Frederic Ogden Nash: Poems Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Timothy Sexton
Much of Nash’s humor is directed toward satirizing the contemporary state of urban society and the many negative elements that city living had on personal independence and identity. This thematic coherence can easily be seen in a poem like “I Will Arise and Go Now” in which the speaker concludes his description of a Tibetan llama as a man whose existence is defined by a dearth of modern “necessities” by confessing that he would like to join him. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is how that urban alienation obstructing emotional connection can be interpreted in a more abstract form in his poem “The Pig” which situates an empathetic view of the animal’s usefulness with a cynical view of it being stupid to allow itself to become a bounteous supply of food.
Speaking of pigs…and hippos…and octopi…and turtles, mules, and termites and, well, just about every other creature on earth, Ogden Nash reserved a special place in his poetry for animals. Sometimes he brings his animals into play merely for some clever wordplay; more often, they are utilized to draw a parallel—or, more often—a contrast to the people responsible for all that angst he felt. Nobody ever wrote more memorable poems populated by a more varied menagerie that served to teach more profound lessons about the foibles and failings of the human species than Nash.
For Nash, language is entirely symbolic and to be utilized for one singular purpose: creating meaning. As such, he routinely dismissed from consideration many rules: where most poets insist on a stanza containing at least four lines, he was perfectly happy with two. He invented words, experimented with spelling and had little respect for poetic meter if it interfered with the ultimate aim of arriving at a meaning by the time the reader reached the final word. While Nash is perhaps surprisingly literal in his imagery, his engagement with the words that create that imagery is overwhelmingly figurative and not to be constrained by rules without purpose.
Ogden Nash writes about the complex interrelationships between husbands, wives and their children to create a sustained and recurring motif which has the collective effect of domestic issues symbolizing war. Not a bloody war; more of a Cold War. And much of this verse was written before that term came into common usage. A line like “Husbands are things that wives have to get used to putting up with” could very easily be edited to read “Russians are things that Americans have to get used to putting up with” without a single transformation of meaning. The laundry list of complains about what husbands do that irritate wives to such a degree could not only be readily altered to turn the poem into a statement about international relations, but about any symbiotic relationship in which the exhibition of frustration masks a manifestation of affection. Perhaps it goes a tad too far to suggest that Nash purposely set out to create in his poems of domestic life an allegory of relations on a broader scale, but intent is certainly not a necessity for creation .
Sin (on a Minor Level)
Many poets take as their subject large and expansive topics with the intent to make them symbols of the prosaic concerns of life to which the common man can relate. Like many great writers, Nash reverses this process by routinely focusing on the innocuous details of everyday life to reveal the scope of the significant. This motif is most concretely addressed in the lines:
“It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin, That lays eggs under your skin. The way you really get painfully bitten Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.”
Here, Nash makes the symbolic quite literal, but the bulk of his verse addressees the multitude of tiny sins capable of creating major emotional turmoil is done in a fashion in which the commonplace of the literal is endowed with a symbolic significance one might well call a significance of omission. The symbolic act of petty oversights and indignities creating swirling vortices of emotional turmoil has the collective effect of forcing the reader to re-evaluate just how much importance he is placing on those sins with a lower case “s.”
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