Saturday, January 28, 2006

Ogden Nash - The Pun-dit

If there is a writer
Who gives you pleasure
With lots of wit, loads of fun
Tons of nonsense, only pun
Just jest, it’s Ogden, none better

It is one thing growing up with Dr. Suess, but quite another to be an Ogden buff. It is all about the use and abuse of language – all to the same effect. I remember a crass Hindi joke:

Two people were traveling in a train and one asks the other – “What do you do?” The answer is “I’m a poet, what about you?” “Well, I am deaf.”

No, we need not say that for dear Ogden. This is what Anthony Burgess says in his introduction to Candy is Dandy (written in the form of a long poem of the Ogden tradition)

“In the works of literary reference, where the serious have traditionally dominated,
You will not find Ogden Nash so much as nominated,
And he is virtually unknown to the aficionados of Harold or Denise Rob(b)ins:
He has not, in fact, been wound on to either of the two opposed bobbins.”

It is always easy to write about a poet like Ogden because whatever you do, there is no way that you will not quote a poem or two and that would be sufficient to keep the reader happy and entertained and the write up assumes life. Is Ogden Nash addictive? You bet he is and therefore Burgess says:

“In a dictionary the term Ogden Nashish
Could only apply to Ogden Nash, who is addictive as hashish”

He is such a coat-able poet that he is “tailor made” for each situation. For every Indian politician there is a Gandhi to quote from, for every Kannada poet there is an “Adiga for all occasions”, and of course for every problem – adult or child, dental or mental, domesticated or wildlife, there is a Nash-ty solution.

Of course, most of the humour of Nash comes from the fact that he writes in English. Hello, is that a great discovery?? No, not exactly, but when we look at it from the Indian context it is. Let me tell you how [like the new HuTch ad]. Most Indian languages are not phonetic and therefore the scope for pun is somewhat limited. English is one language that gives you immense scope for using the sheer variety of spelling a word that sounds the same in several different ways. Hmm.. am aye not wright? If you do not trust me, trust Nash.

One of his famous books is titled Versus which contains verses. So, if you ask me do I write poetry, my most probably answer would be “Verse is yet to come.” That Indian languages are not phonetic could be a reason why our humor is not subtle but mostly crass.. we need to make our humor happen – act it out rather than indicate it?? Or the best humorists in Indian languages go back to English to create humor. Kailasam who was the best known Kannada humorists has a great play – Bandvalavillada Badayi in which while talking about one of the characters he suddenly comes out with what he calls the “Eclipse of the Earthu” (remember, we are Bengaluru, not Bangalore). This is described as the “Shadow of my son(nu) on this earth(u)”. YNK the editor of Kannada Prabha and a great Ogden Nash fan used to write a column and he had titled it Wonder Kannu (meaning squint eyes in Kannada, but the word Wonder was still carried in English – otherwise the sting would have been lost).

But Ogden is not all about pun. He also creates new words for effect:

The Panther

The Panther is like a Leopard
Except that it hasn't been peppered
Should you behold a panther crouch
Prepare to say ouch
Better yet, if called by a panther
Don't anther

(The Face is Familiar, 1940)

Where does Anther creep in a Panther? [Anther: noun In flowering plants, the organ at the tip of the stamen that contains and releases pollen (The New Penguin English Dictionary)] Well, a serious critic might go into the circumstances under which Ogden, having seen a Panther wrote this out of panic. Or could we go into the details of whether the Panther was dead or alive. Was it co-incidental that Ogden used a word that had another meaning or was it pre-meditated? We get sufficient answer from the next poem quoted below:

Pediatric Reflections

Many an infant that screams like a calliope
Could be soothed by a little attention to its diope

Of course, one cannot find a great meaning for diope in the dictionary. No, not even in the Penguin dictionary. Ogden poems come in all shapes, sizes, styles and forms – small ones, limmicks, limericks, sonnet sized poems and longer ones. There are poems where the title is longer than the text itself. Well what is a limmick? Limmick is a new type of gimmick which devours the “r” in the limerick and gives us only four lines. Examples of both are here:


There was an old man in the trunk
Who inquired of his wife, "Am I drunk?"
She replied with regret
"I'm afraid so, my pet"
And he answered, "It's just as I thunk."
(Limerick from The Primrose Path, 1935)

First Limmick

An old person of Troy
Is so prudish and coy
That it doesn't know yet
If it's a girl or a boy

(Versus, 1949)

On the other hand, in the Indian context, a four liner is an accepted form, while a five liner – limerick does not seem to be all prevalent. A four liner is called a “Chaupadi” in Kannada. YNK had therefore asked – “If we have a five liner, would we call it Draupadi?”

As I said earlier, some of the poems are smaller than the title. Take this for instance:

Reflection on a wicked world

Is Obscurity

(Hard Lines, 1931)

I have in the past tried to translate Ogden into Kannada, but his poetry is a classic example of what they usually say "Poetry is what is lost in translation". I therefore have had to resort to re-creating some of the poems into the local context. For instance how would you deal with a poem like this:

Genealogical Reflection

No McTavish
Was ever lavish

(Hard Lines, 1931)

To get the genetics of Scots I had to resort to the Indian equivalent of a Baniya or Komati Shetty – the trader class known to only tighten their purse strings.

