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Poetic Analysis: Ogden Nash

Published on December 14th, 2017 at 12:30 am

by Girard Dunn

In his short biography Nash, Ogden, George W. Crandell describes the life of American poet Ogden Nash, summarized here. Nash was known for challenging traditional views about metrical language, and became the father of “light verse” poetry, or humorous poetry, a once oxymoronic term. Nash was born in 1902 in Rye, New York. He attended Harvard in 1920, but financial struggles in his family forced him to drop out before the end his first year. Nash moved back to New York, taking several different jobs until eventually settling as a streetcar ad writer. While in New York he collaborated with a roommate on his first children’s book. Although it didn’t sell well, it landed him a job at the publishing company that published it. Nash began his poetry career trying to imitate serious Victorian poetry, but he was unsatisfied with the work and in 1930 he decided he would rather be a “good, bad poet than a bad, good poet” (Nash), and he began writing humorous poetry. His skill for light verse was quickly recognized, as he became managing editor for and published in The New Yorker. Nash began publishing collections of his poems, and they were booming. This was during the Great Depression, a time when comedy and humor was in high demand, and Nash was selling well enough to become a freelance writer (can you imagine? A freelance writer during the Depression?). Ogden Nash’s influence on poetry can’t be understated, and although he was criticized at his time for not being serious enough and for purposefully ignoring spelling and grammar rules, his work will have a great influence for many years to come (lines 1-56).

So what, if any, recurring themes could possibly be present throughout Nash’s works (some of which were only two words long, such as Fleas, which goes “Adam Had’em” (Nash, poemhunter.com).)? One recurring theme that runs throughout many of Nash’s works is that human beings are foolish and hypocritical in their social expectations of one another and in their moral values, and he expresses this theme through strategies such as satire, purposeful misspellings and punctuation errors, and rhyming. Let us start by taking a look at one of his short poems, Requiem:

There was a young belle of Natchez Whose garments were always in patchez. When comment arose On the state of her clothes, She drawled, When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez! (Nash, poemhunter.com).
In this poem, Nash is criticizing society for mocking a poor woman for her socio-economic status. In his article Intentions and Ogden Nash, Robert B. Peirce references this poem and states, “…in his poem, Nash was unconsciously attacking people who fly in the face of social decorum…” (241). The young belle is basically responding to people questioning her by sarcastically stating that the reasons her clothes are bad is because they are itchy, so she scratches them, but in reality it is because she is poor and can’t afford nice clothes. By allowing her to respond to criticism with a witty response, Nash is using satire to show the ridiculousness of people to question why things are the way they are without trying to change the state of affairs. This also results in the belle appearing more intelligent and mind-strong than the people who question her because her quick quips are not met with a response, which challenged the social idea that the lower classmen are intellectual inferiors to the upper class. Later in his article, Peirce states, “Through this poem, Nash encourages us to laugh at the young belle and also the people who gossip about her…” (246). Furthermore, as will be seen in nearly all of his poems, Nash purposefully misspells words in order to make rhymes work, such as with Natchez and patchez, and with itchez and scratchez. This in and of itself can be seen as a challenge to the morals of society, which put a high emphasis on grammatical efficacy for its writers. By making these errors, Nash is making a statement that he doesn’t care about the rules of our formal language and that his writing can be just as impactful and meaningful without it, just as many other rules that we follow because of culture and tradition have no real importance and only work to reduce our individuality. Finally, if we examine the title of the poem Requiem, which is a ceremony held for the dead, we are compelled to ask: what has died? and we are compelled to answer: social morality and common curtesy for our fellow beings.

