Frederic Ogden Nash (August 19, 1902 – May 19, 1971) was an American poet well known for his light verse. At the time of his death in 1971, The New York Times said his “droll verse with its unconventional rhymes made him the country’s best-known producer of humorous poetry”. Nash wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse. The best of his work was published in 14 volumes between 1931 and 1972.
Nash was born in Rye, New York. His father owned and operated an import-export company, and because of business obligations, the family relocated often. Nash was descended from Abner Nash, an early governor of North Carolina whose brother, Francis, founded Nashville, Tennessee.
Throughout his life, Nash loved to rhyme. “I think in terms of rhyme, and have since I was six years old,” he stated in a 1958 news interview. He had a fondness for crafting his own words whenever rhyming words did not exist, though admitting that crafting rhymes was not always the easiest task.
His family lived briefly in Savannah, Georgia in a carriage house owned by Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA; he wrote a poem about Mrs. Low’s House. After graduating from St. George’s School in Newport County, Rhode Island, Nash entered Harvard University in 1920, only to drop out a year later.
He returned as a teacher to St. George’s for one year before returning to New York. There, he took up selling bonds, about which Nash reportedly quipped, “Came to New York to make my fortune as a bond salesman and in two years sold one bond—to my godmother. However, I saw lots of good movies.” Nash then took a position as a writer of the streetcar card ads for Barron Collier, a company that previously had employed another Baltimore resident, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He spent three months in 1931 working on the editorial staff for The New Yorker.
In 1931 he married Frances Leonard. He published his first collection of poems, Hard Lines, that same year, earning him national recognition. Some of his poems reflected an anti-establishment feeling. For example, one verse, titled Common Sense, asks:
If not to evade responsibility?
In 1934, Nash moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he remained until his death in 1971. Nash thought of Baltimore as home. After his return from a brief move to New York, he wrote: “I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more.”
When Nash wasn’t writing poems, he made guest appearances on comedy and radio shows and toured the United States and the United Kingdom, giving lectures at colleges and universities.
Nash was regarded with respect by the literary establishment, and his poems were frequently anthologized even in serious collections such as Selden Rodman’s 1946 A New Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Nash was the lyricist for the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus, collaborating with librettist S. J. Perelman and composer Kurt Weill. The show included the notable song “Speak Low”. He also wrote the lyrics for the 1952 revue Two’s Company.
Nash and his love of the Baltimore Colts were featured in the December 13, 1968 issue of Life, with several poems about the American football team matched to full-page pictures. Entitled “My Colts, verses and reverses”, the issue includes his poems and photographs by Arthur Rickerby. “Mr. Nash, the league-leading writer of light verse (Averaging better than 6.3 lines per carry), lives in Baltimore and loves the Colts”, it declares. The comments further describe Nash as “a fanatic of the Baltimore Colts, and a gentleman”. Featured on the magazine cover is defensive player Dennis Gaubatz, number 53, in midair pursuit with this description: “That is he, looming 10 feet tall or taller above the Steelers’ signal caller…Since Gaubatz acts like this on Sunday, I’ll do my quarterbacking Monday.” Memorable Colts Jimmy Orr, Billy Ray Smith, Bubba Smith, Willie Richardson, Dick Szymanski, and Lou Michaels contribute to the poetry.
Among his most popular writings were a series of animal verses, many of which featured his off-kilter rhyming devices. Examples include “If called by a panther / Don’t anther”; “Who wants my jellyfish? / I’m not sellyfish!”.
Death and subsequent events
Nash died at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital on May 19, 1971, from Crohn’s disease aggravated by a lactobacillus infection transmitted by improperly prepared coleslaw. He is buried in East Side Cemetery in North Hampton, New Hampshire.
A biography, Ogden Nash: the Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse, was written by Douglas M. Parker, published in 2005 and in paperback in 2007. The book was written with the cooperation of the Nash family and quotes extensively from Nash’s personal correspondence as well as his poetry.
His daughter Isabel was married to noted photographer Fred Eberstadt, and his granddaughter, Fernanda Eberstadt, is an acclaimed author. Nash had one other daughter, Linell Nash Smith.
Nash was best known for surprising, pun-like rhymes, sometimes with words deliberately misspelled for comic effect, as in his retort to Dorothy Parker’s humorous dictum, Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses:
She may not get her nectacled
He often wrote in an exaggerated verse form with pairs of lines that rhyme, but are of dissimilar length and irregular meter:
And she said, You sure may,
Nash’s poetry was often a playful twist of an old saying or poem. For one example, he expressed this playfulness in what is perhaps his most famous rhyme, a twist on Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” (1913): “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree”, which drops “billboard” in place of poem and adds, “Indeed, unless the billboards fall / I’ll never see a tree at all.” That same playfulness produced a number of often quoted quips, including “Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long” and “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”
Candy is Dandy by Ogden Nash, Anthony Burgess, Linell Smith, and Isabel Eberstadt. Carlton Books Ltd, 1994. ISBN 0-233-98892-0
Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Knight by Ogden Nash and Lynn Munsinger. Little, Brown Young Readers, 1999. ISBN 0-316-59905-0
I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Ogden Nash. Buccaneer Books, 1994. ISBN 1-56849-468-8
The Old Dog Barks Backwards by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1972. ISBN 0-316-59804-6
Ogden Nash’s Zoo by Ogden Nash and Etienne Delessert. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1986. ISBN 0-941434-95-8
Pocket Book of Ogden Nash by Ogden Nash. Pocket, 1990. ISBN 0-671-72789-3
Selected Poetry of Ogden Nash by Ogden Nash. Black Dog & Levanthal Publishing, 1995. ISBN 978-1-884822-30-8
The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash and Lynn Munsinger. Little, Brown Young Readers, 1998. ISBN 0-316-59031-2
Bed Riddance by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1969. ASIN B000EGGXD8
“Versus” by Ogden Nash. Little, Brown, & Co, 1949.
Good Intentions by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1942. ISBN 978-1-125-65764-5
“The Face is Familiar: The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash” by Ogden Nash. Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1941.
There’s Always Another Windmill by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1968. ISBN 0-316-59839-9
Private Dining Room by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1952. ASIN B000H1Z8U4
Many Long Years Ago by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1945. ISBN B000OELG1O
You Can’t Get There From Here by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1957.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Ogden Nash. Little Brown & Co, 1938
Everyone But Thee and Me by Ogden Nash. Boston : Little, Brown, 1962.
“Collected Verse from 1929 On” by Ogden Nash. Lowe & Brydone (Printers) Ltd., London, for J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. 1972