The Very Best of Bad Verse

By Leith, Sam | The Spectator, November 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Very Best of Bad Verse


Leith, Sam, The Spectator


OGDEN NASH : THE LIFE AND WORK OF AMERICA'S LAUREATE OF LIGHT VERSE by Douglas M. Parker Ivan R. Dee/Rowman & Littlefield, £19.99, pp. 316 ISBN 156663637

In the mid-1930s, the poet Ogden Nash visited a rodeo, where the star attraction was a handsome cowboy parading with his wife and son. 'This is Monty Montana, ' the announcer declared, 'who is a great example to American young men and young women. He has never smoked a cigarette, he has never touched liquor.' Nash's voice rang out from the bleachers: 'And that little boy is adopted.' The chief thing about Ogden Nash was that he was funny. Though he wrote a handful of straightforward and affecting simple lyric poems, what he will be remembered for is his light verse. As well as, at its best, being very entertaining, it benefited from a really sure touch with prosody: what Nash himself called 'this certain knack for rhyming and versification, which is something like the knack for sinking an eighteen-inch putt'.

Nash's poetics were interesting, strange and original. With his long lines skittering gleefully towards the rhyme words, much of his 'good bad verse', as he characterised it, resembles in cadence nothing so much as William McGonagall's bad bad verse; but Nash was artful where McGonagall was inept. The rhythms are careful, and the feminine rhymes (when he's good, which was far from always) surprise and delight, with their misspellings and proto-Unwinisms: 'In spite of her sniffle/ Isabel's chiffle'; 'The turtle lives twixt plated decks/ That practically conceal its sex. / I think it clever of the turtle/In such a fix to be so fertile.'; 'I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue/ And say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?'; 'insouciance' rhymed with 'nouciance'; 'kedgeree' with 'tredgeree'.

Whimsical in print, Nash -- whose father had suffered financial ruin in 1912 -- wasn't whimsical when it came to business. Having worked, in his twenties, as a publisher, he took a strong interest in the marketing of his own books. He arranged contracts with various newspapers to supply verse (though his first love remained the less lucrative New Yorker) and issued a startling number of selections and collections from his extant body of work. He wrote greetings cards for Hallmark, and jingles for ads endorsing everything from dog food to Lucky Strike cigarettes, though in 1956 he turned down a job for a company that made laxatives. 'If they want anything on pellagra, leprosy or syphilis I'm their man, ' he wrote, 'but I'm afraid constipation is eliminated, if that isn't a contradiction in terms.' Nash was a hack poet, in other words, though a very talented hack poet, and he worried about money. In 'A Penny Saved is Impossible', he wrote:

Oh, that I were not a spendthrift, oh then would my heart indeed be gladsome, Because it is so futile being a spendthrift because I don't know any places where thrift could be spent even if I had some. …

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