A husband who could make a living from light verse
Ogden Nash had fun with marriage and other states of confusion, but he wrote to his wife like a lovesick swain
Pulitzer Prize poet Marianne Moore wrote to Ogden Nash about a book by him: "I thought I'd put a little mark on each page I really treasure, and they all have little marks." Four decades later I've marked page after page to treasure - for the skill of the friendly first-time biographer as well as the delights of the poet - in Douglas Parker's "Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America's Laureate of Light Verse."
Moore wrote in 1962, the year Nash lunched with journalists in Boston on a national lecture tour. The quiet master of wordplay told us he hoped to "unruffle" or perhaps "gruntle" those who were disappointed at stops he had canceled earlier because of illness. It was a moment in tune with the setbacks and resilience that come alive in this book with the aid of published and unpublished writings, family cooperation, and wide research.
Nash could make $400 for 20 lines of verse in The New Yorker. He wrote nearly a hundred verses on the spot for buyers at a book signing in Oklahoma City.
He inscribed one of his books for Mary Wilson, wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, after meeting her at a London dinner party. When her own book of poetry came out, Nash's inscription appeared in The New Statesman with his word "versifier" misprinted as "thirsty fire" (and this before computer spell checks allowed such things).
Typos happen. In this book New Statesman becomes New Statesmen, though it's correct in the index. But what would have bothered the meticulous Nash is the tin-eared substitution of "talk" for "pluck" in the last lines of "The Hunter":
This grown-up man, with pluck and luck,
Is hoping to outwit a duck.
No misprints here in Nash's best-known lines (from "Reflections on Ice-Breaking"): "Candy/ Is dandy/ But liquor/ Is quicker." Parker quotes Nash as relieved to find his first Christian Science audience (in St. Louis) "tumultuously enthusiastic, even in spite of dandy candy and reference to such non-existent things as itching and the common cold."
It's all in the context of Nash not only need- ing the money from lecturing but also taking satisfaction from audience approval. As early as 1936 he found he could make a living as a writer of light verse. That's news. But it was a constant scramble to do better than that. He contributed to magazines, recycled material for books, tried Hollywood, performed on radio and TV, wrote ads and Hallmark cards, read his words in "Carnival of the Animals" concerts (after he switched to actual animals from mischievous portraits of colleagues).
As a writer for children, Nash said he was "violently opposed to the trend in education today of trying to suit the books to the little mind instead of letting the little mind grow as it tackles the books."
In Boston, he wryly said, "I may have been writing for the 12-year-old mind all these years without knowing it."
Nash had done his share of twitting governmental, cultural, and corporate folly. But why write light verse anyway during the Depression and then World War II?
Nash snapped out of it when composer Kurt Weill asked him to write lyrics for what turned out to be a Broadway hit musical, "One Touch of Venus."
Parker makes the offstage scene a drama in itself. Weill would work all day on an Army training film for the Office of War Information, take a ferry and train home, finally go to his desk, and "promptly turn out an enchanting melody." Director Elia Kazan and writer S.J. Perelman had words not in the script.
Marlene Dietrich avoided discussion of playing the title role by seeking "refuge in her favorite instrument, the musical saw." She finally said no, concerned that "showing her legs on stage might offend the sensibilities of her nineteen-year-old daughter." Those were the days.
Mary Martin took the part, and it led to her triumph in "South Pacific."
Nash's words for the show's most enduring song, "Speak Low," came after Weill referred him to Shakespeare's line: "Speak low, if you speak love." Nash freely gave Weill credit. Not exactly a surprise when another composer, Vernon Duke, called Nash "the finest human being I was ever privileged to know."
And just in case anyone doubts that Nash's verses' edgy version of matrimony was grounded in affection, read his letters to Frances, his wife of four decades. They keep sounding like those of a love-smitten swain, while she demands he control his drinking and the children marvel at how he weathered her mood swings. He took his own advice in "A Word to Husbands":
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.
Nash can turn from kidding with and about his daughters to writing a Daddy letter to one of them tempted by a dubious relationship: "You should be intelligent enough to know that in various eras of history it has been fashionable to laugh at morals, but the fact of the matter is that Old Man Morals just keeps rolling along, and the laughers end up as driftwood on a sandbar."
Back in poet mode, Nash was "endlessly innovative in his versification and diction," to cite the foreword by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Look at collections like "Verses From 1929 On," "You Can't Get There From Here," and "Everyone But Thee and Me." The present book strings a mini-anthology through the pages of biography and publishing lore.
In today's world of war and rumors of war, one would like to add "Is There an Oculist in the House?" It's about people not seeing eye to eye, then fighting, and then becoming friends - as Americans did with the Italians, the Germans, and the Japanese. The final lines are these:
Once again there is someone we don't see eye to eye with, and maybe I couldn't be dafter,
But I keep wondering if this time we couldn't settle our differences before a war instead of after.
• Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's acting book editor.