The Conquerors Essay - Essays and Criticism

Phyllis McGinley

Essays and Criticism

Light Verse

Although she may not have been either the first nor the last person to define her writing as light poetry, McGinley was, nonetheless, among those who agreed with this tag, although she did have some reservations. In her essay, “The Light Side of the Moon,” she writes that “conscious techniques . . . are important to poetry and particularly vital to that narrow branch of the profession in which I specialize. I write what is called Light Verse (as opposed, perhaps, to Ponderous Verse).” McGinley is making three points with this statement. She is acknowledging that her poetry has been relegated by her critics to a somewhat offstage position in relation to the whole realm of poetics. Her poetry has and probably always will be referred to as “light.” Next, she is making it known that even though her poetry is referred to in these terms, this does not mean that writing light verse is something that can be done without effort. In other words, poetry does not come forth from some magical place of pure inspiration, whether it is considered light verse or not. Writing poetry is deliberate work in all its forms. And finally, McGinley is saying, in her usual tongue-in-cheek manner, that even though her poetry might always be tagged with this “light” label, it does not mean that her poetry does not inspire thought.

So questions that these comments might summon up could be such as these: Why is McGinley’s poetry considered light verse? Why is light verse generally considered to have little meaning? And when McGinley writes about topics as serious as war, death, and mass destruction, as in her poem “The Conquerors,” how does she pull this off and still give the impression that her topic is not ponderous? How does she convey her meaning?

According to several definitions of light verse, McGinley’s poem fits into the category very easily, at least in some aspects. First, her poem displays technical competence. “The Conquerors” is written in a very consciously laid out meter and includes a very carefully chosen rhyming pattern. The meter and rhyming scheme in this poem are so perfect, as a matter of fact, that they could almost be considered monotonous. The poem has a cadence that people could march to. War protesters could shout these lyrics as they paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

McGinley’s choice of words in this poem demonstrates a technical grasp of vocabulary that is so competent that she can portray a powerful image in a very simple and straightforward manner. There is little if any need for most elementary school children to have to consult a dictionary to understand this poem. The historic allusions aside, the only words a fifth grade student might not know the meaning for are “vainglorious,” “smiting,” “garnered,” and “smithereens.” But these words may be somewhat unfamiliar, not because they belong to some esoteric vocabulary but because the words, themselves, are dated. They just aren’t used anymore on television or in the world of an eleven-year-old child. Not only are the words in this poem easy to understand, the images that are cast through these words are right out of the movies. Once the allusions to the battles are recognized, the epic battle scenes become very familiar. They’ve been recreated so many times that who among McGinley’s readers, or for that matter among some fifth grade class, could say that they could not imagine them?

Wit is another element that is often mentioned in reference to light verse, and McGinley definitely demonstrates her wittiness in this poem. She does this in several ways. Her rhymes are witty, for one. For example, the way she rhymes “homicidal” with “never idle” is not only a clever use of words, but it also reinforces the satire of her poem by linking these two concepts together. Satire is another element of some light verse. It is a way of highlighting human shortcomings by ridiculing them; and by linking “homicidal” with “never idle,” McGinley is pretending to praise the ancestors because they were both busy and competent in their killing of one another. By setting up this image, not only is she mocking the ancestors, but she is also mocking modern warmongers as well. How can you be so proud of your homicidal prowess, she asks the omnipotent Atom-man, when long ago, long before bombs and modern weaponry were produced, people killed one another with stones? How ridiculous to be proud of some creation that does no more than a stone did. Of course, behind these words, McGinley is criticizing anyone who is proud of killing, no matter what their reasons and no matter what their weapons.

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