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Candy Is Dandy: The delightful verse of Ogden Nash

Nash's poems, which caught the fancy of the critics and the masses alike, run the gamut of human emotion

Very few people—at least in the past 100 years—have been able to make a living—let alone a comfortable living—purely out of writing poetry. The vast majority of poets have had to support themselves with a—often dreary—day job. One of the very few exceptions to that rule was the American master of light verse, Ogden Nash (1902-71), whose poems were immensely popular in the English-speaking world from the day he started publishing them and have remained popular till today. 

He was that rare poet who had a mass audience and was also critically acclaimed. He invented a style of rhyming that was distinctly his own, and though many have tried to imitate him, none has succeeded. 

He played around with words, sometimes twisting them to make them rhyme, and sometimes deliberately misspelling them, to great effect. 

The most famous example is in his poem The Panther: 

… if called by a panther, 

Don’t anther. 

And The Baby: 

A bit of talcum

Is always walcum. 

Many of his poems have extremely long lines, followed by either another long one, or by an unexpectedly short one. In both cases, they rhyme. For instance, this extract from Kindly Unhitch That Star, Buddy: 

In short, the world is filled with people trying to achieve success, 

And half of them think they’ll get it by saying No and half of them by saying Yes. 

And if all the ones who say No said Yes, and vice versa, such is the fate of humanity that ninety-nine percent of them still wouldn’t be any better off than they were before. 

Which perhaps is just as well because if everybody was a success nobody could be contemptuous of anybody else and everybody would start in all over again trying to be a bigger success than everybody else so they would have somebody to be contemptuous of and so on forevermore, 

Because when people start hitching their wagon to a star, 

That’s the way they are. 

Nash is a great poet to turn to, for pure relaxation and fun, or to relieve stress. Or for contemplation (more about that later). You can flip open Candy Is Dandy: The Best Of Ogden Nash on any page and be instantly entertained. Your worries will go away, at least for some time. 

Candy Is Dandy draws its title from one of Nash’s most well-known poems, Reflections on Ice-breaking, which goes: 

Candy 

Is Dandy 

But liquor 

Is quicker. 

Candy Is Dandy has an introduction by the late British novelist and essayist Anthony Burgess, who has written it in the Nash style: 

He uses lines, sometimes of considerable length, that are colloquial and prosy 

And at the end presents you with a rhyme, like a twin-flowered posy 

Or really, when you come to think of it, a pair of dwarf’s gloves. 

This bringing together of the informal and the formal is what his genius chiefly loves. 

I am trying to imitate him here, but he is probably quite inimitable. 

My own talent for this sort of thing being limited and his virtually illimitable. 

The rest of this article consists mostly of Nash’s poems or extracts from his poems, because they speak louder about his body of work and his genius as a poet and his wit and sensibilities than any cliché-filled adulatory prose that I could come up with. And for those who haven’t encountered Nash, this should be a good way for them to appreciate Candy Is Dandy. 

Most of Nash’s poems appear to be purely whimsical, but they are also often comments on life’s little things and big things. Depending on her mood and disposition, the reader could actually turn thoughtful and introspective after reading some simple lines. Here’s Family Court: 

One would be in less danger 

From the wiles of the stranger 

If one’s own kin and kith 

Were more fun to be with. 

And Reminiscent Reflection: 

When I consider how my life is spent, 

I hardly ever repent. 

And Introspective Reflection: 

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance 

Were it not for making a loving, which is rather a nouciance. 

And Reflection on a Wicked World: 

Purity 

Is obscurity. 

Nash’s poems on animals are delightful. I have already quoted from The Panther. These are a few that I love: 

The Camel 

The camel has a single hump; 

The dromedary, two; 

Or else the other way around. 

I’m never sure. Are you? 

The Hippopotamus 

Behold the hippopotamus! 

We laugh at how he looks to us, 

And yet in moments dank and grim 

I wonder how we look to him. 

Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus! 

We really look all right to us, 

As you no doubt delight the eye 

Of other hippopotami. 

The Porcupine 

Any hound a porcupine nudges 

Can’t be blamed for holding grudges. 