This theme of challenging public morals can be seen in other works by Nash as well. His poem Reflections on Ice-Breaking goes:

Candy Is Dandy But liquor Is quicker. (Nash, poemhunter.com).
We can infer from the title that this poem is referring to ways a man can attract a woman. Nash is saying that in society, it is acceptable for a man to attract a woman by giving her pleasing gifts or material goods (such as candy), or by manipulating her judgment (by getting her drunk), yet society places minimal influence on attracting a woman based on mutual attraction or love. In essence, Nash is challenging our respect for women in society, and is in effect challenging our morality. In his article, Moral Incongruity and Humor: The “Good Bad” Poetry of Ogden Nash, George W. Crandell states, “…by reminding his audience that both liquor and candy ultimately have the same end, and by suggesting that love can be bought, with either a drink or a box of candy, Nash calls conventional notions of acceptability into question” (99). It is also interesting to note the way Nash chose to structure his stanza. He could have easily made this a two line poem, combining the first and second line and by combining the third and fourth line, yet he chose not to. The result of separating the lines the way he did is that we read the poem slower, and there is a greater emphasis on “candy” and on “but liquor” than if it was a two line stanza. This emphasis highlights the two means by which men attract women, making his point even more clear.

Nash also shows us the relativity of our moral values in his poem It Must Be the Milk, in which he juxtaposes the similarity between toddlers and drunkards:

Another kinship with topers is also by infants exhibited, Which is that they are completely uninhibited, And they can’t talk straight. Any more than they can walk straight (qtd. in Crandell 98).
This poem works to show how, because of the way that humans have learned to define morality in western civilization, one action or behavior could be seen as either acceptable or frowned-upon in different situations, challenging how we distinguish between right and wrong. Crandell states, “By suggesting a likeness between the infant and the drunk, Nash means to point out that good and evil are relative terms that, depending on one’s moral perspective, can be applied to the same behavior…” (98)

Finally, one more example of how Nash portrays the theme of hypocrisy in common practices and culture is displayed in his poem Epistle to the Olympian, which describes the inconsistencies in the ways parents treat their children:

When one mood you are in, My bigness is a sin “Oh what a thing to do For a great big girl like you!” But then another time Smallness is my crime “Stop whatever you’re at; You’re far too little for that!” (qtd, in Crandell 100).
This poem shows how inconsistencies in our logic and reasoning are so apparent and prominent, even a child could notice them, and could be negatively impacted by it. This poem refers to when I child says they are too old to do one task, for example to wet the bed, but too young for other tasks, such as maybe driving. Parents use this counter-intuitive method of child rearing as a means of advancing their interests rather than their child’s interests. The kid is a big kid when the parent wants them to be a big kid, and the child is too small when the parent wants them to be too small. Nash could also have written this poem to offer an explanation for all the flaws in human morality observed in his other poems; we are socialized to this behavior at a young age. This poem also brings up the idea of relativity that we saw in It Must Be the Milk, except this time the relativity refers to how we define “small” and how we define “big”. Crandell states, “…Nash pairs incongruous ideas, showing how, from the moral perspective of the parents, ‘big’ and ‘little’ are relative terms” (101).

In conclusion, Nash was a prominent light verse poet in the early to mid-twentieth century that liked to challenge society and took pride in not taking himself too seriously, unlike many poets of his time. In his works, a prominent recurring theme was the ludicrousness of our popular morality and the hypocrisies that plague our everyday lives. In writing these poems, Nash hoped to make his readers laugh, but he also wanted to get them to think about why they act the way they do and examine what outside forces control their ideas, and because of this, he is now highly regarded as an inspirational poet.

Works Cited

Crandell, George W. "Moral Incongruity and Humor: The 'Good Bad' Poetry of Ogden Nash." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Linda Pavlovski and Scott T. Darga, vol. 109, Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420036677&it=r&asid=255ff5b52dc246830247910d1224396e. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017. Originally published in Studies in American Humor, vol. 7, 1989, pp. 94-103.

Crandell, George W. "Nash, Ogden"; http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-02160.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Mon Nov 13 2017

Nash, Ogden. “Ogden Nash Poems.” poemhunter. 2003-2015. www.poemhunter.com/ogden-nash/poems/page-3/?a=a&l=1&y=1. Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Pierce, Robert B. “Intention and Ogden Nash.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2001, pp. 232–248. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40247302. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.