Phyllis McGinley Essay - McGinley, Phyllis

McGinley, Phyllis


McGinley, Phyllis 1905–1978

An American poet, author of children's books, essayist, lyricist, screenplay writer, and editor, McGinley is best known for her light verse. Her technical skill combined with wise insights into everyday living save her poetry from sentimentalism. She gained an appreciative readership with Six Pence in Her Shoe, autobiographical essays on the satisfactions of being a wife and mother in suburban America. In 1961 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 75-80.)

Bette Richart

Before McGinley, love and art were the proper (and almost only) subjects of à la mode light verse. Mrs. McGinley is famous for adding suburbia to the list, and I can't quite make up my mind how I feel about it. This is the mood I like least:

For, though aware that life is what
One ought to view with wrath and gravity,
I live delighted with my lot
Sunk in content as in depravity.

Who said one ought to view life with wrath and gravity? No one I know, no book I read. And after all, content can be depravity; in our society it often is. Mrs. McGinley occasionally sounds more complacent than content, diametrically opposed states, if one stops to think about it. Fine wit attacks pomposity and cruelty, but not the true, the good, the beautiful. Self-pity is a valid target for wit, but never discontent; discontent is its well-spring. Therefore I protest the coyness of this poem and its conclusion:

Alas, alack, how well I know
My kind's a draw-back to the nation!
But here I am and here I go
Contented with the status quo
And quite beyond salvation.

That kind is beyond salvation, and the irony doesn't come off.

It was while reading Mrs. McGinley … that I began to realize that light verse has a moral obligation not to make a point at the expense of truth. To glorify the commonplace is one thing (poets have done it since time began) but to glorify the merely common is another. When she visits an art exhibit she has … reactions more surprising than amusing in a civilized being.

Ladies whose necks are long and swanny
Are always signed Modigliani.
But flowers explosive in a crock?

The rejoinder is obvious enough:

Flowers explosive in a crock
I fear are more van Gogh than Braque.

In light verse more than other kinds, one must be chary of saying just anything for the sake of a clever rhyme. Occasionally Mrs. McGinley does this, and almost always in an appeal to the popular viewpoint. Fun at the expense of modern art ought to be as passé as the hula hoop…. (p. 278)

Her variety, her usual (but alas, not...

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Linda Welshimer Wagner

[Miss McGinley] is something rather rare in twentieth-century literature, or so the social observers would have us believe. She is a woman who speaks her mind—and not a bad mind at that. She believes firmly in religion, in personal morality, in the beauty of fine, old things and of the finest of old principles. She responds to sympathy, enjoys nature, worrries about her children, grows impatient with trivia—and trivial people. McGinley enjoys good living, but not at the expense of other values or of other personalities. No paragon, no exemplar, no saint, she is a person—full, idiosyncratic, just, understanding, witty, recognizable.

Readers identify with her …; readers laugh with her; they condone and admire her. They say, "Oh, Phyllis McGinley—yes, yes, I know her." And in a very real sense they do, for she comes through vividly in much of her writing…. The most essential quality of Phyllis McGinley, poet, is not, however, her approachability—not her humor. It is, simply, her poetic skill.

Miss McGinley has published widely and has been honored frequently because she is a good poet. She writes with a technical proficiency equal to that of the best-known poets through history. She knows how to use the full range of poetic devices; and she writes with the freedom, the innovation, possible only after a person has thoroughly mastered the ground rules of an art…. I suppose it is this reciprocity of abilities that makes Phyllis McGinley the outstanding literary figure she is: her humanity infuses her technically adept poem; and her respect for workmanship keeps even her most emotional poems from being mawkish. (pp. vii-viii)

McGinley's first books—On the Contrary (1934) and One More Manhattan (1937)—appeared while the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The effects of that economic catastrophe are evident in some of her poems, but more often McGinley comments obliquely on social inequalities. Her moving "Trinity Place" … vividly contrasts starving men and fat pigeons; her sonnet "Love in the Depression" describes the difficulties of love for "the luckless brood, this generation's litter"

… who see their love's good metal
Moment by moment darken to their gaze
In the dank air of these corroding days….

Poems more representative of McGinley's attitudes during these years, however, are "The Kingdom and the Glory," "Apostrophe to a Nephew," "The Further Off from England," and "Message from Mars." These poems ridicule the commonplace preoccupations of a nation—and a world—in which thousands were going hungry and as many thousands were being crushed by fascism. People went about their mundane concerns, thinking them "questions so profound." (p. 44)

In her 1960 selected poems, Times Three, McGinley has grouped these poems of social commentary under the title "The Threadbare Years." At first glance, we relate the title to the Depression; but, again, this title seems to be ambiguity at its best. Most of the poems in the section deal not with the economics of the world so much as with its morals…. Most of the poems in this group include epigraphs or quotations from daily newspapers. Their inclusion substantiates McGinley's irony: the world is like this; these things do occur.

