Fifty years after the poet’s death, Reverend Peter Mullen salutes a gifted prankster, trickster and boulevard performer
To turn your craziness into cash, Start to write like Ogden Nash
In the 50 years since Nash died, aged 68, on 19th May 1971, so many lines from his light verses have become established in the language:
Candy is dandy
But liquor is quicker
God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why Oldie readers know only too well that: Senescence begins and middle age
ends The day your descendants outnumber your friends
Born in New York in 1902, Nash dropped out of Harvard after his first year and briefly became a bond dealer, boasting, ‘I sold only one – to my godmother.’ He followed F Scott Fitzgerald as a writer of advertising copy for Barron Collier and snappy, witty pieces for the New Yorker.
Then he married and retreated to Baltimore, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Nash said, ‘I’ve thought in rhyme since the age of six.’ Usually, children’s verses are charming, incompetent and silly.
His genius was to turn this silliness into an art form and practise it for the rest of his life. Early in his career, he had the insight that made his fortune. He always chased the rhyme, and if he couldn’t find a rhyming word, he had the audacity to make one up, such as:
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros I’ll stare at something less prepoceros
If called by a panther
Nonsense verse and amusing, homemade neologisms fascinated and mystified children in the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Every child loves a monster and, better still, a big beast bested by a little girl:
Isabel met an enormous bear, Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care... She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up, Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Best of all, children delight in hearing about a naughty boy:
He stole the milk of hungry kittens, And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
So here it all is in a great boiling cauldron: fantasy, absurdity, play on words, made up words and sheer balderdash – the complete consort dancing together. Except not quite. What it needs is some music.
Nash incorporated that magical ingredient, too, when he wrote charming nonsense verses for Camille Saint-Saëns’s delicious pantomime, The Carnival of the Animals – yet another children’s favourite. Nash never lost his adman’s eye for a smash hit, as he showed when he persuaded Noël Coward to recite the verses and distributed the whole thing worldwide through Columbia Records.
Just when we think we have Ogden Nash bang to rights, he surprises us. This prankster, trickster and boulevard performer could turn serious and make observations that mine a deeper seam.
The boy from Baltimore – like his contemporary Dorothy Parker – shows a genius for verselets that are more than just folksy wisdom:
You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.
And even more succinctly:
Too clever is dumb.