The greatest rhymes of Ogden Nash – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The great American comic poet Ogden Nash (1902-71) can wrote a great number of short poems, though they were not all classics. However, at his finest, Nash is a comic genius who can achieve that rare thing: to evince audible laughter from the reader. Nash claimed to think in rhyme, and had always thought in rhyming terms since the age of six. So it is of little surprise that he has been celebrated for his unconventional rhymes (utilising some underused words in poetry).
Poetry isn’t known for being able to do that: we may titter and a witticism or nod and smile as we recognise ourselves or something of the world we live in, but actual ‘lols’ (as the kids say, but as Nash would not) are rare. Ogden Nash has a better hit rate for laugh-out-loud moments than most poets. Below, we introduce ten of Nash’s very best comic poems.
1. ‘The Cow’.
One of Ogden Nash’s best-known poems, ‘The Cow’ is just two lines long, and although we wouldn’t call it his best, it is one of his most famous so deserves its inclusion here. Whilst Nash’s description of the cow wouldn’t probably be of much help to a zoology student seeking to understand the animal, he does make good use of the word ‘milk’, finding the ideal rhyme for it. We also like that delicious placement of a comma before the final word, providing a pause before the rhyme arrives.
Another poem that ranks among his most famous, and most quotable, lines. In just seven words, Ogden Nash talks about how best to ‘break the ice’ with new people and bond over conversation. Forget candy: liquor is far quicker …
3. ‘The Duck’.
Another one of Ogden Nash’s animal poems, and a longer one than his cow effort. This poem ends with one of Nash’s distinctive features as a comic poet: a final line which bends English syntax in order to elicit a laugh. Among other things, the poem shows how Nash can turn nouns into verbs – or, more specifically, common idioms for drinking (bottoms up) into verbs.
4. ‘The Fly’.
There is actually a surprisingly long-standing tradition of poets writing about insects – including the humble fly. We have gathered up some of the best insect poems here.
This is another rhyming couplet from Ogden Nash, like ‘The Cow’ – and, of course, another animal poem. Indeed, after Nash’s cow-poem this may be his most famous and oft-quoted, especially by anyone who’s had to swat an unwanted fly out of a kitchen during the warm summer when the windows are open …
5. ‘The Octopus’.
Octopuses have eight arms – except they don’t. They have six arms and two legs, because they use two of their limbs for locomotion. Ogden Nash was obviously similarly confused, asking the octopus whether its tentacles are arms or legs in this charming poem.
Once again, we see his trademark talent for taking a certain class of words – here, pronouns such as us – and using them in an unconventional way.
6. ‘Old Men’.
This poem offers a very different attitude to the ageing man from the view we get in a ‘straight’ or serious poem like Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. But unusually in Nash’s oeuvre, ‘Old Men’ is poignant and moving, stating that people expect old men to die and so do not mourn them, but ‘the old man knows when an old man dies’.
7. ‘The Pig’.
Vegetarians of a sensitive disposition should look away now: having outlined the various foods the pig provides us with, Nash declares that the pig is stupid for giving himself up to become food for our table. But as so often with an Ogden Nash poem, paraphrasing it in this way makes it sound serious when it is light-hearted.
8. ‘A Caution to Everybody’.
Nash begins this short poem by considering the auk, and why it went extinct – because it forgot how to fly, and ‘could only walk’. Nash warns us to consider whether mankind may go extinct because he ‘learned how to fly before he thinked’. Again, the punchline (if we can refer to the end of his poems as such) comes in the surprise of the final word and its unconventional nature.
9. ‘A Word to Husbands’.
Another ‘warning’ poem giving advice, though in this case Nash is specifically addressing husbands in a comical, tongue-in-cheek way. As the final two lines have it: whenever you’re in the wrong, come clean and admit it, but whenever you’re right, ‘shut up’. We have selected more classic poems for husbands here.
10. ‘Crossing the Border’.
Sticking with family, Nash offers a witty four-line take on old age in this poem, arguing that the line between middle age and old age is crossed when your descendants outnumber your friends. Behind this comic gem is a poignant point, that as we get older we lose touch with our friends, while we lose others to death as we grow older.
For a good edition of Ogden Nash’s poetry, we recommend The Best of Ogden Nash. Nash wrote a lot of verse – he produced 14 collections between 1931 and 1972 – but this collection gathers together many of his greatest and most famous short poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.