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Ogden Nash Revealed

THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG
#1325 OGDEN NASH REVEALED
FEED DATE: September 15, 2005
Douglas Parker


Opening Billboard: Funding for Think Tank is provided by...
(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion dollars looking
for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health
experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion.
Pfizer, life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz
Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry
Bradley Foundation.

WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. 'Candy is dandy but liquor is
quicker'. You may have heard this before and laughed, but like so many
other wonderful poems, it has become such a part of American culture
that many cannot even remember the source. Well, the author was Ogden
Nash. While his verse was often witty and humorous there was also a
somber side to his story. Who was Ogden Nash? And why do we still read
his work? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Douglas Parker, author
of ’Ogden Nash: The Life And Work of America’s Laureate of Light
Verse.’ The topic before the house: Ogden Nash revealed, this week on
Think Tank.

MR. WATTENBERG: Doug Parker, welcome to Think Tank.

MR. PARKER: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: And let me tell our viewers that your book, the full
title of which is Ogden Nash, subtitle, The Life and Work of America’s
Laureate of Light Verse, is a terrific book.

MR. PARKER: Well, thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: It is just - magic words in publishing as you know
are, it’s a good read in its own right. Even without the remarkable
poetry it’s just a fascinating story. So tell me, let’s begin at the
beginning. Where was he born?

MR. PARKER: Ogden was born in Rye, New York. He grew up in Rye
as a young child and also in Savannah where his father headed up a
naval stores business.

MR. WATTENBERG: Rye at that time was sort of a well-to-do suburban
community.

MR. PARKER: Oh, very much. Very much. And he lived on a rather
large estate and the New York Central would make a special stop at the
foot of the estate to let his father off.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Is there anyone writing his strange, I don’t
know, form of poetry now?

MR. PARKER: There are imitators from time to time, of whom there
were a great many during his lifetime. But no one really in his
lifetime or since, I think, captured the style of Ogden Nash.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why should we care today about Ogden Nash? I mean,
he said in the book somewhere that he was a good/bad poet, something
like that.

MR. PARKER: Well, he did, but I argue in my book that he was
really a good poet.

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh, yes.

MR. PARKER: A very different poet, indeed, a unique poet. But I
think he was a poet in the full meaning of the word and indeed his
poetry was appreciated and praised by many of his more serious
colleagues.

MR. WATTENBERG: I’m going to ask you now to read he Turtle poem.

MR. PARKER: ’The Turtle’ is one of the earliest poems that Nash
wrote when he was working as an editor at Doubleday. One of the
Doubleday authors had written a book of verses about animals. And Nash
read them, thought some of them were pretty good, some not so good,
thought he could improve on a couple of them and offered the author a
couple of his own, which the author not too surprisingly declined. But
Nash’s boss at Doubleday said, 'That’s pretty good. You ought to keep
doing that.' And one of the poems was ’The Turtle’. 'The turtle lives
’twixt plated decks which practically conceal its sex. I think it
clever of the turtle in such a fix to be so fertile.'

MR. WATTENBERG: There’s a great love story involved with him and his
wife, Francis, and he writes about her frequently. Maybe you could
read us that one 'For Any Adorable She' and see how...

MR. PARKER: Well, I will. I will just say by way of introduction
that when Nash met Francis Leonard down in Baltimore, it was love at
first sight from his standpoint. From Francis’ standpoint it was sort
'not so fast there, Ogden' and he pursued her in a courtship over two
years and this poem he wrote along the way.

MR. WATTENBERG: And this is entitled 'For Any Adorable She.'

MR. PARKER: 'For Any Adorable She' and this is an excerpt from
the poem, and he asks, 'What shall I do with so and so? She won’t say
yes and she won’t say no. She tiptoes around the cunningist traps with
a smile and a murmur of ’perhaps’. At nine I’m ’darling’; at ten I’m
’you’. Tell me, what is a man to do when the lady his life is based
upon likes to be wooed but won’t be won? What shall I do with so and
so? She confesses that I am her favorite beau but let the topic of
marriage arise and see the astonishment in her eyes. Why am I chosen
to be harried? Other people have gotten married. Is every courtship
conducted thus, or is it only confined to us?' And when Francis
finally yielded and became Mrs. Ogden Nash there were newspapers around
the country that bore the headline, 'The Adorable She' or 'So and So
Finally Gives In.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Alright. Now, he had – let’s see how nicely we can
put it - he had a tendency to drink too much.

