Phyllis McGinley Essay - Critical Essays


One of the best modern writers of light verse, Phyllis McGinley stands out for presenting the reader with clever and recognizable portraits of the twentieth century world. Although a few of her poems are dated because they are so closely connected with a particular time period, most survive because they deal with everyday situations: visiting family, shopping, fighting with the machines in the household that never seem to work correctly, waiting in line, listening to the dentist. These poems are based on her own experiences and present a wry and witty view of urban and suburban life. However, McGinley also derives many of her poems from newspaper headlines. In fact, glancing through Times Three shows that many of her best poems were inspired by her responses to headlines that she found intriguing, humorous, or outrageous. In his introduction to this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the poet W. H. Auden comments that she is “coolly realistic . . . she merely observes what is the case with deadly accuracy.”

McGinley’s work stands out not only for her unique perspective, but also for her technical virtuosity. She experiments successfully with many different poetic styles and rhyme forms, adapting the sonnet as easily as the nursery rhyme to her themes.

Stones from a Glass House

Stones from a Glass House collects primarily poems that were published in various magazines during the years from 1940 through 1946. The first portion of the book, “The Time Is Now,” contains sonnets describing suburban living, recording such incidents as upsets at a beauty parlor and the scene at a railroad station when the commuter train returns from New York. It both laments the problems and praises the joys of middle-class life. For example, in “The Chosen People,” the speaker uses the style and rhythm of a nursery rhyme to complain about taxes: “I’m a middle-bracket person with a middle-bracket spouse/ And we live together gaily in a middle-bracket house.” On the other hand, the speaker in “Confessions of a Reluctant Optimist” describes herself as unable to find anything to disparage about her life.

The second section, “It Seems Like Yesterday,” focuses on war poems. Although McGinley still employs the ironic language, rhythm, and style of light verse, most of these poems present serious subjects. In addition, many view war from the woman’s point of view: the wife, the mother, the villager walking through the park who mourns the absence of the young men. The elegant sonnet “Dido of Tunisia” comments not only on war’s destruction but also on its futility. “Hamburg” mourns for the destruction of that city, noting that “Gretchen for her children weeps no louder/ Than Rachel wept.”

A Short Walk from the Station

McGinley opens A Short Walk from the Station volume with an essay, “Suburbia, of Thee I Sing,” that challenges the...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)