Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Private Dining Room by Ogden Nash

Source of book: I own this.

Most people know Ogden Nash, if at all, from his humorous doggerels, like:

The problem with a kitten is that
Eventually it becomes a cat.

And there are more. Many more. Each of his collections contains a number of these, some of which have entered the popular consciousness, although many have no idea who was behind them.

Nash is much more than that, however. The short poems are indeed easy to remember, and often combine humor with astute observations or philosophical musings. But many of his works are longer than two or four lines, and exhibit the same wit and wordplay, but over a longer form.

Ogden Nash lived from 1902 to 1971, and died of food poisoning from tainted coleslaw. Which sounds so much like something Nash himself would have written a poem about. It seems a fitting end for him. 

Nash’s poems are humorous, even when they deal with serious topics, which is often. Not quite as biting in his satire as James Thurber, one of my favorite authors, or even as Don Marquis who was of the same era and also wrote unusual and often humorous verse. Perhaps this is because Nash could never resist a bad pun or a silly joke, no matter what the topic was.

The Private Dining Room was published in 1951, and thus sits roughly at the center of Nash’s output. He writes as a man comfortable in his art, but also as a bit of a reactionary. It is hard to believe that Nash was subversive as a young man, as there are definitely some “get off my lawn” and “young people these days” moments. But there are others in which he actually comes across as a Bernie Sanders type, suspicious of corporations and politicians and throwing shade at the establishment.

But these are mere background compared with the art of humor in the poems. Wordplay is abundant - perhaps only Thurber could rival him for verbal origami. The title poem is a great example. Here is an excerpt:

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
The taffeta was lavender,
Was lavend, lavender, lavenderest,
As the wine improved the provender.

Or in “Calling Spring VII-MMMC,” a rant about books using Roman numerals for the publication date:

Because anybody can make a mistake when dealing with MCMs and XLVs and things, even Jupiter, ruler of gods and men;
All the time he was going around with IO he pronounced it Ten.

Feel free to groan. Note also his use of rhyme with irregular and long line lengths. This is a characteristic of his longer poems. Also common is the setup of a particularly bad pun at the end of the poem. This one comes in “Change Here For Wichita Falls or Has Anyone Seen My Wanderlust?” The poem is a gripe about the inconvenience of travel and the way amenities rarely live up to the ad copy.

I am told that the comforts in modern hotels are stunning;
My experiences is that a hotel is a place with the elevator out of order where you can only wash one hand at a time because there is no stopper for the drain and you have to keep squeezing the handles of the faucet to keep the water running.
That is the hard way to get an ablution;
It reminds me of the visitor to the Chinese zoo who asked what language the aquatic carnivora talked, Pidgin English? And the keeper replied, No, Otter Confucian.

Very typical of Nash’s combination of whining about stuff while making it funny. Another one that I really liked actually fits one of my own complaints: the tendency to try to do too much with salad dressing - and make it too sweet. (Probably you don’t, unless you own a restaurant, in which case, well, maybe.)

The Chef Has Imagination
It’s Too Hard To Do It Easy

Hark to a lettuce lover.
I consider lettuce a blessing.
And what do I want on my lettuce?
Simply a simple dressing.

But in dining car and hostel
I grow apoplectic and dropsical;
Is this dressing upon my lettuce,
Or is it a melting popsicle?

A dressing is not the meal, dears,
It requires nor cream nor egg,
Nor butter nor maple sugar,
And neither the nut nor the meg.

A dressing is not a compote,
A dressing is not a custard;
It consists of pepper and salt,
Vinegar, oil, and mustard.

It is not paprika and pickles,
Let us leave those to the Teutons;
It is not a pinkish puddle
Of grenadine and Fig Newtons.

Must I journey to France for dressing?
It isn’t a baffling problem;
Just omit the molasses and yoghurt,
The wheat germ, and the Pablum.

It’s oil and vinegar, dears,
No need to tiddle and toil;
Just salt and pepper and mustard,
And vinegar, and oil.