MR. PARKER: Well, he did, certainly in the eyes of Francis, and
this came...

MR. WATTENBERG: But he sort of beat it. He never became more than a
heavy social drinker.

MR. PARKER: He was a social drinker who enjoyed alcoholic
beverages throughout his life in a social context. There was a time
when in the ’30s when Francis thought things had gotten out of hand and
she went off on a trip to Europe and told him to get his act together
while she was gone and he did and they lived happily ever after.
He wrote a wonderful poem called 'A Drink With Something In It', the
first stanza of which deals with a martini.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me read that one. That’s...

MR. PARKER: You must be a fellow martini drinker.

MR. WATTENBERG: No. No, I’m not. Let me – 'A Drink With Something
In It' is the title and it says, 'There is something about a martini, a
tingle remarkably pleasant. A yellow, mellow martini. I wish that I
had one at present. There is something about a martini ere the dining
and dancing begin and to tell you the truth, it’s not the vermouth; I
think that perhaps it’s the gin.' And it is. You know, people – we
all know people who drink it in a ratio of twenty to one vermouth to...

MR. PARKER: Yes, yellow martinis would not pass muster today.

MR. WATTENBERG: No. That’s right. Now, so he goes to – starts out
as a bond salesman, doesn’t do well, the Depression comes along, goes
to work for Doubleday as an editor. Is that right?

MR. PARKER: Well, first in the advertising department and then he
sort of worked his way into editorial work and thrived at that.

MR. WATTENBERG: And then he starts selling poetry and his number one
client right off the bat is...

MR. PARKER: The New Yorker Magazine. That was in the days of
Harold Ross and Katherine White as their primary editors.

MR. WATTENBERG: Could you read for us his first poem in the New
Yorker called 'Invocation' and it refers to Senator Smoot who was a –
he was the coauthor of the famous tariff act called the Smoot Hawley
Tariff Act. So why don’t you read that one for us?

MR. PARKER: Right. And what you have to know about this is that
Smoot’s interests were not only economic but he included in the Smoot
Hawley Tariff Act a bill that was designed to keep out of the country a
material that he considered to be obscene or pornographic. And he also
in order to make his point told everyone that he had collected a group
of this material himself. Now I’ve never seen – I don’t think that
collection still exists and it might be pretty tame compared to what
one can get exposed to today, but he had a collection of this material
and Senator Smoot from Utah introduced that bill and that provoked Nash
to write the poem which said in part, 'Senator Smoot is an institute
not to be bribed with pelf, he guards our homes from erotic tomes by
reading them all himself. Smite, Smoot, Smite for Ut., they’re
smuggling smut from Balt to Butte.'

MR. WATTENBERG: And the Balt he refers to is..

MR. PARKER: Baltimore.

MR. WATTENBERG: Baltimore, Maryland, which is sort of his principle
residence over the years.

MR. PARKER: Soon after writing the Smoot poem, which was very
well received at the New Yorker, they said 'come on, give us more
things'. And he began to send in more and more poems. Some of them
were quite short and titled random reflections about this or that, the
most famous of which was his 'Reflections on Ice-Breaking', which
became the immortal 'Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.' And a poem
that he ultimately became very tired of but he – from which he could
not...

MR. WATTENBERG: He was sort of identified with that...

MR. PARKER: ... escape. He could not escape.
MR. WATTENBERG: Now he and Francis have children. One of the famous
little short poems is 'A little talcum is always welcome', which is –
but maybe you could tell us about that family and read us a couple of
these poems.

