Poetry Friday: 1941 (with a dash of humor)

It’s going to be a busy weekend for me—a good friend’s visit to town will not only get Betsy and I back out into this lovely city we live in, but will distract me from the incessant election news that has me almost paralyzed anytime I’m near a computer screen.  Given the fixation so many of us Americans have on the upcoming election, and yet simultaneously how overwhelmed everyone in the country seems to be (it’s not just 4 year olds that would like the news to start talking about ANYTHING else), I thought it would be nice to offer a little poem as a kickoff to the weekend that expresses both the sense of important doings in the world out there, and the sense that we’d really rather be done with it all.

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain t...

That’s right, Sammy boy, I honestly think you’re over-rated. Nice job on Huck Finn, though. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Into this area of need steps the incomparable Ogden Nash, America’s greatest poetic wit, and maybe our finest humorist (I know, I know, Mark Twain fans, but come on—word for word, Ogden packs way more wallop than Twain ever did).  In 1941, his collection of verse entitled The Face is Familiar is a cavalcade of his very best work—some of the best known short poems ever written by an American (“The Cow” is great—“The cow is of the bovine ilk; / one end is moo, the other, milk.“—and his “Reflections on Ice-Breaking” makes a cameo appearance in the classic 1970s film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory…the poem, in total, reads “Candy / is dandy / but liquor / is quicker.“).  The genius of Nash, though, is that the hits keep coming—2-6 line poems about animals like the camel, the rhinoceros, and the shrew are scattered throughout the volume, almost all of them brilliant little things, and they’re interspersed by a delightfully irascible series of grumpings and jabs at the upper middle class Americans who surrounded Nash and the trials and tribulations they take too seriously.  Maybe the very best of these poems is “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man”—a riff on James Joyce’s title that says both funny and serious things about sin, of all topics—but I’ll let you discover that on your own.  Seriously, folks—if you don’t own a volume of Ogden Nash to pull off the shelf and cackle with at the end of a bad day, go unto a store this very weekend and remedy the deficiency.  You won’t be sorry.

So, for today, I’ll offer a poem (with abbreviated commentary following it) that comments, as I said, both on 1941 and on our current predicaments, which are alike and not alike.  Its closing sentiment, though, is the universal cry of humanity in the media’s modern age.  This, without any further ado, is Ogden Nash’s “Everybody Tells Me Everything”:

I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
The daily paper is so harrowing that it is costly even at the modest price of two cents;
It lands on your doorstep with a thud and you can’t bear to look at it but neither can you forbear, because it lies there with all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.
And you think that perhaps a leisurely perusal of some unsensational literary magazine will ease the stress,
And there you find an article presenting a foolproof plan for the defense of some small nation which unfortunately happened to get swallowed up by a nation not so small just as the article presenting the foolproof plan for its defense slid off the press.
And you furtively eye your radio which crouches in the corner like a hyena ready to spring,
And you know that what you want is Baby Snooks or Dr. I.Q. and you know that what you will get is Elmer Davis or a European roundup or Raymond Gram Swing.
Wherever you turn, whatever escapist stratagem you use,
All you get is news,
And just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like to get the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.

Nash’s poetry breaks all the rules—he ignores rhythm almost completely, and produces poems that are almost completely prose, except for his bizarre fixation with the rhyming couplet that imposes itself on every single line.  I find the effect almost giddily amusing every time—even when, as in this case, he’s using that humorous edge to aim at something a lot more serious—and wrote a poem imitating the style when I was in college that for a while made regular appearances whenever I was called upon to read my poems at a public event (which is to say, really almost never).  Nash captures, without seemingly even trying to, that beautiful balance between the way we ought to be and the way we really would rather be.  Is this poem a shameless defense of his desire to ignore serious news (remember, Davis and Swing are reporters from war-torn London—he’s an American whining about his jolly radio programs being interrupted by the inconvenient bulletins from war-torn Europe), or a biting satire aimed at people who sincerely complain about this?  Oddly, as much as I see the satire, I think there is a bit of both here.  One of Nash’s strengths is getting us to clamp down on the sarcasm and the joke while simultaneously recognizing ourselves in the starring role as the butt of it.  We indict ourselves while we laugh, recognizing our own weaknesses on the chopping block.  Nash is not a political poet, not an activist of really any kind, and his W. C. Fields routine doesn’t work for all occasions, but I don’t know anybody who couldn’t use a bit of this in their lives—a combination of whimsy (as in the poem about the cow, etc.) and sharp-eyed needling at the rough edges of the human race.  We are really very slightly changed by the 70+ years that separate us from any of the poems in The Face is Familiar.  I hope this one provides you with a bit of a (self-deprecatory?) laugh this weekend (especially if you are among the beleaguered survivors of a too-long election season), and provokes you to find a volume of Nash’s stuff and dig in.  I spent a happy hour settling on a poem for this Friday, and I’m sure one’s waiting for you too.


2 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1941 (with a dash of humor)

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for the Nash poem which is entirely appropriate. Wall-to-wall election coverage became annoying, but here in the Northeast it has been replaced by storm coverage which is worse than annoying — it is full of pain.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m so sorry about the lasting impact of Sandy (and this present nor’easter, which I hope is less serious than it sounds)—I hope you and yours are all safe and sound, and that the communities affected will be rebuilt and restored soon!

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