A rhyme and a smile

August 19, 2002|By James H. Bready

OGDEN NASH, 100 years out, is doing very well, thank you.

Fine tributes to his memory -- first that two-page spread in The New Yorker and now a lawn party today -- his birthday -- at his former Guilford home, to introduce a U.S. postage stamp bearing his face.

But this was a man who made his living largely from author advances and royalties. So the smile on his ghost right now may be in response to yet another honor -- a quiet, bookish one.

Some authors produce sentences, paragraphs, chapters; Ogden Nash wrote lines of verse, distinctive here for the merriment, there for the rhymes. But mostly for both at once. For example, "The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks" -- the next line, you know very well, is going to end with the word "sex."

Oxford University Press (OUP), by now a trans-Atlantic publisher, entered the anthology business in 1900 with The Oxford Book of English Verse. Sales figures have encouraged OUP, which by now publishes a panoply -- Oxford books of letters, of anecdotes, of ghost stories, of American poetry, etc. In 1995, along came The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. This month, out came a less expensive paperback edition of comic verse -- just in time to help celebrate the centennial of its biggest American contributor.

John Gross, editor of The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, oscillates between editorial jobs in London and New York. (Well, Ogden Nash, bridegroom, parent, grandparent, 14 West Hamilton Street Club member and, in 1971, Page One obituary -- all in Baltimore -- spent his last 37 or 47 Augusts alongside an ocean beach in New Hampshire.) So Brits and Yanks are about even among the 296 comic versifiers who Mr. Gross included in his book.

Among the famous, Chaucer is represented in the anthology by two items; Shakespeare by five. From W.S. Gilbert, five items; Hilaire Belloc, nine; P.G. Wodehouse one; Evelyn Waugh, one; Noel Coward, two; Edward Lear, 13, if you count each limerick separately.

Among Americans, there's Gelett Burgess, four items; Franklin P. Adams, one; Dorothy Parker, two; Phyllis McGinley, five; e.e. cummings, three; Samuel Hoffenstein, seven; Shel Silverstein, two. And, at the top of the heap of Americans, Ogden Nash, whose 10 items spread over four pages, far more space than Lear got.

Let us disqualify Anonymous (many items), for using ghostwriters.

It may be that Mr. Gross never saw, or heard from others about, that roadside treasury of comic verse, Burma Shave signs. In any case, it's too much to ask for -- a survey of recent years' immense wellsprings of light verse in advertising, greeting cards, Tin Pan Alley and standup comedians. Whatever the medium, rhyming fun goes happily on.

If you lack the means to buy mint or used copies of Mr. Nash's 20 books of comic (just as often, commonsensical) verse, there's an alternative: Pull down the latest edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It prints 23 Ogden Nash items.

James H. Bready is a former editorial writer for The Evening Sun.

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