Up

REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE: THE POETIC STRUCTURES OF OGDEN NASH

Steven Blyth

It is better to possess an abscess or a tumor
Than to possess a sense of humor,
People who have senses of humor have a very good time.
But they never accomplish anything of note, either despicable or
sublime.
Because how can anybody accomplish anything immortal
When they realize they look pretty funny doing it and have to stop to
chortle.

(from DON'T GRIN OR YOU'LL HAVE TO BEAR IT)

Comedy is given scant critical attention. This is just as well, some might argue. In a recent newspaper report of a University that planned to start running courses on the nature of stand up comedy, one stand up comic was quoted as saying he couldn't imagine anything worse. Similarly, comic or light verse is rarely looked at in critical terms. This is to some extent understandable, as much light verse offers little meat for the critic. The poetry of Ogden Nash seems equally ill-suited to analysis, but it is a deceptive poetry and beneath its surface lies something of interest.

       Nash was born in 1901. He had a glorious school career, leading many societies and winning plenty of prizes. He went on to Harvard, but had to drop out because of family financial problems. Despite this set back, Nash soon acquired a job as assistant to the advertising Manager at Doubleday publishers in the mid 1920's. He went on to become an assistant editor there, his job culminating in him and a colleague being given their own budget and control over some of the publishing output. All the while, his comic verse was being accepted by the prestigious New Yorker magazine. In 1930, he took a job there, in charge of several departments. Thought influential at the magazine, his time there was short lived. He left and was taken on by another publishers, Farrar & Rinehart, as assistant editor. A few years later, in the mid 1930's, he went freelance. Prior to this move, his first collection, Hardlines (1931) had become an overnight bestseller. From then on interest in his poetry never really waned. Nash gained phenomenal celebrity. Reports of his New York establishment marriage, complete with pictures, filled columns in the papers throughout America. Despite failing to break into Hollywood screenwriting and (apart from the great success of One Touch of Venus) failing to make it in the world of Broadway musicals, Nash and his poetry remained in the public eye throughout his life. He frequently appeared on quiz shows and chat shows; his books continued to sell well.

       In short, a successful life. But what is more important to note is its conservatism. Nash fitted into American society. This was no rebellious, temperamental poet who was ever likely to cause upset by the way he lived his life or with the things he said. On the surface, such conservatism is reflected in the poetry. Although obviously making fun of Americans and of western society in general, the poetry is conservative in that, to draw on Adrienne Rich's now famous quote, it doesn't give insights into things we didn't know we knew. The poetry covers such subjects as gossips, dinner party guest who over stay their welcome, the irritations and pleasures of children and domestic family life. The opening lines of "There's Noting Like Instinct. Fortunately" are a typical example, focussing on something frequently observed in children:

"I suppose that plumbers' children know more about plumbing than plumbers
do, and welders children know more about welding than welders,
Because the only fact in an implausible world is that all young know
better than their elders.
A young person is a person with nothing to learn,
One who already knows that ice does not chill and fire does not burn.
It knows it can read indefinitely in the dark and do its eyes no harm,
It knows it can climb on the back of a thin chair to look for a sweater it left on the bus without breaking an arm."

       There's nothing wrong with this and the verse is effective and extremely funny. But it is not the sort of verse that will shake up society or the reader's perceptions. Similarly, Nash's verse is, in essence, highly logical. As Nash himself puts it, "Beneath his mad laughter, his careless nonsense, there lies a vein of wisdom". Nash's humour lies at the opposite end of the comic spectrum to, say, Monty Python or Edward Lear. Essentially it is sensible, with a dash of nonsense for laughs. Moreover, the work is voluminous (fourteen often large collections) and there is no development in terms of form or theme. Overall, this gives the impression of Nash being someone who gave his audience what they felt comfortable with - anything but a rebel. Although Nash at times satirised certain aspects of American Society and politics, it's a gentle, almost affectionate satire, a conservative satire. Indeed his daughter's comments in her biography of him, "Loving Letters From Ogden Nash: A Family Album", supports this view, commenting how, during the Vietnam war, he supported Eugene McCarthy, writing a birthday campaign poem and thus "breaking a rule he had imposed on himself long ago after World War II. The work he had done at that time for the Treasury Department and on war-bound tours did not measure up to his personal standards, and so he had sworn off dealing with the short of political or patriotic subject that brought his own emotions so strongly to the fore that he lost touch with his innate sense of balance." Similarly, his conservatism or his "innate sense of balance" is displayed in his response to anti-war protesters: "Though he agreed wholeheartedly with the message, he was unsympathetic to the messengers, deploring the language, appearance, and behaviour that they brought to the stage of American life." However, what makes Nash's work more rebellious and non-conformist than it at first appears is the poetic structure within which all those humorous but nonetheless logical arguments of his are placed - the structure for which he became famous: the highly irregular, usually very long-lined thumpingly-rhymed couplet, like this outrageous example from "Never was I Born to Set them Right":

"Speaking of envelopes, I particularly dislike in our non-civilisation the return envelope with postage prepaid which the Internal Revenue Department does not enclose with its usual demands; of needlessly irritating the taxpayer this is the most picayune of their many ways;

When I drain my bank account to write them a check I think they
might at least blow me a nickel's worth of postage, especially as it
wouldn't cost them anything anyways."

       One could argue that Nash was just a bad poet made good, much like Mcgonnagal. However, he was perfectly capable of writing highly metrical verse:

"Once eager for, I've come to dread
The nimble fingers of my barber;
He's training strands across my scalp
Like scimpy vines across an arbor.
The conversation at the club
Is all intestinal or molar;
What dogs the class of '24?
Another day, another dolor."

