Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ogden Nash and CS Lewis: Spare Bedroom Readers

Whenever I think of Ogden Nash, I immediately think of an anecdote told by CS Lewis. The anecdote has nothing to do with the most-recognized practitioner of light verse in the United States, but, rather, how many people treat his books. Here’s the bit:

[The Screwtape Letters] is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, he sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live of life of undisturbed tranquility in company with "The Road Mender," "John Inglesant," and "The Life of the Bee." Sometimes it is even bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little brobationer who filled her hot water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

"You see," said the girl, "we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing is to say you've read something. So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them."

"And you chose Screwtape?"

"Well, of course; it was the shortest."

I’ve read a lot of Ogden Nash, as I was first drawn to his writing by his poem about Isabel, which appeared in one of those nameless readers you encounter in American elementary schools:

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
the witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.
Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forehead.
Good morning, Isabel, the giant said,
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She nibbled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant's head off.
Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

Most people probably know a poem or two by Nash – the shorter ones – or confuse Nash with Richard Armour or any other number of nonsense poets – or vice versa. But Nash, I think, is one of those authors whose books, like Lewis’ are relegated to spare rooms and are kept around because they’re thin and easy to read.

Not so for me.

Especially because when he reads his poetry, he doesn’t put on that “poet’s voice” that has pretty much killed live poetry readings for me.

Untermeyer includes Nash’s “Common Cold” as one of three comic poems from the man. It’s okay.

I’ll admit I like this one a heck of a lot more: The Strange Case of Mr. Donnybrook's Boredom.

Once upon a time there was a man named Mr. Donnybrook.

He was married to a woman named Mrs. Donnybrook.

Mr. and Mrs. Donnybrook dearly loved to be bored.

Sometimes they were bored at the ballet, other times at the cinema.

They were bored riding elephants in India and elevators in the Empire State Building.

They were bored in speakeasies during Prohibition and in cocktail lounges after Repeal.

They were bored by Grand Dukes and Garbagement, debutantes and demimondaines, opera singers and Onassises.

They scoured the Five Continents and the Seven Seas in their mad pursuit of boredom.

This went on for years and years.

One day, Mr. Donnybrook turned to Mrs. Donnybrook,

My dear, he said, we have reached the end of our rope.

We have exhausted every yawn.

The world holds nothing more to jade our titillated palates.

Well, said Mrs. Donnybrook, we might try insomnia.

So they tried insomnia.

About two o'clock the next moring Mr. Donnybrook said, My, insomnia is certainly quite boring, isn't it?

Mrs. Donnybrook said it certainly was, wasn't it?

Mr. Donnybrook said it certainly was.

Pretty soon he began to count sheep.

Mrs. Donnybrook began to count sheep, too.

After a while, Mr. Donnybrook said, Hey, you're counting my sheep!

Stop counting my sheep, said Mr. Donnybrook.

Why, the very idea, said Mrs. Donnybrook.

I guess I know my sheep, don't I?

How? Said Mr. Donnybrook.

They're cattle, said Mrs. Donnybrook.

They're cattle, and longhorns at that.

Furthermore, said Mrs. Donnybrook, us cattle ranchers is shore tired o' you sheepmen plumb ruinin' our water.

I give yuh fair warnin', said Mrs. Donnybrook, yuh better git them wooly Gila monsters o' yourn back across the Rio Grande afore mornin' or I'm a-goin' to string yhuh up on the nearest cottonwood.

Carramba! Sneered Mrs. Donnybrook. Thees ees free range, no?

No, said Mrs. Donnybrook, not for sheepmen.

She strung him up on the nearest cottonwood.

Mr. Donnybrook had never been so bored in his life.

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