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I Heart Suburbia

March 21, 2014 | by

The light verse of Phyllis McGinley, born on this day in 1905.

beer-belongs-tennis-pool

Friends Over for Tennis, Douglas Crockwell, 1949

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.

 

8 COMMENTS

7 Comments

  1. Phil | March 21, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Farewell, to lunch, savory and well-chewed,
    Ditto gleaming shirtfront,
    Now sodden and bestrewed…

    I’m not sure a culture scorns it. An element of culture does. In some circles, books are thought of as decorative.

  2. Ed Shacklee | March 21, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    You have lost your sense of humor. How sad!

  3. Dan Piepenbring | March 21, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    On the contrary, Ed, I find the suburbs hilarious. They’re an ironist’s paradise.

  4. S.C. | March 22, 2014 at 1:58 am

    Occupation: Housewife.

    Her health is good. She owns to forty-one,
    Keeps her hair bright by vegetable rinses,
    Has two well-nourished children — daughter and son –
    Just now away at school. Her house, with its chintzes
    Expensively curtained, animates the caller.
    And she is fond of Early American glass
    Stacked in an English breakfront somewhat taller
    Than her best friend’s. Last year she took a class

    In modern drama at the County Center.
    Twice, on Good Friday, she’s heard _Parsifal_ sung.
    She often says she might have been a painter,
    Or maybe writer; but she married young.
    She diets. And with Contract she delays
    The encroaching desolation of her days.

  5. Jo Gill | March 24, 2014 at 6:34 am

    The story of McGinley’s rise to fame, and fall from favour, is a complex and suggestive one. It’s tied in with changes in taste, changes in the economics of publishing (and specifically, the decline of weekly periodicals), the rise of feminism, the persistent dominance of a metropolitan critical elite and with numerous other related factors. McGinley was the most celebrated of a diverse group of post-war poets who traced the tensions and rewards of suburban living (and no, she did not uniformly celebrate her lot). Others who wrote poetry about the suburbs – sometimes covertly – included Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall, Louis Simpson, Josephine Miles, Robert Bly, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, John Updike (of course!), Howard Moss, Howard Nemerov, Kenneth Rexroth, Karl Shapiro, and Philip Levine. For more on McGinley and these other poets, see my recent book The Poetics of the American Suburbs.

  6. jerry poznak | October 12, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Where can I find a copy of McGinley’s poem “Millennium?”

  7. CP | November 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I just picked up “Times Three” at a library sale, and am struck by McGinley’s wit, wisdom, and literary talent. All this criticism about her subject of suburbia that I read on this and that website is simply nuts. How are “Home is the Sailor,” “Soldier Asleep,” and “How to Start a War” not powerful and relevant? She writes about what she knows, for goodness’ sake, with intelligence and compassion and admirable skill. What’s passe are those criticisms blind to her irony and social satire. I guess Snodgrass and others wanted her to spell things out more plainly.

1 Pingbacks

  1. […] “But the kitchen will not come into its own again until it ceases to be a status symbol and becomes again a workshop. It may be pastel. It may be ginghamed as to curtains and shining with copper like a picture in a woman’s magazine. But you and I will know it chiefly by its fragrances and its clutter…. There will be something sweet-smelling twirling in a bowl and something savory baking in the oven. Cabinet doors will gape ajar and colored surfaces are likely to be littered with salt and pepper and flour and herbs and cheesecloth and pot holders and long-handled forks. It won’t be neat. It won’t even look efficient. but when you enter it you will feel the pulse of life throbbing from every corner.” ― Phyllis McGinley […]

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