Whimsical Poet Richard Armour Dies

Times Staff Writer

Shake and shake

The catsup bottle.

None will come,

And then a lot'll.

Richard Armour, the prolific poet, satirist, teacher and wizard of whimsy who wrote the above doggerel and thousands of other pieces of light verse and prose, much to the delight of several generations of readers, died Tuesday.

Armour was 82 and died in a Claremont convalescent home. He had been afflicted for some time with Parkinson's disease.

Armour, who led a double life as a Scripps College professor and popular author, once said he wore two costumes: the cap and gown of the academician and the cap and bells of a clown. Throughout his life he was equally beloved in either garb.

Born in San Pedro, Armour was brought up in Pomona where he went to public schools and Pomona College. His aim as a writer, the New York Times said many years ago, "is to sum up in four lines what a pedant would call a universal truth--and to leave it writhing."

That poem is a splendid thing.

I love to hear you quote it.

I like the thought, I like the swing.

I like it all. (I wrote it).

That short verse, from Armour's 1971 "Writing Light Verse and Prose Humor," typified Armour's approach to himself and his work--the work of a man who often said, "I am fascinated by words.

"Perhaps," he continued in an interview in the anthology "Contemporary Authors," "because I took a Ph.D. in English philology at Harvard, studying 10 dead or deadly languages. Dictionaries surround me while I write and I call my place of work my wordshop. I envy Wordsworth his name, the perfect name for a writer. . . ."

Since 1935 when he began poking fun at whatever and whoever crossed his path, Armour had published more than 10,000 pieces of assorted poetry that the longtime Claremont resident said he first was inspired to write by reading the works of the 18th-Century satirist Jonathan Swift. But Armour had no pretenses that his voluminous output would survive the ages as has the author of "Gulliver's Travels" and "A Modest Proposal."

With most of his books out of print, Armour said in a Times interview last April, he doubted that his place in American letters was secure. "I really don't think my work is lasting," he said.

But permanent or temporal, it was always fun.

The writer and teacher who one day would lecture at 200 campuses worldwide but mostly at Scripps College in Claremont until his semi-retirement and elevation to professor emeritus 22 years ago, found time not only for 65 books--most of which featured at least some verse--but a widely syndicated newspaper column, Armour's Armory. He also contributed to more than 200 magazines in the United States and England, ranging from the New Yorker to the Saturday Evening Post.

His satire extended into all aspects of life--love, education, child-rearing, how to pronounce "n" as in "fish 'n' chips," even to American presidents who died in office:

Yes, Tyler signed with steady pen

His vetoes fell like snow.

And was he reelected then, or nominated? No.

After 16 months, a short while indeed

His term hadn't yet expired, but he'd.

Once a four-line poem of his on chlorophyll was used without his permission to advertise Life Savers candies, and the company attributed it to an old proverb. Armour sued, collected and went to Europe on the proceeds. He loved to note over the years that he got more for that stanza than John Milton had for "Paradise Lost."

Armour--whether he liked it or not--was often compared to fellow poet and satirist Ogden Nash, many times ending up in second place. But Nash, who died in 1971, never appeared with Groucho Marx on "You Bet Your Life," or was a frequent guest of Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

Armour's first published work was not the lighthearted nonsense stanzas that were to mark his life, but a serious treatise on Bryan Waller Procter, the 19th-Century British poet better known as Barry Cornwall. It was Armour's dissertation at Harvard.

After receiving his doctoral there, Armour taught at the University of Texas, then at Northwestern and at the College of the Ozarks in Arkansas. In 1934 he went to Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., where he stayed until 1945, except for wartime duty as a lieutenant colonel on the War Department General Staff under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His first book of light verse, "Yours for the Asking" in 1942, was a collection of stanzas collected primarily from the pages of the New Yorker. Most involved the tedium of what today would be considered life in the suburbs.

In 1946 he published "Golf Bawls" and in 1950 "For Partly Proud Parents" (the Armours had two children). More of his four- and two-line verses appeared in "Writing Light Verse" in 1947 in which he discussed his techniques, and "It All Started With Columbus" in 1953.

That was followed by "It All Started With Europa," in 1955, a book that the old New York Herald Tribune said "should be chained to the bedside."

He published another "started" book ("It All Started With Eve") in 1956, which Armour said was "a brief account of certain famous women, each of them richly endowed with some quality that drives men mad, omitting no impertinent and unbelievable fact and based upon a stupendous amount of firsthand and secondhand research, some of it in books."

In "Nights With Armour" (1958), the now-successful author observed:

With pointed remarks I often agree

Provided they haven't been pointed at me.

At about that same time he reflected on his years in the classroom with "Twisted Tales From Shakespeare" in which he not only parodied Shakespeare's plays but the millions of students who were required to study them.

(He resolved to his own satisfaction who actually wrote the works of William Shakespeare by noting that "as anyone knows who has viewed the Shakespeare signatures, if he had written the plays they would have been illegible.")

In the 1960s he offered in both light verse and prose humor and satire such imaginative titles as "Punctured Poems: Famous First and Infamous Second Lines," "Golf Is a Four-Letter Word," "Through Darkest Adolescence," "My Life With Women" and "English Lit Relit" in which the author observed that "Almost nothing is known about Homer which explains why so much has been written about him."

The 1970s brought "The Spouse in the House," "It All Started With Freshman English" and "The Happy Bookers: A Playful History of Librarians and Their World From the Stone Age to the Distant Future."

As with the earlier Armour efforts, each was intended to entertain even those readers not familiar with the subject of the satire.

And even if the verses didn't necessarily inform, they always rhymed. For Armour, like Robert Frost, likened free verse to playing tennis without a net.

In recent years, Armour's Parkinson's disease had severely limited both his literary output and his beloved golf game and he spent much of the time left to him revising his earlier works, which filled his Japanese-style home.

Asked last April who in literary history he would have most wanted to meet, Armour didn't mention Dean Swift or Robert Frost or even Ogden Nash.

"Chaucer," was the succinct and instantaneous reply.

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