MR. PARKER: Sure. Well he had great, great fun with his
children. Because he was a freelance writer he was living at home. He
had a chance to participate in their early childhood that a lot - most
fathers do not have. So he participated very directly, and of course
being Ogden Nash, anything that he experienced in his life was apt to
find its way into his verse and he had a number of verses about the
children as they were growing up. But he may have felt just a tiny bit
self-conscious about it because one of the poems that he wrote in those
days was called 'My Daddy' and it went like this: 'I have a funny daddy
who goes in and out with me, and everything that baby does my daddy’s
sure to see, and everything that baby says my daddy’s sure to tell. You
must have read my daddy’s verse; I hope he fries in hell. (Laughing)
Well, this is one of the many Nash poems that I think is fresh
and applicable today as when they were written. Says, 'The wise child
handles father and mother by playing one against the other. ’Don’t’,
cries this parent to the tot. The opposite parent asks, ’Why Not?’
Let baby listen, nothing loathe, and work impartially on both. In
clash of wills do not give in, good parents are made by discipline.'

MR. WATTENBERG: He has another one about marriage which is – it’s
entitled 'A Word To Husbands' and it goes, 'To keep your marriage
brimming with love in the loving cup, whenever you’re wrong admit it;
whenever you’re right, shut up.' So...

MR. PARKER: Excellent advice, but like most advice it’s easier to
give than to follow, I have found.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, Ogden Nash did other things – tried to do other
things – other than this light verse. And he collaborated – he did the
lyrics to Kurt Weill’s music in a Broadway program – show called ’One
Touch of Venus’ and why don’t you read that? It’s – remember it’s a
song; it’s not a rhyme. but it’s very beautiful.

MR. PARKER: Well, it is a lovely ballad and this is just a couple
of excerpts from it which I will not attempt to sing but I think even
speaking it you can sense the melodic quality. 'Speak low when you
speak love. Our summer day withers away. Too soon, too soon, speak
low when you speak love. We’re late darling, we’re late. The curtain
descends. Everything ends. Too soon, too soon. I wait darling, I
wait. Will you speak low to me? Speak love to me, and soon?

MR. WATTENBERG: That’s – and the music to that was written by Kurt
Weill.

MR. PARKER: Kurt Weill.

MR. WATTENBERG: Nash, as you write later, recalled to some friends,
'In my Hollywood years I was regarded as a harmless fascist and my
friends in the east dismissed me as a parlor pink.' That was – parlor
pink was the euphemism for sort of left-winger at that time. Did he
write about politics and can you give us some examples?

MR. PARKER: Well he was interested very much in politics. He was
a great fan of Al Smith. That was his first great political
enthusiasm. In writing about politics he never did it really in a
partisan way. But writing in the Depression, many of his poems had
something of an edge to them that you could view in the context of the
day. For example he wrote some poems that were satirical of bankers
and I think in addition to the climate of the Depression, Nash may have
blamed bankers on some of his father’s financial problems. But one of
them he wrote said, 'Bankers – most bankers live in marble halls, which
they dwell in because they encourage deposits and discourage
withdrawals, and particularly because they all observe one rule which
woe betide the banker who fails to heed it, which is you must never
lend any money to anybody unless they don’t need it.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Truer words have never been said. If you’ve got lots
of money bankers will loan you more and if you don’t, you got problems.

MR. PARKER: He had some one-liners he said about the democrats.
'When will they learn that Tammany Crooks spoil the broth.' (Laughing)
And he compared republicans looking at Herbert Hoover to regarding Mona
Lisa in the Louvre.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, I get the feeling from your book, I’m not sure I
can cite chapter and verse, but he gets ill several times – quite ill –
and depressed and you get the feeling that behind this funny and witty
man, like all the great clown stories, is a somber man at times and
sad.

MR. PARKER: Well it’s – that’s certainly true and it was
particularly true in the ’60s. He did have bouts of depression. He
had periods of time when he found it very difficult or impossible to
work, but he never – he never gave up. He just kept at it. He kept on
writing and he kept on working and, as I said before, he might go
through periods where the New Yorker would reject half a dozen of his
poems in a row.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that stung.

MR. PARKER: And that stung and it hurt and – but he’d keep
writing and he would write letters to his agent and then she to him
commiserating about this, but he’d keep on writing. And then, what do
you know, he’d have three or four in a row accepted by the New Yorker.
And when it came time to put out a new book, a new collection, he’d put
in the ones that were rejected, which had often found a home in another
magazine...

