 30 days as the assistant to the irascible, impossible Harold Ross at the New Yorker, but managed to depart on good terms. He was the co-creator with composer Kurt Weil of the successful Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus. He took an unsuccessful detour to Hollywood as a screenwriter. He wrote the incidental verses to the orchestral music for Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. But mostly he wrote poetry without being on anyone’s payroll. It may be hard to imagine, but he actually wrote poetry for a living during the Depression.
All of this is well recounted in Douglas M. Parker’s new biography, Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse. It’s a workmanlike book, written with full access to Nash’s papers and the reminiscences of family and friends. It tells us that his great-great-grandfather was governor of North Carolina during the American Revolution, and a member of the Continental Congress. Furthermore, the governor’s brother, Nash’s great-great-granduncle, was a military hero who died in battle, and gave his name to the settlement in Tennessee now called Nashville. Nash’s own father was a successful businessman, who put together a group of companies selling tar and naval stores in East Coast ports. Unfortunately his company became the target of ambitious federal prosecutors looking to make an example of someone with the new Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Lower courts directed that the company be dissolved and the assets sold, bankrupting Nash’s father. Then, in a move strikingly similar to the recent federal case against the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision, completely exonerating Nash’s father. By that time it was too late; the company was gone and the Nash family was broke.
It was a defining moment for young Ogden that taught him how to deal with tough times. His destined career path that should have taken him through Groton and Harvard and the New York business world was derailed. Instead he was home-schooled, and later managed one year at Harvard. He got a job in New York writing street-car advertising, while living in a cold-water flat under the El. By a stroke of luck, he was able to move to Doubleday, then the largest publisher, editing crime novels and having to read for rejection reams and reams of bad poetry by bad poets. It was then that he decided that it was not necessary to be a good poet to be successful. He decided that anyone with a competent knowledge of rhyme and meter should be able, as he put it, “to write good bad poetry.” And so, over the next 40 years, he wrote and published more than 1,000 poems, the last one appearing in the New Yorker a few days after his death in 1971.
Were all those poems simply “good bad poetry”? The irony of that phrase is never satisfactorily resolved by Parker. Was Nash, as Parker’s subtitle implies, just a writer of “light verse”? Was he merely another Edgar Guest or Joyce Kilmer? If so, why is it as great a pleasure to read his verse now as when it first appeared? Why were his poems so deeply appreciated by the demographic that read them in the Saturday Evening Post as much as by the readers of the supposedly more sophisticated New Yorker? Why was his work so strongly supported by the “serious” poets whose work is deconstructed today in graduate seminars at our most pretentious universities?
A STRONG CLUE MAY BE FOUND in the fact that the foreword to the Nash biography is written by Dana Gioia, no mean practitioner in the poetry business himself. A while ago Gioia wrote a sharp-elbowed essay in the Atlantic castigating his fellow poets for retreating from communication with the outside world. He pointed out that poets today do not write for a living, but have sinecures in universities teaching students to write poems that only other professional poets living in universities will read. Such poems are printed in poetry magazines that nobody interested in literature would ever think of reading. With a roar like the roar of pachyderms trumpeting a last trump in the elephant graveyard, the professional poets objected. However, grantseekers that they are, they shut up when President George W. Bush appointed Gioia to be head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gioia points out that his mother, a working-class woman of Mexican descent, never went beyond high school, but was a great lover of poetry who frequently recited verses appropriate to what was happening in the daily chores of raising her family. However, there was only one living poet in her repertoire — Ogden Nash. Perhaps because Nash was a working man who actually worked at writing poetry, he was able to write about things that touched real people, while at the same time dazzling professionals with his word art. Gioia says, “His rhymes were not merely amusing but often revelatory — playing on the differences between speech and writing or brilliantly contrasting levels of diction, shades of etymology, or arbitrary features of English like the inconsistency of our language’s spelling and pronunciation.”
In the best of Nash we find a haiku of hilarity, a profound explication of the human condition. Parker has given us a level-headed explanation of where Nash was coming from.
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