Of strange women and grandfather clocks

I do strange things sometimes. I guess you know that by now. This evening, for example. My eldest daughter’s out at a church meeting; my son’s listening to the music I listened to when I was his age; my youngest is asleep, having done her homework; and my wife’s settled down to watch something she recorded, something I wasn’t particularly interested in. It happens sometimes; we’ve been married over 24 years, long enough to be able to enjoy companionable silences. It’s a good feeling.

I felt whimsical, wanting to do something different, something that I hadn’t done for a while. So, for the last half an hour or so, I’ve been reading the poems of Ogden Nash.

He’s one of my favourite poets, I have everything he’s ever written, I even have a book signed by him. There I was, quietly reading, and I realised that a reasonable proportion of my readers may not have had the sheer joy of being exposed to Ogden Nashery. Which brings me to how I got started with Mr Nash.

I must have been twelve or so. I was visiting some of my neighbours, the Merchants; I think his initials were TB; they lived three floors down from me, in flat 4, opposite what was to become the Kapoors’ flat. The Merchants had the most wonderful collection of Scarlet Pimpernel and Saint and E Phillips Oppenheim books, (in hardback, with the original jackets, mostly in yellow, I think they were published by Hodder), and a pretty good set of early PG Wodehouses as well. TB, a delightfully friendly man, had invited me to come over and borrow whatever I wanted, he’d seen me wandering around looking somewhat bored. So I did, and when let into his Aladdin’s cave, couldn’t help but scan all the titles of all the books they had, a habit I have had to really work on. And stuck there, in the middle of everything else, was this book. The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery. Which was really a book called The Face is Familiar, but lovingly rebound by hand.

Now I’d been brought up in a house with many books, brought up on a rich diet of reading. I’d read enough by then to understand and appreciate not just good writing, but more specifically writers who created words as they went along, neologists without borders. Shakespeare was probably the most prolific I’d come across by then in that respect. I’d done my time with Carroll and Lear and Wodehouse as well, so I was aware of what could be done in comic poetry.

But nothing, nothing really prepared me for what was to come from Nash. He had no rules, he thought it was nawmill to make normal rhyme with sawmill. He had that glint in his eye, the spark that let him describe a lift as “ris[ing] with groans and sighs, like a duchess for the waltz“. Word endings were but grist to his mill, tortured and mutated beyond belief, as sniffle was cheerfully paired with chiffle, and snuffle was awfully paired with uffle.

Only Nash could make SHRDLU QWERTYOP into a question, and then answer it with Why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP?

I have many favourite Nash poems, both short and long. Here are a few short ones:

Looking at those poems, you may get the impression that Nash was always comical, always on the threshold of genius and madness. That’s not really true. I remember being very moved by this poem when I was about 15:

My thanks to the copyright-holders, Linell Nash Smith and Isabel Nash Eberstadt. Their ancestor gave me untold uncountable hours of pleasure, and continues to do so. In a world where so much is grey and normal and uniform, Ogden Nash stood out. Thank you Ogden Nash.

By the way, there is an excellent Nash blog. It is only fitting that it should be called Blogden Nash.

So go on, make someone’s day. Introduce them to Ogden Nash. And pardon me while I pass my declining years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

5 thoughts on “Of strange women and grandfather clocks”

  1. I wish I could remember how I was introduced to Ogden Nash. I think it was a teacher in elementary school who read us The Fly and a few others. I was fairly young, but I thought The Fly was hilarious. Now you’ve inspired me to go back and read more.

  2. JP,

    You touched my funny bone! In my mind, Ogden Nash sits alone in his throne somewhere up there, watching, observing curiously at his fellow people and writing incisive, cutting lines only he can dream up.

    I can’t remember how I first read Ogden Nash, but it wasn’t something very different from your story. While browsing at my Uncle’s collection in Pune in my early teens, I stumbled across this oddly titled book (can’t recall!) which was just riveting. Since then, I sought for, and bought, Nash’s collections, especially older ones.

    One of my favorite poems is “Song To Be Sung By The Father of Infant Female Children”.
    (Wordsworth fans will be delighted/amused at how it starts.)

    My heart leaps up when I behold
    A rainbow in the sky;
    Contrariwise, my blood runs cold
    When little boys go by.
    For little boys as little boys,
    No special hate I carry,
    But now and then they grow to men,
    And when they do, they marry.
    No matter how they tarry,
    Eventually they marry.
    And, swine among the pearls,
    They marry little girls.

    Oh, somewhere, somewhere, an infant plays,
    With parents who feed and clothe him.
    Their lips are sticky with pride and praise,
    But I have begun to loathe him.
    Yes, I loathe with loathing shameless
    This child who to me is nameless.
    This bachelor child in his carriage
    Gives never a thought to marriage,
    But a person can hardly say knife
    Before he will hunt him a wife.

    I never see an infant (male),
    A-sleeping in the sun,
    Without I turn a trifle pale
    And think is he the one?
    Oh, first he’ll want to crop his curls,
    And then he’ll want a pony,
    And then he’ll think of pretty girls,
    And holy matrimony.
    A cat without a mouse
    Is he without a spouse.

    Oh, somewhere he bubbles bubbles of milk,
    And quietly sucks his thumbs.
    His cheeks are roses painted on silk,
    And his teeth are tucked in his gums.
    But alas the teeth will begin to grow,
    And the bubbles will cease to bubble;
    Given a score of years or so,
    The roses will turn to stubble.
    He’ll sell a bond, or he’ll write a book,
    And his eyes will get that acquisitive look,
    And raging and ravenous for the kill,
    He’ll boldly ask for the hand of Jill.
    This infant whose middle
    Is diapered still
    Will want to marry My daughter Jill.

    Oh sweet be his slumber and moist his middle!
    My dreams, I fear, are infanticiddle.
    A fig for embryo Lohengrins!
    I’ll open all his safety pins,
    I’ll pepper his powder, and salt his bottle,
    And give him readings from Aristotle.
    Sand for his spinach I’ll gladly bring,
    And Tabasco sauce for his teething ring.
    Then perhaps he’ll struggle through fire and water
    To marry somebody else’s daughter.

    (C) Ogden Nash’s estate

  3. Thanks for reminding us of his genius.

    I’m also sometimes Confused and always of Calcutta, but my blog even owes its origin to Ogden Nash (and Tom Paine):

    “Why did the Lord give us this agility
    If not to evade responsibility?”

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