Make a clogged pen splash like Ogden Nash
Or, do what you moderately like, I guess?
If Kazuo Ishiguro had followed his passion, he never would have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As Janan Ganesh explained in a Financial Times column headlined “The Power of Indifference,” Ishiguro’s bejewelled writing career was a fallback after his early dreams of rock stardom fizzled. The fact that the man who wrote Remains of The Day would rather have been playing guitar helped him “stave off the ruinous tension that comes from caring too much,” in Ganesh’s view.
Of course, Ishiguro clearly has an aptitude for the written word, so the lesson is less “don’t do what you love” than “do what you merely like and have at least some aptitude for,” if life lessons with dangling prepositions can be believed. But then, rambly, caveat-filled, grammatically questionable life lessons are a bit too much like life to be memorable.
Ogden Nash, proclaimed Master of Light Verse in his 1971 obituary, never wanted to write light verse. Like his contemporary Phyllis McGinley, he tried to be serious, writing mystery stories as he laboured for a book publisher in Jazz Age New York City. But this was a man whose poems jumped into the parlance, like:
Candy is dandy / but liquor is quicker
(Later augmented with “Pot / Is not.”)
He had an amazing facility with the forced rhyme, shaving off letters and respelling words in a consistently amusing way. Four favourites, taken completely out of context:
The Louvre/Herbert Houvre
And two more extracts, with a bit more context:
Sweet talk is scant by Lake Cayuga
But in Tennessee, they chatta nougat
Does anybody want any flotsam?
Does anybody want any jetsam?
I can getsam
The tale of Nash’s big break is proof that serendipity plays so big a role in most lives that it’s basically useless to draw any lessons from them. As Nash explained in a eulogy for his friend and colleague Dan Longwell in 1970, he wrote his light verse for fun. But once, while he was playing golf with Longwell, he riffed a few lines about Robert Byrd’s recent exploits in Antarctica.
While we were relaxing at the 19th hole, after the game, I scrawled a bit of doggerel on the back of what was, I guess, a scorecard. Dan retrieved it and disappeared, presumably to deposit it in an appropriate place. I thought no more about it until the next morning when I picked up “The Conning Tower” in The New York World.
This was the most-read column in the most-read newspaper in the city, and a mention within was “the goal of every aspiring writer.” Therein Nash read what he’d scrawled on the scorecard, “stimulated by the presence of a Tom Collins”:
Huzza, Huzza for Admiral Byrd,
About whom many fine things I have heard,
Huzza, Huzza for the gallant crew
About whom many fine things have I heard too.
Huzza, Huzza for their spirit of adventure.
So very different from senile dementia.
And another huzza for the USA
Which produces so many heroes like they.
And there is the real life lesson from Ogden Nash: Be so delightful to your friends that they surreptitiously launch a brilliant career for you behind your back. Like all life lessons, your mileage may vary. There’s no guarantee that doggerel will hunt.
Quick quip; lightning
“For years a secret shame destroyed my peace —
I’d not read Eliot, Auden or MacNiece.
But now I think a thought that brings me hope:
Neither had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope.”
— “Take Heart Illiterates,” an epigram by Justin Richardson, maybe.
Link link, nudge nudge
“I will always read a novel that contains an anthropologist as a main character; like Hall & Oates or bread & butter, the sum really is greater than the parts.”
— Molly Young’s monthly books newsletter is invariably full of gems.
“It was only seventeen years ago when you could buy a single catalog that purported to guide you to absolutely everything on the World Wide Web. Now we’re into petabytes, which are 1024 terabytes, or a million gigabytes, or six fucktons.”
— Sneaky profanity is the best kind, from Ken Whyte’s SHuSH non-fiction newsletter.
“The demonstrators deployed an angry, acerbic wit but virtually no violence, and for the third weekend in a row, the authorities refrained from widespread use of force or mass detentions.”
— From the Times’ reporting on protests against Lukashenko in Belarus, and a followup to last week’s issue on How Russians Deal (spoiler: dark wit), which apparently can be expanded to cover How Belarusians Deal.
That was GWQ No. 62. The ruinous tension of caring too much has not once delayed this newsletter, so there. Maybe the lesson is “have a Tom Collins on the golf course and the rest will follow.” My book was called Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. I keep saying tap the ♥️ below and a bunch of you do, so let’s keep the magic alive.