I Heart Suburbia
March 21, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The light verse of Phyllis McGinley, born on this day in 1905.
In 1960, W. D. Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “The following year,” he says in his Art of Poetry interview, “it was given to Phyllis McGinley, which was horrifying; she used to write little silly verses for The Saturday Evening Post.”
McGinley was on the cover of Time; her work appeared in the Atlantic and The New Yorker. And yet this scathing, passing reference is the only mention she receives in our entire archive. How can we have passed over such a popular and laureled poet?
Chalk it up to, let’s say, a difference in sensibility. As Ginia Bellafante put it a few years ago in an excellent essay for the Times, McGinley wrote “reverentially of lush lawns and country-club Sundays … [she] 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.”
That’s a much more generous and evenhanded appraisal than Snodgrass’s. But even as I sit here reading McGinley’s work, I share in the refusal to believe. This woman was actually living it up in Larchmont. Can it be true? Her verse is clever and well wrought—it earned praised from no less a luminary than W. H. Auden, who wrote the foreword to one of her collections—but after a few lines, I find my brow reflexively arched. Is it not at least possible that she was pulling one over on us, churning out delightful, perfectly cadenced paeans to the ’burbs while privately guarding a faint flame of Cheeverian ennui?
No, it is not. McGinley genuinely adored the life of a suburban housewife—she had a tumultuous, itinerant childhood, and she relished the stability of married life, the fine china, the deviled eggs, the stand mixer, the quilting bees. Her poems tout convention and pooh-pooh feminism; they sound as if they were made to be read aloud by the president of the PTA on the occasion of an eighth-grade graduation. Here’s a bit from “Ode to the End of Summer”:
Farewell, vacation friendships, sweet but tenuous
Ditto to slacks and shorts,
Farewell, O strange compulsion to be strenuous
Which sends us forth to death on tennis courts.
Farewell, Mosquito, horror of our nights;
Clambakes, iced tea, and transatlantic flights.
And from “Reflections at Dawn”:
I wish I owned a Dior dress
Made to my order out of satin.
I wish I weighed a little less
And could read Latin.
Had perfect pitch or matching pearls,
A better head for street directions,
And seven daughters, all with curls
And fair complexions.
I wish I’d tan instead of burn.
But most, on all the stars that glisten,
I wish at parties I could learn
to sit and listen.
And here I could mount a trenchant critique of the suburbs or trot out a couple of zingers—but what would be the point? The tragicomedy of these poems is how they’ve gone, in the span of a few decades, from prizewinning to self-parodying. Work like McGinley’s is jarringly familiar and yet totally foreign, indicative of how quickly a culture can scorn what it once adored—how an era’s prevailing tastes become passé, or worse, naive. Suburbia has become so inextricably (if deservedly) affiliated with conformity, conservatism, and delusive sameness that it’s impossible to read McGinley with an objective eye, even more than fifty years after her heyday. And as Bellafante notes, light verse, once an arts-and-letters staple, is now extinct. It’s worth considering how and why such a thriving form came to seem so silly—and, for that matter, which one is next on the chopping block. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that quick, five-hundred-word blog posts pegged to poets’ birthdays will not age gracefully.