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Ogden Nash in retrospect

Ogden Nash published his first poem in 1931, and for the better part of the next four decades he served in serious jest as poet laureate of the American middle class. After 1968 or so, he kept right on serving, but the middle class, as it has existed in 1931, no longer was there.

Nash sang of crabgrass, too many bills, appliances that don't work, the strain on the affections of playing bridge - the petty vexations of the petty bourgeoisie. He did not bother to restring his lyre when suburbia cautiously went swinging in the late '60s and staged a costume party of the hip.

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Nash was equally innocent of what came to be known as Social Awareness. There were only two classes in his world: the middle class and the very rich. No lower class existed for Nash. The middle class was his lower class. His poverty level got defined by not having a yacht.

The first lines of his first poem, ''Spring Comes to Murray Hill,'' placed Nash once and for all: ''I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue,/And say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?'' The 61 other poems in a Nash retrospective titled ''A Penny Saved Is Impossible'' (Little, Brown, $10.95) play fugal variations on that fretting theme. Nash escaped his Madison Avenue advertising job, but he never escaped what his generation came to call the ''rat race.''

With considerable feeling he wrote: I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nousiance.

In keeping with the middle-class myth, it was Nash's habit to pretend that ''Money Is Everything,'' as one title bluntly put it. Just give the poet lots of Riviera idleness and a Rockefeller income, verse after verse pleads, and you can do what you will with the third wish, dear reader.

Alas, underneath the bravado, Nash was the Good Soldier in the Gray Flannel Suit, uncomfortable on vacation, ready to respond with knee-jerk reflex to the summons of another awful Monday (''the day that everything starts all over again''). He resented the idle rich who ''insist on being stealthy/About the pleasures of being wealthy.'' But he knew, like all smart fantasists, that he was not really cut out for his dream. In a moment of candor he admitted: Torpor is harrowing, sloth it is irksome - Everyone ready? Let's go out and worksome.

Like Robert Benchley and James Thurber, Nash could become his own cartoon character - charmingly inept and bumbling. But, like Thurber especially, he was often on the verge of wrath, and even bitterness. ''A Man Can Complain, Can't He?'' reads the title of one of his less rollicking poems.

If he had been complaining only about bills and crabgrass and video (''most of it is hideo''), Nash would scarcely deserve to be called poet, for such concerns are irredeemably prosaic. But inside the jester, another Nash struggles to get out - pushing his way past those tortured rhymes.

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Almost every line of Nash is funny - bouncing with wordplay, standing one cliche or another on its pointy head. Almost every poem of Nash, taken in its entirety, has a wince to its smile. There is the shadow of a passion that the comedian cannot quite accommodate.

For the sake of his readers or for the sake of himself - who knows? - Nash kept things light and provincial, squarely in the center of middle-class banter. But there was something he stretched for that lay outside the suburbs of his soul. By never mentioning it, he never let a reader forget it.

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