Saturday, 17 May 2008


Losing the Context: What’s so funny?

A search for an illustration the other day (this one, if you must know), sent me thumbing through my ancient[1] copy of The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll, Dover, 1960The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll. This Dover reprint of a 1933 Macmillan edition includes all the standard poems (“Jabberwocky,” “Father Willliam,” “The Hunting of the Snark,” etc.), along with 100-some more obscure ones. Re-reading them (along with the book’s limited annotations) left me (again) suspecting that I was often missing out on the joke: For some poems (“Hiawatha’s Photographing”) it remains instantly obvious, but in many others– some of them quite elaborate productions– the humor is a bit opaque to my own late 20th-Century background.  That is not surprising. Before Martin Gardner[2] I was unaware that Alice’s two recitations (“How doth...” and “’Tis the voice of the lobster...”) parody a pair of Isaac Watts’s Divine and Moral Songs for Children, songs that, while doubtless familiar to any English child growing up in the last half of the 19th century, were unknown to me.  Aha!  Making fun becomes more fun when you know what’s being made fun of.

Well, after all, Carroll wrote almost 150 years ago.  Lot of water over the dam since then; time passes and references lose meaning.

But it really brought me up short when I discovered a loss of context related to something within my own lifetime.

A week or so ago, on my regular bookstore run, I spotted a new Ogden Nash collection.  That, or I should say, Nash, may be problematic right from The Best of Ogden Nashthe start: I first encountered him in my high school literature course, but I wonder if he merits even a mention now.  Probably only as one of those “white male writers of the early 20th Century” who (along with Ring Lardner, S.J. Perlman, E.B. White, James Thurber, and H. Allen Smith) get a passing acknowledgement as the class rushes ahead to its next appreciation of Maya Angelou. But anyway...

For those who tuned in late, Ogden Nash was a poet, lyricist, lecturer, broadcaster, and wit. Born in 1902, went to Harvard, in 1930 began writing for The New Yorker. His poems are quintessential light verse: brief (and pithy), replete with wordplay (including puns, misspellings, and unexpected rhymes), often whimsical, invariably good-humored. But not always politically-correct:


Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

(He was, after all, a creature of his time.)

By the time of his death in 1971, critics were hailing him as “America’s poet laureate of light verse.”  The Post Office memorialized him with a stamp in 2002.

I was glad to see this collection come out, especially because it fills a gap in my library.  (And if you don’t have any Nash– and especially if you don’t know him– I urge you to grab a copy.)  Just think: 548 Nash poems, selected by the poet’s daughters, arranged (by topic) into “chapters of sorts.” 548 Nash poems- many unfamiliar.  548 Nash poems!  I couldn’t wait.  I plopped in the Comfy Chair, and plowed right in.

And on page 7(!), I found this:


Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads
And not the road.

Now, if you’re of a certain age (but not a lot younger than I), you’ll recognize that meter.  You’ll chuckle when you get to the end, and chuckle again when you glance back at the title.  And the younger folks (unless they have a special interest in Americana) will have no idea what you’re chuckling about.

Because back in 1925...
There was a certain shaving cream company that wanted to promote its product. Highway travel was just coming in, and some advertising genius got the idea of stringing six consecutive small billboards along the roadside, each of the first five with one line of a (periodically-replaced) jingle, the last with the product name: “Burma-Shave.” All across America. The campaign ran for almost 40 years, becoming an American icon (and serving as the inspiration for numerous jokes, and at least one book). But it was doomed by the advent of the interstate, and the resultant higher speeds. The last official signs were removed in 1963.

Most of the jingles promoted the product:
Grandpa's beard
was stiff and coarse
and that's what
caused his
fifth divorce

but many had safety messages. On a narrow 2-lane road:
Don't stick
Your elbow
Out so far
It might go home
in another car
Burma Shave

And so, after the history lesson, we arrive at all the humor. Nash has written a Burma-Shave-style safety message, but one that urges drivers to watch the road, not read the signs. (And there’s a pun lurking in “lather,” too.)  It's all about context.

Which comes around to the only shortcomings for this book: No annotations, and no publication history. (Only “within each chapter the poems are placed in roughly chronological order.”)  Was “Lather” from a 1935 issue of The New Yorker, written in some let’s-needle-the-hicks- and-the-advertising-people mood, or did it appear in some 1952  Saturday Evening Post, as a gentle nudge to the reader?  Or did it make its initial appearance in one of his published anthologies, as a special surprise for his fans?  We aren’t told: We’re left with the poems alone.

Which, in its way, is a good thing.  Too much explanation (as demonstrated above) can spoil the fun.

But I wonder how many jokes I’ll be missing because I don’t know the context.

Quotations are from The Best of Ogden Nash, foreword by Linell Nash Smith.
Wikipedia article (with a collection of the verses):  Burma-Shave

[1] ancient enough that my $4.00 copy now sells for $11.95.

[2] in The Annotated Alice, original pub. Clarkson N. Potter, 1959; updated and expanded edition W.W. Norton, 1999

[3] This UCLA Library Exhibition Checklist (from 1998) matches many of Carroll’s poems to the (purported) source works, although IMO some of the “matches” (e.g., “Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation” to Longfellow’s “Excelsior”) seem a bit of a stretch.

Posted by: Old Grouch in Reviews at 19:44:52 GMT | No Comments | Add Comment
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