The Billings Outpost

Ogden Nash's rare genius


“One thing literature would be better for

Is a more sparing use of simile and metaphor.”

If you recognize Ogden Nash’s genius in those lines, your memory fails you.

I wrote them. More precisely, I carved them from a longer Nash quote.

What Nash really wrote was: “One thing that literature would be greatly the better for

Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor.”

Stumbling onto Nash’s version recently startled me. His lines, from the poem “Very Like a Whale,” seemed wordy. I preferred the truncated form I have mistakenly attributed to Nash for most of my life. After all, it was familiar.

In poetry and verse, it’s good to be terse. To be verbose is worse.

Only kidding about Nash’s doggerel. He knew more than anyone that light

verse was heavy work. Incidentally, the name of Nash’s poem is a reference to a scene in “Hamlet” in which the Prince and a pompous bureaucrat discuss the shape of clouds. Nash loved poking fun at classic literature and no one did it better.

My own romance with figures of speech began when I was hardly old enough to speak. One day, standing on a chair, looking at the world beyond a window, I watched the rain blacken the earth and fill puddles in the front yard.

Bubbles bloomed wherever rain drops struck the puddles’ surface. The sight reminded me of eggs frying in bacon grease in my mama’s skillet.

I pointed a pudgy finger at the natural show outside. “Fryn eggs,” I said.

Several members of my family were either reading or listening to the radio that stormy afternoon. None responded.

“FRYN EGGS!” I barked.

My brother looked up from a fresh copy of “Popular Science.”

“What?” he asked.

“Fryn eggs,” I repeated.

My mother turned down the radio to join this exchange. “What did he say?”

“The little dimwit has no idea what he’s talking about. He’s just making noise.”

“Sumabidge,” I mumbled.

“WHAT?” my brother sputtered.

It was my turn to say nothing.

Romney says Obama has failed as a coach. As I read this, I picture the president in a baseball cap with a silver whistle hanging from his neck.

Obama answers the accusation with a charge that Romney is more apt to punt than face problems head on. I see Romney catching a ball shot his way by his long hiker, Paul Ryan.

Jon Tester said in one of his ads that he would not kick problems down the road. Is this a promise not to punt? If he doesn’t kick the problem down the road, what does he do? Pick it up and run with it? That would do if he didn’t step out of bounds.

Nash outlined his quarrel with similes and metaphors as a writer’s perversity: “Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts, Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else.”

My attention was drawn again to figures of speech as the political campaigns raced toward their climaxes. I recall the homegrown that nourished my literacy from the age of 4. Some of the best came from cowboys.

Figures of speech like “raining like a cow emptying her bladder on a flat rock.” I haven’t heard that one for ages. It’s been ages since it rained that enthusiastically in Yellowstone County.

If you ever hear that simile loosed in sloppy weather, you might not recognize it because cowboys usually use the full strength version. Just remember, if it pairs cows and flat rocks in the rain, the bladder will soon follow.

Postscript: Nash was descended from the brother of General Francis Nash, who gave his name to Nashville, Tenn.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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