MR. WATTENBERG: Right.

MR. PARKER: ... along with the ones that the magazine had
accepted and the public and the critics seemed to enjoy them all.

MR. WATTENBERG: He pulled one trick, which I think is funny. I
gather he sent in a poem, I believe to the New Yorker, that was
designed to be a parody and a fake and they ran it thinking it was for
real and then he later in some of his many anthologies, he later ran
it.

MR. PARKER: And it’s a somber poem and in places a touch macabre.
Here’s one little excerpt from it. 'The bubbles soar and die in the
sterile bottle hanging upside down on the bedside lamppost. Food and
drink seep quietly through the needle strapped to the hand. The arm
welcomes the sting of mosquito hypodermic, conveyor of morphia, the
comforter. Here’s drowsiness, here’s lassitude, here’s nothingness.
Sedation in excelsus.' And his editor at the New Yorker, Roger Angell,
said that, 'it was an interesting, frightening and the best thing of
its kind about hospitals I’ve ever read'. And as I mentioned, John
Updike said some very nice things about it and poet Josephine Jacobsen
wrote Nash that it was brilliant technically, psychologically and
poetically. And so it – among other things it gives a little hint of
the kind of thing that Nash might have done more of if his career had
taken him in that direction.

MR. WATTENBERG: He begins, obviously, as we all must, to see that
life is finite and he writes about it. And as I said, that gives me
the sense of a certain somber quality to his life.

MR. PARKER: Well, that’s right and he – in fact the poem that
I’ll read just now called 'The Middle' is one that he wrote to his –
about which he wrote to his editor at Little Brown – his publisher –
expressing the sort of wistful hope that maybe he would be remembered
for this poem instead of 'Candy is Dandy'. So he was – he liked this
poem. It said, 'When I remember bygone days I think how evening
follows morn, So many I loved were not yet dead, So many I loved were
not yet born.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Now that’s a very moving and touching poem. And he
has this one about senescence. Is that an excerpt?

MR. PARKER: Yes, this is an excerpt from another poem and he
writes, 'Senescence begins and middle age ends, the day your
descendants outnumber your friends.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, he has one, which I will read a part of, and
then I’ll let you read a part...

MR. PARKER: Okay.

MR. WATTENBERG: ... the other part of it. It’s called 'Come On In,
The Senility Is Fine'. 'You have to personally superintend your
grandchild from diapers to pants and from bottle to spoon because you
know your own child hasn’t sense enough to come out of a typhoon.'

MR. WATTENBERG: He wrote a verse which was intended to be read at his
funeral.

MR. PARKER: Well, this was read at his funeral. It had been
written some years before, but it was written in connection with his
church in New Hampshire where he was very active. He was a member of
the vestry, it was an Episcopal church, and it was very important to
him. And he was a very close friend of the rector, Matt Warren, who
was also the headmaster of St. Paul’s. And at Nash’s funeral service
the rector read this verse: 'I didn’t go to church today. I trust the
Lord to understand. The surf was swirling blue and white, the children
swirling on the sand. He knows, he knows how brief my stay, how brief
the spell of summer weather. He knows when I am said and done. We’ll
have aplenty of time together.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Very, very touching and there is a little one that
I’ll read where – or perhaps it’s an excerpt - that says, 'Here lies my
past. Goodbye. I have kissed it. Thank you, kids, I wouldn’t have
missed it.'

MR. PARKER: That’s the concluding two lines of a poem called
'Preface to the Past' which sort of recounts the growth of his early
marriage, the growth of his children, and the arrival of his
grandchildren. And it’s a summing up and his daughters, Isabel
Eberstadt and Linell Smith, took that 'I wouldn’t have missed it' as
the title of the Nash compilation that they published after his death.

MR. WATTENBERG: On that note, Doug Parker, we will have to stop
because of time constraints, but thank you for joining us on Think
Tank. And thank you. Remember to send us your comments via email; we
think it makes our show better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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Funding for Think Tank is provided by...

(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion dollars looking
for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health
experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion.
Pfizer, life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz
Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry
Bradley Foundation.


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