For Brillat-Savarin, then, and Hoyle,
Stick, friends, to vinegar and oil!
Yachtsman, jettison boom and spinnaker,
Bring me oil and bring me vinegar!
Play the music of Haydn or Honegger,
But lace it with honest oil and vinegar!
Choir in church or mosque or synagogue,
Sing, please, in praise of oil and vinegogue.
I’m not an expert, just a beginneger,
But I place my trust in oil and vinegar.
May they perish, as Remus was perished by Romulus,
Who monkey with this, the most sacred of formulas.

Who but Nash would rhyme “dropsical” with “popsicle,” or “Teutons” and “Fig Newtons”? And, as a bonus, you have the basic recipe for a proper vinaigrette right there in the poem. (On a related note, I consider it one of my successes as a parent that my older kids can whip up a proper dressing with those ingredients.)

Another fine rant with which I firmly identify is “Everybody Wants To Get Into The Baedeker.” (Referring, of course, to the famous travel guide book.)

Most travelers eavesdrop
As unintentionally as autumn leaves drop,
Which brings up a question that confronts every conscientious traveler:
Should he, or should he not, of overheard misinformation be an unraveler?
The dear little old lady in front of you asks, What river is that, is it the Swanee or the Savannah?
And somebody who has no idea firmly says, It’s the Potomac. It happens to be the Susquehanna.
The visiting Englishman asks, What is that mountain and somebody yells, Pike’s Peak! into his ear.
It isn’t. It’s Mt. Rainier.
Can one oneself of responsibility disembarrass
When one hears an eager sight-seer being informed that Greenwich Village is in Connecticut?
It is my experience that people who volunteer information are people who don’t know the Eiffel Tower from the Tower of Pisa,
Or Desdemona from the Mona Lisa.
I am convinced that they have learned their geography through drawing mustaches on girls on travel posters,
And have done their own traveling exclusively on roller coasters.
What is that, madam? How do you get from 42nd Street and Broadway to Times Square?
Sorry, madam, but it’s impossible to get from here to there.   

Nash also pokes fun at himself in many of the poems. I won’t quote “Father-in-law Of The Groom” as it is pretty long, but he jokes that he has had only daughters and even the pets have been female, so he is so thrilled to see his daughters marry and give him sons-in-law that he keeps monopolizing them - to the annoyance of his daughters.

He also laughs at his inability to remember which of his friends use which spellings of their names (such as Stewart and Stuart) - to the point that he can’t write them letters because of his fear of making a mistake. (As an attorney, I sympathize greatly with this one. Thank goodness for word processors and “find and replace.”)

I’ll also mention “Peekaboo, I Almost See You,” about his failing eyesight combined with his inability to find the right pair of glasses when he needs them.

Middle-aged life is merry, and I love to lead it,
But there comes a day when your eyes are all right but your arm isn’t long enough to hold the telephone book where you can read it,
And your friends get jocular, so you go to the oculist,
And of all your friends he is the joculist,
So over his facetiousness let us skim,
Only noting that he has been waiting for you ever since you said Good Evening to his grandfather clock under the impression it was him,
And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP, and you say Well, why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP? and he says one set of glasses won’t do.
You need two,
One for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Keats’s Endymion with,
And the other for walking around without saying Hello to strange wymion with.
So you spend your time taking off your seeing glasses to put on your reading glasses, and then remembering that your reading glasses are upstairs or in the car,
And then you can’t find your seeing glasses again because without them you can’t see where they are.
Enough of such mishaps, they would try the patience of an ox.
I prefer to forget both pairs of glasses and pass my declining years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

I should quote a couple of the shorter doggerel poems too. They are sprinkled throughout the collection, as a way to break up the longer works.

The Platypus

I like the duck-billed platypus
Because it is anomalous.
I like the way it raises its family,
Partly birdly, partly mammaly.
I like its independent attitude.
Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.

