Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Women's History Month Profiles: The Poet of Cheever Land.


Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978)

Of light verse, the critic John Hollander wrote in Yale Review (1997):

Say I'm neither brave nor young
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue--
Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!

This is the conclusion of Dorothy Parker's "Fighting Words," first published in a magazine seventy years ago. Her readers then and over a couple of subsequent generations might have overheard in the rhetorical pattern the echo of Leigh Hunt's anthology piece, "Jenny Kiss'd Me" ("Say I'm weary, say I'm sad, / Say that health and wealth have miss'd me, / Say I'm growing old, but add, / Jenny kiss'd me"). More important, they would have understood what it meant generally for verses to scan at all, and particularly why for comic verse metrical perfection was necessary -- although of course in itself insufficient -- for acute wit. Some of the best critics of light verse, like the late Louis Kronenberger and the poet William Harmon, have pointed out that there is more great poetry than good light verse (and one tries to forget how much more very bad poetry there is than either of these). We are today in a literary age of what jazz musicians used to call a tin ear, and there is less light verse written, and less capacity, probably, to appreciate it than ever before. Much that is attempted results in appallingly inept doggerel whose defects seem unnoticed.

Phyllis McGinley was one of the master practitioners of the art of light verse in mid-20th-century America, along with Parker, and Ogden Nash (“Candy/ is dandy/but liquor/ is quicker”); in England, W.S. Gilbert, Edward Lear, John Betjeman and Hillaire Belloc were the old masters, though many other, generally more serious poets, also essayed the form, as in T.S. Eliot’s production of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The trick to light verse is a disciplined mastery of form: because puns and punchlines make the work a success or failure, the set-up, in strict meter, must always work.

McGinley seemed to have willed herself to happiness from an early age. She was born in eastern Oregon to a land speculator and his pianist wife; they moved to Colorado when the girl was an infant. Her father died when Phyllis was twelve, and she and her mother moved to Utah to live with a widowed relative. She studied at USC for a time, and completed her degree in English at the University of Utah, graduating in 1927.

She made her way to New York, working in an ad agency, teaching school, and becoming a staff writer for Town and Country magazine. By the standards of the time a spinster, McGinley met a Bell Telephone Company advertising executive called Charles Hayden in 1934. After a three-year courtship, they married in 1937 and moved to the tony New York suburb of Larchmont.

New York Times book critic Ginia Bellafante wrote once that Mrs Hayden seems, in retrospect, a chimera, a unicorn in a Cheever story. “We never had a home,” McGinley told Time in 1965, “and to have a home, after I got married, was just marvelous.” ...Having married happily at 33, she loved domesticity the way a woman can only when it has come late to find her. McGinley’s life with her husband, Bill Hayden, was, her daughter Patsy Blake told me recently, “a sanguine, benign, adorable version of ‘Mad Men.’ ” The couple entertained avidly: the regular guest list included Bennett Cerf, the drama critic Walter Kerr and leading advertising executives of the day.

She published her first book of verse in 1934, and moved from success to success. Thirteen more poetry collections- and nine children’s books- followed; by 1954 her standing was such that “The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley” went through seven printings in hardback and sold over 150,000 copies. Her celebrations of the everyday resonated:

In spring when maple buds are red,
We turn the clock an hour ahead;
Which means, each April that arrives,
We lose an hour out of our lives.

Who cares? When autumn birds in flocks
Fly southward, back we turn the clocks,
And so regain a lovely thing
That missing hour we lost in spring.

Another poem, “The 5:32”, celebrated the life of the upper middle class suburban housewife on the commuter line:

She said, If tomorrow my world were torn in two,
Blacked out, dissolved, I think I would remember
(As if transfixed in unsurrendering amber)
This hour best of all the hours I knew:
When cars came backing into the shabby station,
Children scuffing the seats, and the women driving
With ribbons around their hair, and the trains arriving,
And the men getting off with tired but practiced motion.

Yes, I would remember my life like this, she said:
Autumn, the platform red with Virginia creeper,
And a man coming toward me, smiling, the evening paper
Under his arm, and his hat pushed back on his head;
And wood smoke lying like haze on the quiet town,
And dinner waiting, and the sun not yet gone down.

Though McGinley also wrote successful collections of essays, and children’s books (one, “The Year Without A Santa Claus,” was recorded by Boris Karloff in 1968), light verse was her bread and butter. For one thing, The New Yorker paid more for it than it did “serious” verse. She was good at topical poetry, and thus found a home in the magazines one saw on the coffee tables of Larchmont: The Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The Ladies’ Home Journal. By the 1950s she was earning more than her husband, enabling private schooling for their two daughters.

Over time this put McGinley in a paradoxical position: an ardent Roman Catholic, traditionalist stay-at-home mom who, nevertheless, felt women should pursue whatever path their talents and inclinations led them down. And among those honorable callings was that of wife and mother- and poet. She called herself a “housewife poet” as a badge of honor; as the new wave of feminism gathered force in the 1960s and poetry got caught up in sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, she became a target of serious criticism. Betty Friedan, who escaped the suburban lifestyle with a vengeance, dissed McGinley’s poetry and workmanlike defense of the patriarchy. Younger, up-and-coming writers put McGinley down. Sylvia Plath called her “over”, and W.D. Snodgrass, the 34-year-old wunderkind poet with three degrees in writing from the University of Iowa, complained that his 1960 Pulitzer Prize was seriously devalued after the 1961 award went to McGinley, “that woman who wrote silly little verses for the Saturday Evening Post.”

Some called McGinley the anti-Phyllis Schlafly; she was a liberal Democrat who served on a commission studying abortion for Governor Nelson Rockefeller and came down squarely for it, while Schlafly became a Goldwaterite, an ER opponent, and when she died last year, a strident Donald Trump supporter. McGinley was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, collected more than a dozen honorary degrees from top schools, and made the cover of Time. W. H. Auden Wrote the preface to one of her collected works volumes,  praising her dexterous, unostentatious rhyming and found in her familial sensibility a likeness to Austen and Woolf, yet also a singular, accessible voice. “I start a sentence: ‘The poetry of Phyllis McGinley is . . .,’ and there I stick,” he wrote, “for all I wish to say is ‘ . . . is the poetry of Phyllis McGinley.”

She died in 1978, and was soon forgotten. Belafante says she was an emblem of a time that passed before McGinley’s eyes:

McGinley is almost entirely forgotten today, and while her anonymity is attributable in part to the disappearance of light verse, it seems equally a function of our refusal to believe that anyone living on the manicured fringes of a major American city in the middle of the 20th century might have been genuinely pleased to be there. McGinley received her Pulitzer the same year that Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” the basis for Sam Mendes’s new movie, made its debut. To Yates, Connecticut wasn’t dull; it was tragic, the end of something. Since the ’60s, versions of the same idea have prevailed almost without interruption — in fiction, in film, on television, in the countless illustrations of grinning fathers presiding over barbecues, kitschy images in which we are meant to see portraits of mournful delusion. From Cheever to “American Beauty,” we have tended to read mythologies of suburban lament as if they were reportage.

Here is another of her verses:

A Mother’s hardest to forgive.
Life is the fruit she longs to hand you,
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you.

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