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Anthony Cuda

NASH, OGDEN (1902-1971) Ogden Nash was a humorous poet whose distinctive, playful poetry was very popular during his lifetime and is still frequently quoted. Nash's poems are known for their preposterous rhymes and for their cheerful, affectionate skewering of middle-class American life. His lines deliberately break every metrical rule, exaggerating patterns of speech. His rhymes often depend on new coinages so that "dictionary" rhymes with "fictionary" ("The Eight O'clock Peril" [1935]) and "Calcutta" echoes "butta" and "mutta" ("Arthur" [1940]). While much of the humor of Nash's poetry comes from this sort of linguistic tomfoolery, his subject matter is also funny, consisting of philosophical musings on families, flirtation, animals, money, language, and work. Nash loved Lord Byron and John Keats, and his early poems were imitations of the romantic style, but in his mature work he created a new poetic form.

Nash was born in Rye, New York. After a single year at Harvard and a few odd jobs, he began working at the Doubleday publishing company. During his time at there, Nash became acquainted with the New York literati, which resulted in a brief stint as managing editor for the New Yorker. His first book of poetry, Hard Lines, was published in 1931 and became a best-seller. Sixteen new books followed, as well as many collections of previously published poems. He married Frances Leonard in 1931, and the couple's two daughters, Linell and Isabel, appear frequently in Nash's verse. His other writings include plays, lyrics, and children's books. To his irritation, however, he won no awards.

Nash's wit may be sharp and to the point, as it is in his oft-quoted "Reflection on Ice-Breaking" (1931): "Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker." His longer poems contain ruminations on everything from matrimony to airplane engineering. In "Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man" (1934), he distinguishes between sins of commission and sins of omission, deciding that the latter kind is worse, because "about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty, / Namely, it isn't as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty." Sins of commission are "what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant" (to rhyme with "important"). In Nash's world of lovingly bickering couples and overactive children, these sins are comparatively rare. His interest is in the sins of ordinary life, such as failing to answer a letter or to renew an insurance policy. Nash's humor is based in a detailed and loving observation of everyday truths and foibles, transformed by his eccentric and charming words into poems that simultaneously satirize and praise.

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