There seems to be a law of deceptive appearances requiring that anyone who wrote as much and as wittily as Ogden Nash must have been deeply...
“Odgen Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse”
by Douglas M. Parker, foreword by Dana Gioia
Ivan R. Dee, 336 pp., $27.50
There seems to be a law of deceptive appearances requiring that anyone who wrote as much and as wittily as Ogden Nash must have been deeply troubled. However, according to Douglas M. Parker’s carefully researched and authoritative new biography of the master of light verse, Nash violated that law as cavalierly as he broke the laws of rhyme and prosody.
In “Odgen Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse,” Parker shows that Nash was in fact the likable man that his poems suggest. Even when his verses are slightly acerbic, he describes universal experiences that strengthen the bonds of our humanity. After the birth of a grandchild he wrote,
You have to personally superintend your grandchild from diapers to pants and from bottle to spoon,
Because you know your own child hasn’t sense enough to come in out of a
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Parker searches in vain for anyone who disliked Nash, and along the way he manages to turn up only two instances of his even raising his voice in something approaching anger. He counted among his friends Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, and many other famously prickly writers, without ever getting caught up in their feuds and animosities. The one crisis in his long (and only) marriage came early on, when his wife became concerned that he was drinking too much. After she spoke to him about it, he cut back. And that was the end of it.
The revelations here are of just how enormously popular Nash’s poetry was. By his mid-30s he was publishing scores of poems a year, sometimes as many as 70 or 80, in major magazines, then collecting them into volumes that sold in the tens of thousands. At a time when a typical worker took home $3,000 or $4,000 a year, he earned several times that with his pen. He had contracts with major magazines that guaranteed him $100 a poem — an amount that few poets can command even today.
Respected by other writers, he was considered a strong candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. No less a light than W.H. Auden agreed to write the foreword to Nash’s collected poems, although Auden died before he was able to do so. The composer Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” requested Nash as his lyricist for the musical “One Touch of Venus,” a huge success that yielded the enduring song “Speak Low.”
Nash also wrote greeting cards and commercial rhymes, although he turned down an offer to write copy for a laxative, telling a friend, “If they want anything on pellagra, leprosy, or syphilis I’m their man, but I’m afraid constipation is eliminated, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.”
Almost all of Nash’s writing is still in print, and many of his poems are so familiar that we’ve almost forgotten who gave us such immortal verses as “Candy / Is dandy, / But liquor / Is quicker.” Douglas Parker reminds us, showing Ogden Nash in three dimensions, all of them as engaging as his poetry.