Not everyone can be funny in Swedish

Ogden Nash is -- and in hip-hop, too, still relevant 100 years after birth

Literature

August 18, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | By Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

We all know Ogden Nash observed that candy is dandy but liquor is quicker and insisted that we should speak low when we speak love.

But Skolpaddan skyddar njurar och mjalte?

Who gnu?

The Swedish translation of Ogden Nash arrives just in time for his 100th birthday anniversary tomorrow.

"Skolpaddan" seems to be "The Turtle," the quatrain in which Nash celebrates the turtle's ingenious fertility.

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.

Nash's poems have been done into not only Swedish but also many other languages, including Latin, Russian, Japanese and Hebrew. And he's deemed a sensation in Serbo-Croatian. The Swedish title, incidentally, is Varre Vers, roughly speaking, Worse Verse.

Nash's centenary will be celebrated tomorrow at the home at 4300 Rugby Road where he lived most of his life in Baltimore and wrote many of his most memorable works. Nash is one of our great purveyors of light verse, perhaps the finest, and among the most prolific. His granddaughter, Frances Rider Smith, says there are 1,600 copyrighted pieces and no doubt plenty unaccounted for.

The Postal Service will release the new Ogden Nash 37-cent postage stamp at the 11 a.m. ceremony on Rugby Road, which is open to the public. The 18th in the Literary Arts series, the stamp has a portrait by artist Michael J. Deas, based on a 1952 photo by Kay Bell Reynal. The background consists of six poems by Nash, including "The Turtle" -- in English.

"The painting [is] taken from the one photograph that the entire family has unanimously adored for years," says granddaughter Frances, who is director of development at the Independent College Fund of Maryland. It shows a smiling, youthful Nash, peering directly at the viewer.

Political satirist Mark Russell will read from Nash's works tomorrow. And jazz artist Ethel Ennis will sing songs from musicals, such as One Touch of Venus, for which Nash wrote the classic love song "Speak Low." Nash's daughters, Linell Nash Smith of Baltimore and Isabel Nash Eberstadt of New York City, and at least two granddaughters, Frances and Sun feature writer Linell Smith, both Baltimoreans, plan to be there, along with a grandson, Nick Eberstadt, a New Yorker.

Nash was extraordinarily uxorious. He married Frances Rider Leonard in 1931 in a wedding here that was called "one of the most important social events of the season." They were still married when he died in 1971. And he wrote often of family and marriage.

In a new anthology, Poetry Speaks, the nation's poet laureate, Billy Collins, says that like his friend James Thurber, "Nash is an avid examiner of marriage, a subject largely excluded from serious poetry and left to the novel since the Romantics.

"He said he found families interesting because only there 'do we find the battle of the sexes raging concurrently with the battle between the generations.'

"He called himself a 'student husband' even after 30 years of marriage, an institution he defined as 'a legal and religious alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the windows shut and a woman who can't sleep with the window open.' "

Timeless view of women

Frances Smith recalls his "A Word to Husbands":

To keep your marriage brimming

With love in the loving cup,

Whenever you're wrong, admit it;

Whenever you're right, shut up.

"That's timeless," she says.

Nash himself told a BBC interviewer in 1964: "I think one reason women are a mystery to me and to all men is, one, I think they prefer to be, and I think perhaps we prefer them to be. But also there's one feminine trait that I think is absolutely general. I don't think there are any exceptions to it. That is, a woman would rather be right than reasonable and actually always turns out to be."

That's vintage, if not particularly politically correct, Nash.

He also told the BBC he never thought of himself as a satirist: "I don't think what I do is either deep enough or bitter enough to be called satire."

The BBC interviewer, Kenneth Allsop, asked if he would admit a description of himself as a moralist.

"I think so," Nash said. "I like to think of myself as a very good man."

It's hard to tell after nearly 40 years whether he might have had his tongue in his cheek. Allsop chortled a bit.

"No, no," Nash said. "I have very deep principles and behavior as to what is proper and improper human conduct.

"If the human race has ridiculous traits and I happen to be able to describe one of those traits, that is not I as an author who is inventing that trait. It's just because the human race is a ridiculous race.

"So I take no credit. I owe everything I do to my 800 million fellow inhabitants of this globe."

No teacher, no trader

Nash spoke with a splendidly rich, cultured Eastern Seaboard vibrato much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps cultivated at St. George's School in Rhode Island.

Nash spent a year at Harvard, but the family went broke and he returned to St. George's to teach, which he found traumatic.

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