I tell my students on a regular basis that part of being a medievalist is realizing how much stuff you’re simply never going to know — the information is lost to devouring time. It requires a certain level of humility, and I think it’s useful to maintain that in life generally: “Then again, I could be wrong.” I try to make a point of that when I teach — I’m just a guy who has read a lot; there will always be gaps and speculations. Even so, sometimes things I didn’t know, but think I should have known, ambush me.
That happened this morning as I was surfing the Web. I encountered an article at National Review Online about the poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-78), who won the Mystery Chicken (Pullet Surprise!) in 1961. Admittedly, she’s out of my specialty, and Ms. McGinley’s career seems to have transpired chiefly after the 1951 Louis Untermeyer anthology that formed much of my poetic foundation when I was a kid, but so did the Beats, and I know about those guys. But I had never heard of McGinley before this morning. She doesn’t appear in my daughter’s Norton Anthology of American Literature, nor did she in the Heath Anthology I read cover-to-cover when I prepped for my comps around the turn of the millennium. But as Jeremy Carl’s article informs us:
W.H. Auden, perhaps the 20th Century’s preeminent English-language pooet, lionized Phyllis McGinley, and wrote the introduction to her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Times Three in 1960. She appeared solo on the cover of Time magazine a few years later (one of only nine poets to receive that honor in 100 years) at a time when this was the ultimate mark of popular prestige.
[…] Robert Frost was reportedly an admirer, as were celebrities […] She was even a formative influence on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton […] , the latter of whom wrote gushing letters to McGinley in Sexton’s early career.
Now, however, all her work is out of print, and as I can attest, one can make it a pretty far piece in academia without any knowledge that she ever existed (although she died during my lifetime, and although a Christmas special of my youth was based on her first book). So what happened?
From what I can tell, there have been several factors at work. First of all, she seems to have specialized in what is called “light verse“, formal and sometimes occasional constructions with a sense of humor, in an era marked by the serious-as-a-heart-attack confessional poetry of the aforementioned Plath and Sexton. With the exception of Ogden Nash, little recent work of that sort seems to have lasted. However, light verse can address serious subjects, and can even carry a sting. See, for example, this example of McGinley’s work:
Intimations of Mortality
on being told by the dentist that this will be over soon
Indeed, it will soon be over, I shall be done
With the querulous drill, the forceps, the clove-smelling cotton.
I can go forth into fresher air, into sun,
This narrow anguish forgotten.
In twenty minutes or forty or half an hour,
I shall be easy, and proud of my hard-got gold,
But your apple of comfort is eaten by worms, and sour.
Your consolation is cold.
This will not last, and the day will be pleasant after.
I’ll dine tonight with a witty and favorite friend.
No doubt tomorrow I shall rinse my mouth with laughter.
And also that will end.
The handful of time that I am charily granted
Will likewise pass, to oblivion duly apprenticed.
Summer will blossom and autumn be faintly enchanted.
Then time for the grave, or the dentist.
Because you are shrewd, my man, and your hand is clever,
You must not believe your words have a charm to spell me.
There was never a half of an hour that lasted forever.
Be quiet. You need not tell me.
Or consider this pair of sonnets:
The Landscape of Love
Do not believe them. Do not believe what strangers
Or casual tourists, moored a night and day
In some snug, sunny, April-sheltering bay
(Along the coast and guarded from great dangers)
Tattle to friends when ignorant they return.
Love is no lotus-island endlessly
Washed by a summer ocean, no Capri;
But a huge landscape, perilous and stern–
More poplared than the nations to the north,
More bird-beguiled, stream-haunted. But the ground
Shakes underfoot. Incessant thunders sound,
Winds shake the trees, and tides run back and forth
And tempests winter there, and flood and frost
In which too many a voyager is lost.
None knows this country save the colonist,
His homestead planted. He alone has seen
The hidden groves unconquerably green,
The secret mountains steepling through the mist.
