Today in Literary History – May 19, 1971 – humorous poet Ogden Nash dies

Ogden Nash, famed for his humorous poems featuring unexpected rhymes, idiosyncratic spelling, and wistful sentiments, died on May 19, 1971 at the age of 68.

He had suffered from Crone’s Disease and other gastric ailments throughout his life. He fell ill after eating some coleslaw that turned out to have been contaminated. This led to his hospitalization, followed by further infections and complications, and finally a stroke, resulting in his death.

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Nash was one of the most popular and beloved American poets of his time, and as The Poetry Foundation says such lines as “If called by a panther, / Don’t anther,” and “In the vanities / No one wears panities,” and “Candy / Is dandy, / But liquor / Is quicker” have become bits of popular American folklore.

He had the remarkable ability to be both popular with the public, even those who rarely read poetry, and also respected by the poetic establishment who appreciated the craft and the attention to detail that went into his seemingly simple poems.

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Nash’s great-great-great grandfather, Abner Nash, had been the governor of North Carolina in the Revolutionary era, and Abner’s brother, Francis Nash, was a Revolutionary War general for whom the city Nashville, Tennessee, was named.

Nash himself was born in Rye, New York in 1902. His father was a businessman who moved his family frequently throughout Nash’s childhood, although Nash considered Baltimore, Maryland to be his real home.

Despite a stint in New York City, Nash lived in Baltimore most of his adult life, even after his fame and his association with The New Yorker magazine would have made living in New York more practical. (“I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more,” he once wrote.)

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After dropping out of Harvard after only one term Nash worked as a teacher and in advertising and publishing in New York, all the while submitting humorous poems to various magazines.

His first submissions to The New Yorker caught the eye of its legendary editor Harold Ross who wrote Nash that his poems “are about the most original stuff we have had lately.’’ This led to Nash being hired as a staff writer.

Nash’s first collection of poems, Hard Lines was published in 1931, to great success. Nash published over 500 poems in his life and 20 collections of poetry as well as children’s books. He also collaborated with S. J. Perelman and Kurt Weill on the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus.

He was also a popular guest on television and radio game shows in the 1950s and 60s which showcased his geniality and quick wit.

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For his centenary in 2002, The US Postal Service put Nash on a stamp.

Some of Nash’s poems suffer today due to the problematic gender and ethnic attitudes of his day which they reflect. But, by and large, most of his poems are as fresh and funny now as ever, and just as revealing of human foibles and fears.

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