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.

Thinking about why I love poetry

There are many things I am grateful for, many people I am grateful to. I have been blessed in many ways.

One of the people I am grateful to is my father. And one of the things I am grateful to him for is the effort he made to ensure I had a love of poetry.

You see, I don’t remember him making any effort at all. Just conversation. He would quote snatches of poetry at random, leaving me with the (completely voluntary) task of looking the quotation up in Bartlett’s or in Stevenson’s, and following it up where appropriate with delving into relevant anthologies or collections.

He was aided and abetted in this by my uncle PK, whose style was completely different, larger than life in every way. Instead of the odd couplet or verse, PK would burst forth into song, an entire poem at a time, delivered as only he could. To this day I have not heard an Indian recite Burns the way he did; in fact I have not heard anyone visibly relish the act of spouting poetry as much as he did.

It’s only now that I realise what a privileged upbringing that was, to be in a household where Shakespeare was quoted daily, not just from the plays but from what the onlie begetter actually got; where hearing Herrick or Wordsworth or Tennyson or Browning or Dickinson or Coleridge or Dylan Thomas was considered normal; where the War Poets were loudly discussed over coffee and cigarettes, where Yeats was celebrated as joyously as Wodehouse. PG, despite not being a poet, was quoted at home regularly, interspersed with Carroll and Lear. And Ogden Nash. Besides Wodehouse, the only author I remember being quoted regularly was Rex Stout.

The teachers at school therefore had something to work with, particularly the brothers Vianna, Mr Redden and Mr Engineer. They taught us well.

And all this was overlaid with occasional references to poetry embedded in the Times crosswords and in the quiz leagues that formed an exhilarating part of my youth and adolescence. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon and John Lennon had their considerable influence as well, as did Bertie da Silva, a close friend and constant companion in my university years.

All this is why, today, I can spend time reading and enjoying the poetry of someone like Nick Laird. A complex and sometimes confusing array of influences conspiring to encourage the love of poetry in me.

I was delighted to see Use of Spies in the October issue of the Believer, there’s something about that poem I love. Can’t explain why, but I do.

Here’s an MP3 of Nick reciting the poem, in case you’re interested.

By the time I retire (which is now a handful of years away) I will have been involved in building a school. Of that I am certain. And every school day, I hope to walk to that school and spend an hour or two just talking to children about my love of words and language and poetry, showing them that love in conversation and anecdote and story.

Musing about Alliteration

When I was around ten years old, my father introduced me to this poem:

It was an inflection point for me. Until then, I had always thought of poets as creative people who expressed themselves in verse when caught by the muse; as artists who penned off heaps of poems in seconds flat as and when the mood took them. I had never considered the possibility that some poets worked at structure and tone and metre and scansion. A whole new world opened up for me, suddenly and with no warning, a world I liked as much as the world of “normal” poetry. I loved it, there was something satisfying in knowing that some poetry was worked on with perspiration rather than created by inspiration, without effort.

As a result of looking for the unusual in poetry, I found out more, not just about mnemonics and acrostics in verse, but also about satire. I learnt to enjoy Joyce Kilmer’s Trees (I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree/A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast) while still being able to enjoy Ogden Nash’s variant Song of the Open Road (I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree/Indeed, unless the billboards fall/I’ll never see a tree at all). Similarly, I could enjoy the Lewis Carroll Father William as much as the Robert Southey one. And all because my father introduced me to Alliteration, or the Siege of Belgrade. [At least that was how the AA Watts poem was taught to me].

Which brings me to this BBC article that told me about Christian Bok’s Eunoia. A book of five chapters, with each chapter dedicated to the use of one vowel and no more than one vowel. Gimmicky? Artificial? Yes, but so what? It’s the kind of offbeat thing I enjoy.

Incidentally, while looking for the Siege of Belgrade piece (which I found here, my thanks to Poet’s Corner), I also came across this offbeat site, Abecedaria, which introduced me to the delights of Tamil unicode. Now I must admit it never occurred to me to Google that.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome

No, not the album by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I’m a tad too old for that.

Instead, it’s about this. A 1949 album, “an audible anthology of modern poetry read by its creators”, edited by someone called Lloyd Frankenberg. And the album is a Long Playing Microgroove Record, the first I’ve bought in twenty years.

Amazing stuff. Readings by TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ogden Nash, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Eliazabeth Bishop.

  • Never knew such an album existed.
  • Never thought I’d ever hear the voices of some of these giants of my youth.
  • Never dreamt I would be able to acquire such a collection.
  • Particularly an album with ink autographs of some of the poets.
  • And none of this would have been remotely possible except for the web and for trust and for humanity.
  • Without collaborative filtering on some other purchase I would not have known of the album’s existence. Period.
  • The seller preferred to deal locally, having been burnt by international would-be buyers before. Without my PayPal and eBay credentials, and without my Google visibility (this he only told me about later) he would not have sold it to me.
  • Without my innate belief in humanity, and without my trust experience with eBay and PayPal, I would not have paid the pretty penny it took.

But. It’s in my hands. And Barry’s happy; Paypal’s happy; eBay’s happy. And I am happy.

And I am even happier that all 8 poets had Wikipedia entries.


Couched in our indifference

….Like shells upon the shore

You can hear the ocean roar

In the Dangling Conversation

And the superficial lives

The borders of our lives……Simon and Garfunkel, The Dangling Conversation


Doesn’t that describe everything a blog shouldn’t be?

The words “You can hear the ocean roar” came zooming into my head when I read Malc’s Steve Wozniak telephone story. An absolute hoot.