Each is his own discovery. No chart
Has pointed him past chasm, bog, quicksand,
Earthquake, mirage, into his chosen land–
Only the steadfast compass of the heart.
Turn a deaf ear, then, on the traveler who,
Speaking a foreign tongue, has never stood
Upon love’s hills or in a holy wood
Sung incantations; yet, having bought a few
Postcards and trinkets at some cheap bazaar,
Cries, “This and thus the God’s dominions are!”
It seems apparent to me that she can write. So why else does she seem to have disappeared? According to Wiki:
Marriage and stability were extremely important to her after a childhood of frequent moves and “never having a real home.” Having married happily at 32, she loved domesticity the way a woman can only when it has come late to find her. McGinley’s life with her husband, Charles Hayden, was, her daughter Patsy Blake stated, “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.
An ardent Roman Catholic, she embraced domesticity in the wake of second-wave feminism, wrote light verse in the wake of the rise of modern avant-garde and confessional poetry, and filled the gap between the housewife and the feministintellectual who rejected the domestic life. McGinley would spend most of her professional writing career fending off criticism that tended to diminish her image of a suburban housewife poet—an image that was meant to dismiss any depth in her writing. McGinley actually labeled herself a “housewife poet,” and unlike Anne Sexton who used the term to be ironic and self-deprecating, McGinley used it as an honorable and purposefully crafted identity.
Phyllis McGinley felt that the capability to foster familial relationships was what gave women their power and she fought to defend their rights to do so. Despite her admiration for the housewife and her duties, she fully recognized the monotony and drudgery that went along with this role. Most of all however, Phyllis McGinley felt that, no matter what path a woman chose to follow, the most important thing was for a woman to recognize and acknowledge her unique and honorable place in life. McGinley’s point, an eternally divisive one, was clear: a woman who enjoyed herself as a wife and mother should not submit to imposed ambitions nor feel constrained to demand change in the institution of the Church which she so cherished. “The Betty Friedan philosophy, that “committed” women will not need the regard of any man to feel alive, is rationally and effectively refuted by Miss McGinley.”
[…] McGinley has been criticized for providing readers with transient humor but not actually effecting any change. Betty Friedan has said that McGinley was a good craftsman but did nothing to improve or change the lives of housewives. To Friedan, domesticity cripplingly confined women and did not allow them a chance to pursue their own interests or careers. This was a reoccurring opinion amongst many of the second wave feminists who were McGinley’s contemporaries. As a result, her poetry was largely ignored by feminist critics.
Jeremy Carl says much the same, although (as one might expect from an opinion journal like NRO), more polemically.
Simply put, McGinley’s thought crime was that she was a happy, Christian, suburban mother and housewife who extolled both her life in the suburbs and traditional roles for women.
[…]In a 1959 review of her collection of essays, The Province of the Heart, one reviewer commented upon her work being a summary of “the joys of being all the things that modern fiction deplores: married, feminine, suburban, maternal.”
[… Betty] Friedan compared her to an “Uncle Tom” for attempting to put a warm and humorous face on the inherent oppressiveness of her condition as a homemaker.
(It may be worth noting that McGinley’s collection of essays (Sixpence in Her Shoe), described by Carl as “a direct response” to Friedan, spent six months on the NYT bestseller list and apparently significantly outsold Feminine Mystique.)
Carl even argues that McGinley may have anticipated Friedan with this poem from 1953:
The Old Feminist
Snugly upon the equal height,
enthroned at last where she belongs,
She takes no pleasure in her Rights
who so enjoyed her Wrongs!
Nearly 20 years ago, in one of my theory classes, we discussed part of the project of feminist criticism as being the recovery of women’s works that had seemingly been lost to history. I don’t know that Phyllis McGinley was the sort of writer they had in mind, and a quick check of my favorite database yields two entries in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (“American Humorists 1800-1950” and “American Poets 1880-1945: Second Series”) and one in Contemporary Authors, but as I said, she was new to me this morning (which has slipped to afternoon), and she may merit further examination.
See you soon!