What Miss McGinley does with these fragments of life is also interesting. She does not rant or rave. She very neatly deflates the hypocritical—as in "Wrong Formula." Irony appears to expert advantage in "Millennium." And she works with all her poetic art to emphasize the moral tragedy of war in "Carol with Variations, 1936." (pp. 44-5)

In collecting poems from the 1930's in Times Three, McGinley groups many of them under the heading of "Personal Remarks." Here are the poet's idiosyncrasies: her dislike of the "steadfast ration of ham" in Southern restaurants; her love of winter and its necessary laziness, of a hot bath, of a good bed; her criticism of "progressive" education, of mechanical "inconveniences"; her admiration for women. Here, too, is found McGinley's characteristic insistence on balance in living. (p. 48)

A commonplace of literature is that the social critic, the satirist, is a person who cares deeply about the state of affairs which he attacks, perhaps more deeply than his complacent brothers…. I think McGinley's love of her world is evident throughout her writing in many of her poems. One of the poems which most freshly expresses her joy in life is her parody "Intimations of Mortality," written "on being told by the dentist that 'this will be over soon'."… (pp. 49-50)

Many of the poems in the section titled "On the Town" are jovial by nature of their rhythm and structure, eight-line stanzas of iambic measure. "Midsummer Mediations" reflects on the mushrooming of outdoor cafes ("Give me a dim interior / And Let me munch alone. / For I am sick of sidewalks / Whereon to break my bread")…. (p. 52)

The poet's fourth category for her poems of the 1930's is entitled "The House of Oliver Ames." It includes poems written about her husband (she was married to Charles Hayden in 1936) and, more generally, about married life. In this vein of subject matter, McGinley is writing lighter verse than comparable poems from the decades to come. (p. 54)

Technically, the impression of McGinley's poems from the 1930's is that she relies on conventional forms (with occasional parodies of lines within an appropriate form …) or that she makes great use of one- or two-stanza forms which work well for her—the eight-line iambic stanza, or the alternately rhyming quatrain. In addition, McGinley begins experimenting with her own innovations within standard forms—with the long-short alternating line, which she uses on occasion throughout her writing career. Another is the three-line interval in a rhyme pattern, used to break the regular a a or abab rhyme scheme. A third is her willingness to vary a refrain and to substitute the rhythms of prose for those of poetry in a refrain.

Variation within refrain lines gives power to one of McGinley's strongest early poems. "Trinity Place" is composed of three quatrains, each one of which ends with a comparison of the busy, fat pigeons and the hungry, idle men of Depression years…. (p. 55)

There are many good early McGinley poems. Others from the 1930's are good light verse, without achieving what has come to be her usual excellence. Too frequently, McGinley's earlier poems are written in iambic tetrameter, as is "Dissertation on Furniture," with a heavy dependence on catalogues to provide content. Sometimes, of course, the latter can be extremely apt and/or funny, but any device becomes boring when used too often.

Some of McGinley's early poems contain the kind of "slant" rhyme considered legitimate for use in light verse, Edison and medison, raw gust and August, luncheon and munch on, sandwiches and bandwiches. Usually these rhymes only detract from the total poem, even though they spring from a long, light-verse tradition…. There are also in other of her poems the puns on familiar phrases or lines from well-known poems, "When the dew is on the milkman and the bacon's on the grill" or "I wandered happy as a cloud / Afloat with fellow-cumuli" or "What's so rare as a day in June / Without a gift to shop for?" (pp. 56-7)

Of all the technical practices of the 1930's, only McGinley's titles seem less than effective: "Lament of the Normal Child," "Ode to the Bath," "Song for an Engraved Invitation," "Dirge over a Pot of Pâté de Foie Grass," "Reflections Outside a Gymnasium." "Ballad of the Lord and Columbus." (p. 57)

[All in all,] McGinley's early writing illustrates her consistent verbal skill and her interest in the world about...

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John B. Breslin

Whether her subject is religious or secular, Miss McGinley wields her wry wit and her deft prosody in the cause of mirth and sanity. W. H. Auden says it all in his Foreword [to Times Three]: "Phyllis McGinley needs no puff. Her poems are known and loved by tens of thousands."

John B. Breslin, "Book Reviews: 'Times Three'," in America (© America Press, 1975; all rights reserved), Vol. 133, No. 11, October 18, 1975, p. 240.

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