Some of my Ogden favourites (given the context in which I “work”):

More about people

When people aren’t asking questions
They’re making suggestions
And when they’re not doing one of those
They’re either looking over your shoulder or stepping on your toes
And then as if that weren’t enough to annoy you
They employ you.
Anybody at Leisure
Incurs everybody’s displeasure.
It seems to be very irking
To people at work to see other people not working.
So they tell you that work is wonderful medicine.
Just look at Firestone and Ford and Edison.
And they lecture you till they’re out of breath or something
And then if you don’t succumb they starve you to death or something.
All of which results in a nasty quirk:
That if you don’t want to work you have to work to earn enough money so that you won’t have to work.

(Hard Lines, 1931)

And this one is for somebody who is environmentally conscious -

Song of the Open Road

I think I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all

(Happy Days, 1933)

Lankesh in his editor’s foreword for an acclaimed Kannada anthology had said that “a good poem is one that appears contemporary and represents eternity, thereby rendering the time of writing irrelevant”. What Ogden wrote in 1933 looks even more contemporary with all the bill boards now!!

Amongst my various students was also Aruvind Lama and this Ogden Nash poem is possibly for him:

The Lama

The one-l lama
He’s a priest
The two-l llama
He’s a beast
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn’t any
Three-l lllama
(the author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration known as the three-alarmer. Pooh.)

Two-tail Pieces

The First

This happened to me twice and I cannot resist putting this down as I am a Nash-a-nalist. I just dropped in at a Dentist’s when I was in Anand. (Why in the world would they give a town such a name that meant happiness, while most of the time I was in pain). I thought I would just get my teeth checked up and get some shine on to it. But the Dentist had learnt the basics of finance before dentistry. So he polished my pockets before the teeth, smiled and said “Just get the medical re-imbursement forms when you come next, I will sign them”. I suddenly realized why it was costing a bomb to brush up my teeth. However my administrative officer told me that “we do not cover your teeth – just grin and bear”. Bear I had to, but to grin I needed dear old Ogden:

Some pains are physical
Some are mental
That which is both is dental

I thought it is always good to have a good doc in good humour. He looked up at me and stuck his hand out. This is the usual Gujarati style when you tell a joke – you need to clap it and I did. But I was mistaken, the doctor was not a Gujarati – he was a McTavish from Karnataka. He would withdraw the hand only after I laid my fee on it.

Well, Ogden did have something to say about this as well (and the poem is titled Terrible People):

Certainly there are lots of things in life money won't buy, but it's very funny
Have you ever tried to buy them without money?

The Second

I always believed that there would be a Nash for every occasion. So when my son (who was then six years old) came and told me that he had a recitation competition, I thought we really need to be creative and shock and awe the school into giving him a prize. I looked at Nash carefully and suddenly realized that not only has he not written anything that can be recited by innocent children, he actually does not like children – for instance one of his poems goes thus:

Everybody who has a baby thinks everybody who hasn’t a baby ought to have a baby
Which accounts for the success of such plays as the Irish Rose of Abie,
The idea apparently being that just by being fruitful
You are doing something beautiful
Which if it is true
Means that a common housefly is several million times more beautiful than me or you…

So after much search we zeroed down on this poem which our lad could possibly recite in school:

The Giraffe
I beg you children do not laugh
When you survey a tall giraffe.
It's hardly sporting to attack
A beast that cannot answer back.
Now you and I have shorter necks,
But we can talk of gin and sex;
He has a trumpet for a throat
And cannot blow a single note.
It isn't that his voice he hoards;
He hasn't any vocal cords.
I wish for him, and for his wife,
A voluble girafter life.

(The Primrose Path 1935)

However there was a small problem – how would you expect a six year old reciting poems to other six year olds to understand “survey”.. so we changed it to “see”. Well good job. The next was “gin and sex”. Oh my god, the prize is gone! Again we had to wear the six thinking hats and come out with something inane. So gin and sex was replaced with books and texts.. well who ever thought that sex would rhyme with texts…

And he got the prize (possibly the only prize he’s got for recitation)

Most of the poems here are picked up from an Omnibus Candy is Dandy which I discovered in Premier Book Shop in Bangalore. It was lying behind some new, contemporary and inane books. If you are in Premier’s in Bangalore, dig deep and you might get some treasure.

As I wrap up, I will leave with some short ones:

Reflection on Ingenuity

Here’s a good rule of thumb
Too clever is dumb

Theatrical Reflection
In the Vanities
No one wears Panities

Biological Reflection
A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain’t

Common Sense
Why did the Lord give us this agility
If not to evade responsibility

The Cow
The cow is of the bovine ilk
One end is moo, the other, milk

The Pig
The pig, if I am not mistaken
Supplies us sausage, ham and bacon.
Let others say his heart is big –
I call it stupid of the pig

The Parent
Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore
And that’s what parents were created for.

The Eel
I don’t mind eels
Except as meals
And the way they feels

The Fly
God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why


Cross-posted in Kannada on ಕನ್ನಡವೇ ನಿತ್ಯ.


Anonymous said...

the last line from The Panther is lisped - the word is actually "answer", when pronounced with a lisp, it's "anther"! Typical wry Nash humor !


Anonymous said...

I'm trying to find the source of " Humour depends on your point of view...." I believe it to be the first line of an Ogden Nash poem, but having failed to track it down I'm beginning to think I may be confused!! Can anybody help?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this journey into the
Golden Trashery
Of Ogden Nashery.

By the way, I thought it was
The girls in the Vanities
Wear no panities.

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