Ogden Nash, 1902-1971

A friend celebrates her birthday today. (Happy birthday, mj!) When I looked at the calendar and noticed that, I remembered another birthday today, as well. One of America’s favorite poets, Frederic Ogden Nash, was born on August 19, 1902. His free-form style allowed made-up words and rhyming lines of varying lengths. The off-kilter style endeared him to readers delighted by the inherent humor.

His first book, The Cricket of Garador, was a children’s book published in 1925. His first poetry was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1930. He continued writing well into the 1960s, publishing more than 500 pieces of verse, as well as three screenplays and a Broadway hit play.

A prolific writer, he’s often remembered for humorous poems on animals. Here are three you might recognize:

The Cow
The cow is of bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other is milk.

The Fly
The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.

The Dog
The truth I do not stretch or shove
When I state that the dog is full of love.
I’ve also found, by actual test,
A wet dog is the lovingest.

These child-friendly verses, for many of us, were one of our first introductions to poetry. However, he also wrote for an adult audience, as evidenced by this reading of A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor. 

Nash had a writing voice all his own, with uneven rhythm and unconventional rhyme. The sophistication of his verse was revealed in his observations on his own life as well as society around him. Marriage and children, aging and illness, wealth and work, were all topics he took on. The poem “I Never Even Suggested It” considers the negotiations within a marriage to keep the peace.

A more humorous take on the relationship between men and women can be found in this:

Reflexions on Ice-Breaking
Candy
is dandy
But liquor
is quicker

His Take on Wealth in American Society Rings True Today

His views on wealth in society resonate within our current environment of increasing economic disparity. These pieces give you a taste of his observations:

Lines Indited with all the Depravity of Poverty
One way to be very happy is to be very rich
For then you can buy orchids by the quire and bacon by the flitch.
And yet at the same time People don’t mind if you only tip them a dime,
Because it’s very funny
But somehow if you’re rich enough you can get away with spending water like money
While if you’re not rich you can spend in one evening your salary for the year
And everybody will just stand around and jeer.
If you are rich you don’t have to think twice about buying a judge or a horse,
Or a lower instead of an upper, or a new suit, or a divorce,
And you never have to say When,
And you can sleep every morning until nine or ten,
All of which
Explains why I should like very, very much to be very, very rich.

Reflection on the Fallibility of Nemesis
He who is ridden by a conscience
Worries about a lot of nonscience;
He without benefit of scruples
His fun and income soon quadruples.

This excerpt from “Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else Except Richer” may sound prescient:

This is a song to celebrate banks,
Because they are full of money and you go into them and all
you hear is clinks and clanks,
Or maybe a sound like the wind in the trees on the hills,
Which is the rustling of the thousand dollar bills.
Most bankers dwell in marble halls,
Which they get to dwell in because they encourage deposits
and discourage withdrawals,
And particularly because they all observe one rule which woe
betides the banker who fails to heed it,
Which is you must never lend any money to anybody unless
they don’t need it.

And even more pointed:

The Terrible People
People who have what they want are very fond of telling people who haven’t what they want that they really don’t want it,
And I wish I could afford to gather all such people into a gloomy castle on the Danube and hire half a dozen capable Draculas to haunt it.
I don’t mind their having a lot of money, and I don’t care how they employ it,
But I do think that they damn well ought to admit they enjoy it.
But no, they insist on being stealthy
About the pleasures of being wealthy,
And the possession of a handsome annuity
Makes them think that to say how hard it is to make both ends meet is their bounden duity.
You cannot conceive of an occasion
Which will find them without some suitable evasion.
Yes indeed, with arguments they are very fecund;
Their first point is that money isn’t everything, and that they have no money anyhow is their second.
Some people’s money is merited,
And other people’s is inherited,
But wherever it comes from,
They talk about it as if it were something you got pink gums from.
Perhaps indeed the possession of wealth is constantly distressing,
But I should be quite willing to assume every curse of wealth if I could at the same time assume every blessing.
The only incurable troubles of the rich are the troubles that money can’t cure,
Which is a kind of trouble that is even more troublesome if you are poor.
Certainly there are lots of things in life that money won’t buy, but it’s very funny —
Have you ever tried to buy them without money?

Other Notes on Nash

Nash made the city of Baltimore his home, and he was a tremendous fan of the Baltimore Colts. In 1968 he wrote a feature for Life Magazine on his beloved team. One of the poems in the feature memorialized a game forcing a play-off against the Green Bay Packers.

Is there a Baltimore fan alive
who’s forgotten Tom Matte in ’65?
The Colts by crippling injuries vexed,
Unitas first and Cuozzo next–
What would become of the pass attack?
Then Matte stepped in at quarterback.
He beat the Rams in a great display,
He did – and he damn near beat Green Bay.
Ask him today to plunge or block,
Tom’s the man who can roll or rock.
In Tokyo, they say karate
In Baltimore, they call it Matte.

When the first class stamp honoring the poet’s centennial was presented in 2002, the ceremony at his Baltimore home included members of the Colts team.

Ironically, I was reminded of him a while back when remarking in a comment about pelicans. Two different people responded with slightly different versions of this poem, which they attributed to Nash:

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

However, the attribution has been muddied over time. According to this article, Nash was not the author. In fact, it states that the poem was written around 1910 by Dixon Lanire Merritt, editor of Nashville’s paper The Tennessean.

Regardless, Ogden Nash is an American poet to celebrate. His views and writings on the twentieth century still resonate today, and his humor and style stand the test of time.

Do you have favorite poems or memories of Ogden Nash to share?

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6 thoughts on “Ogden Nash, 1902-1971

  1. Jim in IA

    I like how his poems use words for funny sounds and for particular meaning. His brain must have been full of them, tossing about, trying to get out. A sign of high intelligence, no doubt.

    Thanks for this entertaining post.

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    Reply
  2. jimfetig

    My third grade teacher, the renown Ardith Brackett, introduced us to
    Ogden Nash, James Whitcomb Riley, and the beauty of the desert around Tucson, her childhood home. She also taught me how to read and write, thus setting the stage for my professional life. Would you believe I’m still in love with that lady!

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  3. shoreacres

    It wasn’t until I wrote about our local pelican statues, and quoted the great poem about the pelican, that I learned about Merritt. I’d always assumed the poem was Nash’s — not so. It was quite a surprise, because that was one of the earliest poems I heard and memorized. We loved it as kids, because we got to say “helican” without getting lectured about our bad language. There might have been a raised eyebrow, just to indicate the big people knew what was up, but nothing more.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Like nursery rhymes, I enjoyed other poetry, too. Limericks and more “classic” poems, AA Milne, Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha… I don’t read much poetry now. Maybe I should. 🙂

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