Friday, August 9, 2013
When I was an ignorant child, and much exercised by my embarrassment of that fact, I had a peasant's distrust of unfamiliar words; the first person to have said the word "beautiful", I suspected, must have meant to keep the likes of me from ever being able to spell the damned thing. Those triple vowels were clearly a trick, or a test. Nobody I knew had ever needed so many in just the one syllable. Besides, most people I knew pronounced the word to rhyme with "rueful." I was taught spelling as consisting of rules, and a plain matter of right and wrong, which was neither very helpful nor as it turns out entirely accurate. Words were either "hard" or "easy" -- and not forgetting "dirty" -- and for some of us, even the easy ones might conceal surprising difficulties. (In my childhood, dyslexia was as yet largely unknown in our little corner of the backwards. My older brother happened on an enlightened -- and temporary-- administrator his senior year in high school, quite by chance, and so vaunted at the very last from the sulky back row onto the Honor Roll. The lesson, however was sadly lost thereafter and my sister matriculated undiagnosed and back again among the middling majority as just "bad spellers." By the time my turn came, I'd learned to keep a dictionary as other boys kept a comb; always with me.) What all those elementary spelling and vocabulary exercises actually taught us was to be wary of foreigners, new coinage and invention, just as "Reading" taught us to distrust verse; where a whole other set of tricky rules seemed only to complicate matters. (Later, as you might imagine, Shakespeare came as serious shock to us all.)
So it would seem to have always been, in the Back of Beyond. My own dear mother would one day confess that she's never much cared for Dr. Seuss because he would insist on naming things that didn't exist and making up words of equally suspicious origin, presumably just to trip up the tired working parent, trying to read precocious and or fractious little boys to sleep. Mum never was much for nonsense.
May not be much remembered now, but it was Ogden Nash who contributed that truism to the zeitgeist. It was a sentiment, all unknowing, that my father was to repeat throughout my childhood. Had no idea idea for the longest time what the old man was on about. Didn't actually drink in my father's house. Clearly though, the man who came up with that concise little number was a clever fellow, and had my Dad know the origin of it, he would have been the first man to say so -- though Dad would probably have called him "one funny sonofabitch."
My father, to my sure knowledge, never read him, or any poetry come to that, light or dark. Had he, I'm now convinced, he'd have liked him fine. Would simply have never occurred to him to do so. Likewise my husband, who's considerably older than me and who likes to say, when we've discussed his own childhood, that he would never have had time for such nonsense, as he was "too busy struggling to survive." There's a wink in there that there wouldn't be, had my parents used the phrase. I do understand.
I never liked Ogden Nash. This wouldn't be news, had I not decided to celebrate the man's birthday with a public reading, come August 20th, as part of our Light Readings Series at the bookstore where I work.
In addition to the forced rhymes, willful misspelling, the motorized metre -- always revving and running, then coasting -- and all the other, endless and playful invention I'd learned to distrust in "modern" poetry as a kid, by the time I was reading poetry for myself, the first time through, it would never have occurred to me to waste my time with anything so obviously not serious as the likes of Ogden Nash. (That there is nothing else quite like Ogden Nash was a lesson for much later in my life.) Not for me, the budding autodidact, what I doubtless saw as just so much stuff and nonsense. Better I ponder "Prufrock" and waste my time in "The Wasteland." Even Lewis Carroll was at least English, and with respectable connections to... Oxford, was it? Cambridge? Anyway, he was a mathematician.
Ogden Nash was the poet of suburban commuter-train, of the polished shoe, the short-brimmed hat and the checkered sports-coat, the kind of writer read aloud over highballs to crack the ribs and split the sides of golfers.
It was only when I'd stumbled well into middle-age myself, and begun to shed some of the self-seriousness that had served it's purpose and seen me out of the sticks and through to a relatively contented life; married into the middle-class, settled into bookselling, did I have the sense to look again at light verse and it's American master, Ogden Nash.
And oh, the fun I'd missed.
The very thing that I'd resented as a kid, and ignored in my youth, came now like a gift.
The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he's not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I'll stare at something less prepoceros.
Among the anthropophagi
People's friends are people's sarcophagi.
And then there's the uneven line that would have left me hot with impatience once, as the "rules" were so blatantly being flouted, as in:
EVERYBODY TELLS ME EVERYTHING
I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
Just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.
It's only been if fairly recent days, reading Nash as it were end to end, that I've come appreciate not only the technical cleverness in all this, but the wry esprit de joie. (Can one serve that with wry, do you think?)
You see what happens, reading Nash? And now I find, from time to time, I think in rhyme, or near it.
Perhaps one need be middle-aged to read the stuff -- or no age at all, as Nash wrote wonderfully for little people as well. Anyway, to read him as I've been doing in preparation to read him aloud, I can appreciate why poets as unlike as Archibald MacLeish and Wystan Auden, William Rose Benet and Elizabeth Bishop all and everyone were fans. Nash was not the the baggy-pants versifier and comedian I'd imagined him to be. Immediately recognizable, he's nevertheless endlessly inventive, individual, unique. No one, before or since has had so much sheer fun with form and English. He's also unexpectedly erudite -- when was the last time an American poet made a Latin pun? In the end though, having satisfied my cultural insecurities that Nash is indeed well worth the candle, I can just enjoy one of the more delightful characters in our Literature; a great essayist in verse.
Now I just need to practice pronouncing "anthropophagi," 'cause I'm pretty sure that spelling can't be right, and I'm not sure I'm saying it right either. Damn you, Mr. Nash.
(Come by the bookstore the evening of the 20th and you'll have the nail-biting pleasure of watching me try to dance on this slack-wire.)