“Whose Dog Are You?”

Dorothy Parker with fellow members of the Algonquin Round Table, c. 1919. (Left to right: Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott.)

Morris Dickstein

Vol. 33, 2011

 

Ogden Nash’s verse belongs not to the poetic revolutions of the twentieth century but to a forgotten era of vers de société, which had its heyday in America between the 1920s and the 1950s. Its most enduring legacy is the musical theater of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart,mand other Broadway wits. This kind of sociable verse improvised on nineteenth-century models from Byron to W. S. Gilbert even as it burlesqued the poetry of Romantic inwardness that looms behind Prufrock’s ambiguous anguish. Light verse, like witty musical theater, scarcely survived the horrors of midcentury—war, holocaust, and cold war—that gave new credence to the darker flights of the modern imagination, from Kafka to Eliot. Nor was its boisterous irreverence still welcome in popular culture, which was overwhelmed after the war by an enforced optimism laced with sugary sentiment.

 Perhaps the greatest irony is that the golden age of light verse coincided so closely with the peak years of the modernist poetry that dispatched it and made its insouciant wit seem shallow, its formal dexterity retrograde. Simply as attitude, Nash’s recoil from modern life is not so distant from Eliot’s, but his verbal resources are different. He could not have written, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” though he might have been in tune with the satiric bent of Eliot’s refrain, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Cultural pretension was always one of his targets even though, like Eliot, he was immensely cultivated. The New Yorker writer of Nash’s era was typically a philistine who mocked highbrows, priding himself on being in touch with ordinary life. But he (usually he) was also an avatar of style, displaying a sumptuous range of cultural reference and, above all, a keen interest in language itself as something to be lovingly protected yet fully exploited.

 

 

 

 

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