by John M. Floyd
It's funny how we get started reading new authors. For me it happens sometimes by chance but usually as the result of a recommendation by fellow readers or writers. And, more and more, I've begun seeking out books and stories written by my fellow SleuthSayers. However it comes to pass, it's always fun to discover new writers.
Cider House Rules author John Irving says, in his memoir My Movie Business, that one summer when he was a little boy at the beach, someone pointed to a pale, ungainly man in a yellow bathing suit and said it was Ogden Nash, the writer. "To this day, I don't know that it was," Irving continues, "but I shall carry the image of that funny-looking man, 'the writer,' to my grave," and adds that he immediately took up reading Nash's humorous verse. I'm sure that he, like me and millions of other fans, is glad he did.
I can recall seeing only a few photos of Mr. Nash, and I think he looked like a pretty regular guy, maybe a bit scholarly. For some reason I tend to confuse him with Bennett Cerf, whose face I do remember well, from the panel of What's My Line?--but I'm more familiar with Nash's work. I even have a volume of his collected poetry on the bookshelf about ten feet from where I'm sitting right now. Occasionally I open it to a random page and read a few lines, and whenever I do I seem to feel a little better for the rest of the day.
If you don't already know Ogden Nash, here's some quick background. America's most accomplished writer of light verse, Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902 but moved to Baltimore in his thirties and lived there until his death in 1971. He was at different times a teacher, a playwright, a lyricist, and an editor at Doubleday, but above all he was a poet, publishing more than 500 poems in venues from The New Yorker to The Saturday Evening Post.
A few interesting pieces of trivia: he was descended from the brother of General Francis Nash, who gave his name to Nashville, Tennessee; his family lived briefly in a carriage house owned by Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts; and his death was the result of an infection from, of all things, improperly prepared coleslaw.
Making a word perfect
I recall that my friend David Dean once mentioned in a SleuthSayers column the fact that some words sound good even though they might not be real words. I agree, and I've used them in my own fiction--usually as verbs--when someone THUNKs his head on the sidewalk, or a helicopter whopwhopwhopwhops its way overhead, or a boomerang whickers through the air. (Yes, I know that's called onomatopoeia, but unless they're Hawaiian I'm not fond of words that have four vowels in a row. I'd rather just say it's "using words that sound like the sounds they make.")
Ogden Nash loved to create nonexistent words, especially in rhyme, and instead of being distracting because of their difference, they were wonderfully appropriate. Of babies, he once wrote in a poem, "A bit of talcum is always walcum," and on the subject of wasps, "He throws open his nest with prodigality, but I distrust his waspitality." My favorite is probably "If called by a panther, don't anther."
Trying to imitate the master
While it probably wouldn't be ethical to use examples of Nash's "invented-or-otherwise-zany-word" poems in their entirety here, I have no such qualms about showing you some of my own. The first of the following ditties was published in Futures, the second in Rhyme Time, and the third in a magazine called--believe it or not--Volcano Quarterly. The last two have never even been submitted (and probably for good reason).
When chased by a crazed wildebeest,
I preferred not to just kildebeest;
So I found a snapshotta
My wife's cousin Lotta,
Which immediately stildebeest.
SOUTH OF SAUDI
If the country of Yemen
Were governed by Britain,
Their gas would be petrol,
Their dresses tight-fittin'.
And sports fans could watch,
Playing Yemeni cricket.
An inactive volcano named Dora
Was implanted with buildings and flora;
And some say since the mayor
Has his offices there,
It puts out more hot air than befora.
DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH
Your investments crashed? Your money's gone?
It isn't really gone--it just
Belongs to someone ealous.
THE PAIN IN SPAIN
She ran with the bulls at Pamplona;
One stuck her, another steptona.
This kind of goofy wordplay is a pleasure to write, and I can't help thinking that Mr. Nash--yellow bathing suit or not--was probably a happy and delightful person in real life. I wish I'd known him.
I've heard he is possibly best remembered for the expression "candy is dandy but liquor is quicker."
Neither one is as much fun as his light verse.