Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Who Said That, No. 2: The Panther

Early in my life as a newspaper reporter, I had a desk next to a columnist who has continued on to a fine career writing for magazines and film.   Very talented, and a nice guy to boot.

One afternoon, as he was ending his day gig and I was starting on the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. night shift (chasing earlier stories our paper had missed and many, many reports of violence) we fell into conversation about Ogden Nash, the early 20th century humorous poet we both admired.

My colleague gave me this Nash quote:

   "If you hear the knock of a panther, don't anther."

I loved it.  It sustained me through one evening's share of panic and gore.  I've repeated it over the years, often to great effect, at social events.

Unfortunately, we both got it wrong.

Recently, I looked up the quote.  It comes from an Ogden Nash poem that goes like this:

Ogden Nash

The Panther
The panther is like a leopard,  
Except it hasn't been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch,
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don't anther.

I still prefer my colleague's version.  Who needs the "peppered" stuff?  Or the "Ouch" business?  And the last two lines don't flow comfortably.

The whole thing works best as a couplet: "If you hear the knock of a panther, don't anther."  Several generations of amateur oral historians have improved on the original.

Nash was a smart guy, and no doubt he dashed this off quickly.  I picture him scribbling it down, perhaps on the back of an envelope, as he waited for his friends to join him for a drink in the bar at the Algonquin.

Back in the good old days, when many writers were paid by the word, it made sense for poets like Nash to stretch out their observations, sometimes, as here, in the six-line form, now known as a sestet or sestina.

Now, by contrast, everyone from reality show stars to rock stars comment on the full range of events from the silly to the complex in the extreme short form, with Twitter posts.  How things have changed.

Note: My first "Who Said That?" post on April 20 concerned a famous comment attributed to two different legendary university leaders.

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