The Lepidopterist

The lepidopterist with happy cries
Devotes his days to hunting butterflies.
The leopard, through some feline mental twist,
Would rather hunt a lepidopterist.
That’s why I have never adopted lepidoptery;
I do not wish to live in jeopardoptery.

Nash was also an avid baseball fan. (So it is fitting that I am writing this after watching game 4 of the World Series.) One of the more bizarre poems in the collection is entitled, enigmatically, “Hand Me Down My Old School Sliding Pads or There’s A Hint Of Strawberry Leaves In The Air.” In it, he describes reading the romance novels of Mrs. Humphry Ward in a summer cottage, while listening to baseball on the radio. It goes downhill from there.

A glimpse of ducal silhouettes,
A flash of electronic science,
As kind hearts clash with coronets -
Also the Cardinals with the Giants.

The heroine’s birth is most unusual -
It’s three and two on Enos Slaughter.
What would she think of Stanley Musial,
And he of Lady Rose’s Daughter?

The code of stout King Edward’s reign
Conceals outstanding hanky-panky,
Suggesting time and time again
The hidden ball of Eddie Stanky.

I do have to mention one more really terrible pun (and it was hard to limit myself.) I’ll quote the entire poem because the setup is needed. And also, the whole thing is pretty darn funny. It comes from a set of four poems collected as “Fables Bulfinch Forgot.” This is “Chloe And The Roué”

When Lord Byron wrote so glowingly of the isles of Greece
It was not mere coincidence or caprice.
Knowing his character and his environment,
I think we can guess what Byron meant.
Nobody than Lord Byron could have been sorrier
About the death of a heroic Grecian warrior,
But nobody after so short a period
Could find consolation in the company of a nymph or a Nereid,
So all praise to the nymphs of the isles of Greece.
May their tribe increase.
But their tribe won’t increase if they all behave like a nymph named Chloe,
Who lived on the southernmost isle of Greece where it is swampy, not snowy.
Chloe caught the attention of Zeus,
And he slipped away from the banquet hall mumbling some ridiculous excuse,
And when Hera called after him to come back, she knew what it meant when he got all skittish and scampery,
He said he’d be back for breakfast, he just had to see a mortal about a lamprey,
And he didn’t want to tell a like, so he disguised himself as a lamprey fisherman but he couldn’t find his lamprey-fishing clothes,
So aside from his lamprey-spear he was as naked as a narcissus or a rose,
And he tracked Chloe through the swamp and offered her his heart and a golden chariot, a dandy four wheeler,
But she refused because she was a Southern nymph, a Hellenic Dixiecrat, and she had been taught never to trust a nude eeler.

I’ve read this through several times, and it never ceases to amaze me how he brings together mythology, history, and politics...all just to...wait for it... make an astoundingly awful pun. It’s so terrible it is amazing. I guess either you hate it, or like, me, an inveterate punster myself, find it hilarious. I mean, this is why I learn all kinds of weird and useless things, right? So I can understand an intricately crafted pun that requires this sort of knowledge.

I’ll end with a more serious poem. (Well, at least for Nash.) It is a surprisingly thoughtful musing on the journey that some of us make, from our idealistic youth, when we were sure we knew everything, to a realization that the world is more complicated and full of shades of grey than we knew. (Not everyone makes this transition - and they tend to become self-righteous fundamentalists of whatever stripe.) Likewise, we soften a bit toward ourselves, becoming less perfectionistic, and more able to roll with things. And, in Nash’s case, use a pun in the title, while exaggerating both the before and after.

