Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ogden Nash, anyone?

Ogden Nash (1902-1971) was an American poet who amused us for many years with his observations on such subjects as marriage (“To keep your marriage brimming / With love in the loving cup, / Whenever you're wrong, admit it, / Whenever you're right, shut up.”), progress (“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. / Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I'll never see a tree at all”), wild animals (“The panther is like a leopard, / Except it hasn't been peppered. / Should you behold a panther crouch, / Prepare to say Ouch. / Better yet, if called by a panther, / Don't anther.”), and babies (“A little talcum / Is always walcum.”). Contrary to popular opinion, however, he did not write, “Oh, a wonderful bird is the pelican! / His bill holds more than his belican. / He can take in his beak / Enough food for a week. / But I'm darned if I know how the helican.” That was written by someone else.

Over at the online magazine Slate (, one regular feature is a category called “Culturebox” where former American poet laureate Robert Pinsky holds forth weekly on poetry. In this week's column, “Why Don't Modern Poems Rhyme, Etc. (Frequently asked questions on the business of poetry),” which was published on April 17, Pinsky didn't really answer any of the questions listed. Instead, for the most part, he ignored each question and printed, without comment, poems that made the questions and questioners appear foolish and uninformed. For example, the question “Why don't American poets write about politics or current events?” was followed by Allen Ginzberg's well-known poem, “America.” And the question “Why don't modern poems rhyme?” was followed by two of Thom Gunn's poems that do. In answer to the question, “How come real poetry in our great-grandparents' time was easy to understand and great?” Pinsky responded, “Do you mean like this?” and showed an extremely difficult-to-understand poem by Emily Dickinson , “or like this?” and showed a trite, sing-songy one by Edgar A. Guest. Intentionally or not, Pinsky started a minor firestorm in the readers' comments section; readers disliked his rudeness and arrogance, and took him to task for his general lack of helpfulness.

As usual, I could not resist entering the fray and left the following comment:

Many in these comments have asked what is wrong with light poetry, and I say, “Absolutely nothing, but it's not rocket science.” One commenter asked where do we find a poet still living who can rival Ogden Nash in poetry that is light or happy or funny...Well, I'm certainly no Ogden Nash, but I did write a poem a few years back called “The Ogden Nash Travel Agency.” I thought some of you might enjoy it. It might even wash the taste of Pinsky out of your mouth. Here it is:

The Ogden Nash Travel Agency (by Robert H. Brague)

The next time you go to Cambodia,
Be sure that you see Angkor Wat;
The Khmer Rouge will all say hellodia,
But some other natives may not.
Avoid controversial discussion
In the capital city, Phnom Penh;
Prefer Chinese cooking to Russian --
You may want to go there agenh.

When sailing upon the Aegean,
Remark on the dullness of Crete.
To do otherwise is plebian;
’Twill help make your visit complete.
Don’t make the mistake in the Bosphorus
Of calling the place Dardanelles;
A slip here could mean total losphorus:
We’d be laughed at from here to Seychelles.

While backpacking through Micronesia,
You’ll have, we expect, a real ball!
The folk there go all out to plesia;
Some natives wear nothing atoll.
They’ll know that you’re not a wahine (“wah-heeny”)
If you don’t sport an all-over tan.
For modesty, take a bikini;
It’s called the American plan.

A weekend in Mesopotamia
Or one on the coast of Brazil?
Do both! Go on, splurge! We don’t blamia
For wanting to have a real thrill!
So float down the mighty Kaskaskia
Or tour Vladivostok by bus;
Just one little thing we would askia:
Please purchase your tickets from us.

So there you have it, my small contribution to the mirth and merriment of nations. Actually, my favorite poem by Ogden Nash, “The Middle,” is neither funny nor light, but achingly poignant in four short lines:

The Middle (by Ogden Nash)

When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

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