      (From A Man Can Complain, Can't He? (A Lament For Those Who Think Old)

Moreover, Nash's usual form, which suggests the incompetent poet, was clearly a conscious choice: "I made up my mind a long time ago that I'd rather be a great bad poet than a bad good poet .....As a small boy I wanted to be a serious poet, a Keats or a Shelley, but my serious poems were very, very bad. My humorous verses are really a mocking of those early attempts. I thought it better to laugh at myself before everyone laughed at me." But Nash doesn't just mock his own early poetic style: his structural strategies, as we shall see, mock poetic structure itself. Indeed mocking poetry itself is something that Nash often does quite overtly. In one of his most famous and frequently anthologised poems, "Very Like a Whale", he pokes fun at one of poetry's most trusted devices. This poem is also a fine example of how Nash uses logical argument to lampoon: 

"One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and
metaphor
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons, or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out
of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?" 

The poem ends:

"And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after
a winter storm.
Oh it is is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow
and I'll sleep under a half-inch of unpoetical blanket material and
we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile."

Firstly there are two ways in which Nash's couplet serves to rebel against poetry. As Anthony Burgess has pointed out, it invokes two extremes of poetic structure: the long free verse line that echos Whitman and the couplet that brings to mind the altogether tighter structures of someone like Pope. Both free verse and formalism are lampooned. Similarly, Nash's line goes against the grain of much light verse with its usual strict formal control.

        However, there are the rather obvious types of rebellion that are present in the structure of Nash's verse. There is present a deeper and more complex form of rebellion against conventional poetic structures. Firstly, there is Nash's use of rhyme. In his seminal essay on rhyme, 'One Relation of Rhyme to Reason", the critic W.K. Wimsatt, talks about rhyme being the, "wedding of the alogical with the logical"; "the arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory form"; and "the ikon in which the idea is caught." In essence Wimsatt is speaking of the way in which rhyme can almost set up a text within a text because of the associations that the perceptive reader can make between rhymed words. Donald Davie has made similar points, as have other critics. To some extent Nash plays on this but sometimes Nash will misspell a word or glue a few words together in order to get the rhyme (for example infallible is altered to infullible so that it rhymes with gullible), or sometimes force our ear to accept half rhymes as full rhymes by placing them in the midst of such strongly rhymed neighbouring couplets. Although clearly done for comic effect, such a device rocks the poetic boat and also works against the surface elements of Nash's own poetry - that logical lampoonery. Nash's twisting of rhymed words works against such logical use of rhyme in that the logical inference we may draw from rhymed words is disturbed. Moreover language, the tool with which Nash makes his gentle and logical lampooning, falls under threat. In essence Nash's use of rhymes works against the conventionality and conservatism in the content of his verse, as well as going against the grain of the poetic expectation of us being able to see logical connection between rhymed words. Nash twists his rhymed words, thus threatening logical connections.

       The way that Nash uses the rhymed couplet has similar implications. Of all the poetic structures available, the rhymed couplet is arguably the one which falls closest to the embodiment of logical thought. It sets up a measure and an expectation in its first line which it immediately resolves, almost like a poetic question and answer session. More importantly it seems the form is most at home with the binary underpinnings of logical discourse. It's hardly surprising that this was the form most popular in the eighteenth century, the time of rationalism. Nash's couplets work against the logical essence of the traditional rhymed couplet. The extreme irregularity of Nash's couplet (for example a first line of 20 syllables followed by a second of only 5) works against the orderliness and clarity of the traditional metrical rhymed couplet. True, many a poet has written an unmetrical rhymed couplet, but few, if any, with the extreme irregularities of Nash's. Also, Nash once again works against the logical surface elements of his own work. Overall Nash's use of rhyme and the couplet create an illogical and nonsensical pulse behind his logical lampooning; a disturbance of his vein of wisdom. 

       Overall, Nash's use of poetic form can be seen as Carnivalesque. The central tenet behind Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin's notion is one of reversal: the fool becomes a king, the king a fool; low becomes high, the forbidden becomes acceptable. Nash's structures are carnivalesque in that they present us with just such reversals in terms of our expectations of poetic form: the logicality of rhyme and the couplet is upturned and these devices are made to work against what they usually epitomize. Structurally, Nash is a subversive, working against poetic tradition in a far more radical way than it first appears. Perhaps even more radical from a structural point of view than those who turned to free verse. He does not abandon form but sends it up, working against many of the rationalist principles that certain aspects of form embody. His long line is perhaps more radical in some ways than many other poets who use such a line. While the content of the likes of Ginsberg is far more radical than that of Nash, such poets often interrupt a long line with the frequent use of the comma, or other stop. Such caesura slow the line, cause interruptions not unlike those caused by the line break. The vast majority of Nash's's long lines on the other hand stretch out without any such reliance on what can be described as a disguised line break.

       Was Nash aware of the illogical pulse beneath his conservative, rational humour? His theory of American humour tends to suggest that he was:      

"American humour is a unique blend of three ingredients: one of these, a sort of logical illogical playfulness, started with Lewis Carroll, crossed the Atlantic to Canada where Stephen Leacock toyed happily with it, and came to the United States where Robert Benchly and his contemporaries gave it citizenship."

The other two elements were, firstly, overstatement and, secondly, a gentle Jewish cynicism. Both these elements appear in the content of Nash's poetry, but that first element, that toying with logical and the illogical comes into play in his formal strategies.