How To Get Along With Yourself
I Recommend Softening Of The Oughteries

When I was young I always knew
The meretricious from the true.
I was alert to call a halt
On other people’s every fault.
My creed left no more chance for doubt
Than station doors marked IN and OUT.
A prophet with righteousness elated,
Dogmatic and opinionated,
Once self-convinced, I would not budge;
I was indeed a hanging judge.
I admitted, in either joy or sorrow,
No yesterday and no tomorrow.
My summary of life was reckoned
By what went on that very second.
I scoffed when kindly uncles and aunts
Said age would teach me tolerance,
For tolerance implies a doubt
That IN is IN and OUT is OUT.
But now that I am forty-nine
I’m tolerant, and like it fine.
Since the faults of others I condone,
I can be tolerant of my own.
I realize the sky won’t fall
If I don’t pay my bills at all.
The King of Sweden it will not irk
To hear that I neglect my work,
And tombfuls of historic dead
Care not how late I lie abed.
Oh, tolerance is the state of grace
Where everything falls into place,
So now I tolerantly think
I could tolerate a little drink.

A bit of gentle humor and hyperbole to illustrate the changes that come, and some deeper truths hidden below the outer layer of absurdity.

Not everyone gets Ogden Nash. But I find him rather delightful, particularly as a change from the serious stuff I read regularly, and the drama of the present. It’s a reminder that there have always been those able to find the humor even in the stew of politics and the drama of history. And that none of us can do everything right, so we might as well keep a little perspective:

One man's remorse is another man's reminiscence.

One man's remorse is another man's reminiscence.
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  1. Oooh, thanks for these brilliantly witty samples! I suppose you have at least heard his equally brilliant verses to Saint Saëns' Carnival of the Animals; I grew up with the original recording of those verses spoken by Noël Coward, with Andre Kostelanetz and "his Orchestra" (probably members of the New York Philharmonic), and I can still recite them all.

    One of my favorites by Nash is The Seagull:
    Hark to the whimper of the sea-gull!
    He weeps because he's not an ea-gull.
    Suppose you were, you silly sea-gull;
    Could you explain it to your she-gull?

    1. I should have mentioned the Saint Saens verses. They are quite brilliant (as is the music.)

  2. Well, I'm going to have to do more reading of Ogden Nash. I guess I have a taste for this type of humor, and actually it inspires me. My dad taught us to appreciate a good pun and also raised us on the writings of Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye, the humorist. One of our family favorites from Nye was when he wrote about Boston and said, "I met a man from the hub who spoke to a fellow until he was tired." ("The Hub" being the center of Boston for the uninitiated.) :-)

    The poem about the "nude eeler" is rich. How to people think of things like that? I would like to know the thought process behind that.

    I have to disagree about salad dressing, though. I think it can be even simpler and still be excellent. One of my favorites these days is this refreshing and simple mixture - olive oil, *fresh* lemon juice, salt and a bit of fresh ground pepper. There's nothing like a little fresh lemon to delight the taste buds and fresh herbs can be mixed in with the lettuce to give any other flavor wanted. The older I get the more I appreciate simple uncomplicated recipes. I don't know if it's because they really do taste better or if I'm just less industrious than I was in my twenties. I'll leave that to speculation.

    A piece of unimportant and slightly related information about myself: I am actually a published poet in India. Some years back one of my poems ("Whining and Dining") was published in an English textbook over there. A teacher looked me up on-line and wrote to me or never would have known since the publishers never sought my consent. (I have since stated that is necessary before printing.) My dad astutely noted that I may be a famous poet in India with so many million English students, while still being virtually unknown in my own country. (Yes, there is a humorous poem asking to be written about that, but I'll let it pass for now.) It is an odd sensation to think that I might someday meet an Indian who remembers my name and connects me with that poem. (In case you're curious what sort of madness I am capable of - the link is: Please do not publish it in an English textbook in China. So much fame might go to my head. Thank you.)

    1. Ah yes, the lemon juice and olive oil dressing. Classic Greek dressing, basically. As I told my kids, you need an acid and oil, and it's a dressing. Perhaps not a vinaigrette, but a dressing.

      I'll have to look up your poem. The lack of copyright permission is such a throwback. Composers like Haydn had to just assume that they wouldn't get paid for their work outside their own country...

    2. Well, as regarding the copyright permission, I did originally give permission to use it as long as it wasn't altered, but I never expected anyone to use it for an English text book. I don't have that high of an opinion of my own work I guess. :-)