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 …
Part of the joy of this poem is in the way Nash uses run-on lines (otherwise known as enjambment) between the first and second lines, and then again between the third and fourth lines. The poem is a reminder of the importance of line breaks and versification: the statement Nash offers in the poem could easily be laid out on one simple line of verse, but the use of four short lines here, with the attendant brief pauses that the line-breaks create, are key to the charm of the poem.
3. ‘The Duck’.
Another one of Ogden Nash’s animal poems, and a longer one than his cow poem. 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.
Has there ever been a more joyous celebration of the duck, a bird that has often been overlooked by poets? Perhaps this poem by F. W. Harvey is the nearest contender for title of greatest duck poem in the English language!
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 …
But this poem shows the talent Nash has for aphorism or witty statement. One could imagine this two-line gem being misattributed to an Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift, one of those eighteenth-century Augustan wits. But at the same time, there is something entirely characteristic of Nash in this poem.
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.
And this poem is also a good opportunity to point out the childlike quality of much Ogden Nash poetry. There is something wide-eyed and innocent about his way of looking at animals in particular, as if encountering them for the first time. Even the misuses of grammar and syntax reflect the young child’s attempt to articulate these questions.
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’.
There is also none of the linguistic jiggery-pokery we find in many other Ogden Nash poems on this list. Instead the language is not just plain but free from any tongue-in-cheek, nonsense words. It shows a more serious side to Nash which is not often talked about, and shows that he was more than just a comic poet (not that being a successful comic poet is exactly a minor achievement in itself).
7. ‘The Pig’.
We are back in the realm of animal poems for the seventh Ogden Nash poem on the list!
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.
There is something about the phrase ‘if I am not mistaken’ in the first line which wryly winks at the reader, as if to say we both know that nobody really knows what goes into sausages.
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 of the reverse problem, namely that he ‘learned how to fly before he thinked’. Part of the joy comes from the short first line giving way to a much longer second line; this is mirrored in the third and final lines, too.
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, but there is also something childlike, once again, in the non-standard past-tense verb thinked.
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’, because no wife will want to hear you bang on about how you were right and she was wrong. This poem would make the perfect addition to a witty wedding speech.
We have selected more classic poems for husbands here.
10. ‘Crossing the Border’.
We are back to the topic of growing old here. 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.
Again, though, a lot of the sheer delight of the poem lies in the sounds Nash employs so perfectly, such as the internal rhyme (or near-rhyme) of Senescence with descendants, or the fact that there is an end in descendants.
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.
About Ogden Nash
Ogden Nash (1902-71), whose first name was actually Frederic (he opted to use his middle name as his published name), was born in Rye, New York. He once said that he thought in terms of rhyme, which came naturally to him. After quitting as a teacher he took up a job selling bonds, but later joked that in two years of the job he sold a grand total of one job (and that was to his godmother).
He subsequently became a writer of advertisements, working for the same company, Barron Collier, that had previously employed F. Scott Fitzgerald. He later worked as an editor for the publisher Doubleday, and it was while he was working in publishing that he began to publish his own poems. His work earned him a great deal of fame in the United States, where he was a regular guest on television shows. He lived for much of his life in Baltimore, Maryland, where he died in 1971.
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.