Ogden Nash ( 1902-1971) was a master, perhaps the 20th Century master, of light verse whose continuing popularity shows that the term ‘light’ is not incompatible with long-lasting. He was born in Rye, New York, but as a child moved around a great deal because of his father’s import/export business. He began a degree at Harvard but left after one year due to financial reasons. He tried his hand at several different jobs, including teaching and copywriting, before joining the marketing department of the publishing house, Doubleday, where he worked as an editor and publicist for six years. He published his first children’s story, written with Joseph Alger, in 1925 but it wasn’t until 1930 that Nash began his career as a humorist with a poem called ‘Spring Comes to Murray Hill’ – initially discarded, Nash changed his mind, fished the poem out of the waste-paper basket and sent it to The New Yorker who accepted it. Thereafter success came quickly: in 1931 his debut poetry collection Hard Lines appeared and sold out seven printings in its first year. His work continued to appear in many magazines, including Harper’s, Life and Vogue but it is with The New Yorker that Nash is most closely associated. He joined the magazine’s editorial staff in 1932 and his witty, often anti-establishment contributions helped create its distinctive worldly tone. In the decades that followed Nash produced over two dozen volumes of verse, together with screenplays, lyrics, scripts for theatre and essays. In the 1950s he concentrated on writing for children whom he regarded with a whimsical but respectful eye. In 1943 he scored a big success on Broadway with his show, A Touch of Venus, co-written with S. J. Perelman and Kurt Weill. Nash was also at home in radio and the new mass medium of television, his regular appearances enhancing his popularity. An assured performer, his readings and lectures attracted large audiences and he undertook several successful tours to Europe. His settled domestic life with his wife, Frances Ride Leonard, and two daughters provided him with a great deal of material and helped to establish his persona as a mid-century American Everyman. Nash continued to be productive up until his death in 1971.

Nash was once described by Atlantic Monthly as “God’s Gift to America” and certainly the US public took him to their hearts, partly because he was so consistently funny, but also because he understood the trials, tribulations and absurdities of contemporary life. His satirical verses cover everything, from the folly of being a husband, to vacations, fatherhood, diets and bankers, thereby not only capturing but, in the estimation of the poet Archibald MacLeish, altering “the sensibility of his time”. His style is distinguished by his brilliant use of rhyme which is often taken to absurd lengths and utilises invented or misspelled words as in the following: “…if called by a panther/Don’t anther.” In an interview with the BBC Home Service in 1964 Nash revealed that he didn’t think of the rhymes in a poem first, trying instead to allow them to arise naturally out of the poem’s meaning. It’s this sense that, however ludicrous, each rhyme is actually necessary that makes his work so satisfying. One typical strategy can be seen in his Archive-featured poems which are written in couplets but alternate lines of wildly varying length. This heightens the humour as the listener is constantly surprised and delighted by the poet’s inventiveness. Of the two, ‘Allow Me, Madam’ is perhaps slightly dated (Nash has been criticised for a perceived patronising attitude towards women) though the scenario described here still rings true. ‘You and Me and P. B. Shelley’ is truly timeless – striking a characteristically democratic note, it celebrates the essential ineptness that unites what Nash fondly called the “ridiculous” human race. Nash’s sense of timing on the page was peerless and this is preserved in his laconic reading style.

Recordings used by permission of the BBC.

Poems by Ogden Nash

You and Me and P B Shelley - Ogden Nash
Allow Me Madam - Ogden Nash

Books by Ogden Nash