I know one hound that laughed all winter 

At a porcupine that sat on a splinter. 

The Lion 

Oh, weep for Mr and Mrs Bryan! 

He was eaten by a lion; 

Following which, the lion's lioness 

Up and swallowed Bryan's Bryaness. 

Nash also wrote quite a few limericks. Here are two of them: 

Arthur 

There was an old man of Calcutta 

Who coated his tonsils with butta, 

Thus concerting his snore 

From a thunderous roar 

To a soft, oleaginous mutta. 

Carlotta 

There was an old man in a trunk 

Who inquired of his wife, “Am I drunk?" 

She replied with regret, 

“I’m afraid so, my pet." 

And he answered, “It’s just as I thunk." 

But Nash was not only whimsy and wit. Many of his poems reveal a strong anti-establishment streak. Here’s an excerpt from I Yield To My Learned Brother or Is There A Candlestick Maker In The House? 

The doctor gets you when you are born, 

The preacher, when you marry. 

And the lawyer lurks with costly clerks 

If too much on you carry. 

Professional men, they have no cares; 

Whatever happens, they get theirs. 

You can’t say When 

To professional men, 

For it’s always When to they; 

They go out and golf 

With the big bad wolf 

In the most familiar way. 

Hard times for them contain no terrors; 

Their income springs from human errors. 

A bit from Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer: 

This is a song to celebrate banks, 

Because they are full of money and you go into them and all you hear is clinks and clanks, 

Or maybe a sound like the wind in the trees on the hills, 

Which is the rustling of the thousand dollar bills. 

Most bankers dwell in marble halls, 

Which they get to dwell in because they encourage deposits and discourage withdralls, 

And particularly because they all observe one rule which woe betides the banker who fails to heed it, 

Which is you must never lend money to anybody unless they don’t need it. 

I know you, you cautious conservative banks! 

And Political Reflection: 

Discretion is the better part of virtue; 

Commitments the voters don’t know about can’t hurt you. 

Also More About People: 

When people aren't asking questions 

They're making suggestions 

And when they're not doing one of those 

They're either looking over your shoulder or stepping on your toes 

And then as if that weren't enough to annoy you 

They employ you. 

Anybody at leisure 

Incurs everybody's displeasure. 

It seems to be very irking 

To people at work to see other people not working, 

So they tell you that work is wonderful medicine, 

Just look at Firestone and Ford and Edison, 

And they lecture you till they're out of breath or something 

And then if you don't succumb they starve you to death or something. 

All of which results in a nasty quirk: 

That if you don't want to work you have to work to earn enough money so that you won't have to work. 

As he grew older, although he did not lose his wit or playfulness at all, a few poems have a sombre air about them. Nash is still rhyming beautifully and audaciously, but there is a growing awareness of mortality. The poems touch you. 

I Didn’t Go To Church Today appears in the book There’s Always Another Windmill, published in 1968, when Nash was 66 years old, and had probably been already diagnosed of Crohn’s Disease, an auto-immune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract. (The very title of the book is worthy of some—as I said before—contemplation.) 

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 this spell of summer weather, 

He knows when I am said and done, 

We’ll have a plenty of time together. 

The Reward is one of the last poems Nash wrote. It was anthologized in The Old Dog Barks Backwards, which was published a year after his death. It is also the last poem in Candy Is Dandy. 

In my mind’s reception room 

Which is what, and who is whom? 

I notice when the candle’s lighted 

Half the guests are uninvited. 

And oddest fancies, merriest jests, 

Come from these unbidden guests. 

Very few poets have provided so much joy and entertainment to so many people. He was a poet of the masses, and yet a great artist of the form he had chosen. He chose to be a fanciful humorist, but he made his own rules of rhyme, and we can love him validly in that role alone, or we can look at him as a philosopher who chose a particular mode of expression. 

Just as we shouldn’t anther to the panther and the hippopotami are beautiful in their own way, Ogden Nash’s poems cover the entire gamut of emotions, almost everything that you and I, common people, feel. And to that, he adds a dollop of cheery optimism, that makes life more palatable. Laugh with him and see the world through a different lens.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com. 

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable. 

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