Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nash Notes

A friend, himself a poet, is doing his first public reading in quite a long while.  Unsolicited, I offered my best advice: at least a 20 point font, and a three-ring-notebook to avoid loose pages fluttering to the floor.  That's it.  That's all I got, pretty much, so far as my advice goes: print it big, hold it steady and... go.

Of course, my friend is no novice.  Had he been, I might have been more forthcoming with the advice to the players, as it were; "do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus" and so on.  In addition, my friend is blessed with a resonant and melodious voice.  He already makes a satisfying sound, reading aloud and or in simple conversation.  (Of my own voice I will say no more than it is better than it used to be.  Long ago I learned to stop my "S" from hissing as it did when I was a kid, and I've neutralized the worst of my native accent after much study and practice.  The sound itself?  Well, as I say, it could be worse and was.)  As my friend will be reading his own work, it seems safe to assume he'll be familiar with the text.  (Which isn't to say that I haven't heard poets read aloud from their own work as though someone just handed them an unfamiliar phone-book and bid them, "READ!")  Even familiar material though, when read aloud, can catch on the teeth and twist the tongue in ways wholly astonishing.  Words are perverse sometimes.  The eye, moving just that syllable or two ahead, can send an unfortunate sound, even a single letter too soon and into the wrong word, so that "sitting shyly," for example can go horribly wrong and bring an unexpected blush to reader and audience alike.  I speak now from hard experience.  And there's the last of this man's wisdom on the subject.  Even then without any real help from me, I have every confidence in the success of my friend's reading.

(Break a larynx, brother!)

He might disagree -- or not -- but for me, it is always easier to read other people's words aloud.  When it comes to it, my public readings in our series of Light Readings, now ongoing, require no more from me than the words I choose to use, and yet, curiously enough, it's as often the introductory bits and bobs between the poems that trip me up. In part I must blame my tendency -- the evidence all before you -- to write in sentences of unnecessary complexity when expressing what are all too obviously pretty simple thoughts.  I struggle to make even the little sense I usually do here.  Now imagine the complication of my task when trying to express myself aloud!  One might think a light, conversational tone would be easier when, basically, conversing lightly enough, often as not about light verse.  Think again, my friends.

In my eagerness to convey not only my enthusiasm for the work to be read, but also a few facts about the author, in support of same, I tend to over-pack.  In practical terms, I have roughly forty-five to fifty minutes to fill.  I am always worried about the time -- not having enough, I mean.  Meanwhile, I find it difficult to leave any of the chosen author's best out, and so I usually have to shoehorn such of my narrative as I can into just the spaces in-between.

The first problem with arranging a reading of Ogden Nash is the superabundance of material.  He wrote a lot o' verse, did Ogden.  He produced more than two dozen books in his lifetime, excluding even those specifically for children.  Luckily, there is a record -- in fact, actual records, aka LPs -- of what Nash himself read most often aloud when he lectured and read, quite successfully and lucratively for decades.  He started on various radio shows, from Rudy Vallee's to Edgar Burgen's, when those were still immortal names, and later in college lecture halls, ladies clubs and all manner of venues large and small.  (I haven't been able to listen to much of Nash actually reading because, but for the few things now online, I haven't ever found his records and couldn't play them now even if I had because I don't have a record-player anymore.  Might be just as well.   No interest in trying to imitate his voice.)

Then there's Nash's affection for forced rhymes and what the critic Clifford Fadiman described as "a dazzling assortment of puns, syntactical distortions and word coinages."  Just so.  Fadiman was a fan, and campaigned to get Nash a Pulitzer Prize that never came.  In his essay, "The Age of Friction," the critic also described the poet's metre, delightfully, as "bumpy."  It's only too true.  Facing the daunting prospect of some of those last minute rhymes and the like, I begin to wonder if I'd have been better off stumbling through "Ozymandias," as I did once as a child, at one Grange Hall or another.

Meanwhile, I read and read and read some more, both by and about.  The excellent biography, by Douglas M. Parker, has been an enormous boon, but also, like the family letters edited by Ogden's daughter, entirely too much of more good things.  Can I squeeze in a whole letter, here or there?  Perhaps another anecdote or two... or three?  At this point, my notes alone could constitute an evening.

Which brings me back to the business of reading aloud more verse than prose, my own or even Ogden's.  And there's my problem.

I already have the three-ring-notebook and the 24 point font picked out.

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