I first encountered Ogden Nash’s Giant Baby Panda poem settled like a gem in Marianne Moore’s 1944 essay “Feeling in Precision.” In the essay, Moore writes:
"Voltaire objected to those who said in enigmas what others had said naturally, and we agree; yet we must have the courage of our peculiarities. What would become of Ogden Nash, his benign vocabulary and fearless rhymes, if he wrote only in accordance with the principles set forth by our manuals of composition?
I love the Baby Giant Panda
I'd welcome one to my veranda.
I never worry, wondering maybe
Whether it isn't Giant Baby;
I leave such matters to the scientists—
The Giant Baby—and Baby Giantists.
I simply want a veranda, and a
Giant Baby Giant Panda.
This, it seems to me, is not so far removed from George Wither's motto: "I grow and wither both together.""
What immediately charmed me about this poem was the way it thwarts traditional analysis. This kind of literary subversion is, of course, par for the course with Nash, but (believe it or not) I’d never actually read an Ogden Nash poem before this one. We could ask what the panda poem means or what it’s about, but there’s no grand aphorism to be culled from the panda, nor is any particular story being told. Those means of assigning value to the poem are ultimately beside the point. We could say that this poem is about a person who loves baby pandas and would like to have one over to his veranda for a visit, but on closer inspection, the second to last line suggests that this speaker doesn’t even have a veranda in the first place. If anything at all, this poem is simply about the fact that the word panda rhymes with the word veranda, which is a delightful observation.
Insofar as it exists for the sake of reveling in sound play, Nash’s poem is a right, welcoming choice for Moore in her discussion of enigma versus “the courage of our peculiarities.” Moore locates Nash’s peculiar courage in his “fearless rhymes.” I still wonder whether Moore meant to say that our peculiarities give us courage or that it takes courage to express our peculiarities to the world, undisguised by enigma. Either way, Nash’s “Giant Baby Giant Panda” fits the bill.
Thea Brown teaches in the creative writing program at George Washington University.