Word Cloud: CONTRARY

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

‘Light Verse’ – one of those labels like ‘children’s book’ that makes a many people assume a writer’s work is not quite good enough to be called poetry or literature. But labels, like the covers of books, are far from the best way to make judgments about an author’s ability.  

The poetry of Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978) is called ‘light verse’ because much of it is humorous, and it rhymes. She uses a foil instead of a saber, but that doesn’t make her poetic observations any less dead-on.
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Since we’ve just been through the ‘Spring Forward’ change to Daylight Savings Time in the Northern Hemisphere, this poem seems timely. When McGinley wrote it, the time change was still in April, but not much else different.

Daylight Savings Time

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.

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These poems go a little deeper. There’s more than a little resemblance to my dad, and maybe yours too. My mom? Well, she didn’t understand me, but she loved me anyway.

First Lesson

The first thing to remember about fathers is, they’re men.
A girl has to keep it in mind.
They are dragon-seekers, bent on impossible rescues.
Scratch any father, you find
Someone chock-full of qualms and romantic terrors,
Believing change is a threat –
Like your first shoes with heel on, like your first bicycle
It took months to get.
Walk in strange woods, they warn you about the snakes there.
Climb and they fear you’ll fall.
Books, angular looks, swimming in deep water –
Fathers mistrust them all.
Men are the worriers. It is difficult for them
To learn what they must learn:
How you have a journey to take and very likely,
For a while, will not return.


The Adversary

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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For me, what elevates Phyllis McGinley’s poetry above that dismissive ‘light verse’ label are her keen powers of observation.

Daniel at Breakfast

his paper propped against the electric toaster
(nicely adjusted to his morning use),
Daniel at breakfast studies world disaster
and sips his orange juice.
the words dismay him. headlines shrilly chatter
of famine, storm, death, pestilence, decay.
Daniel is gloomy, reaching for the butter.
he shudders at the way
war stalks the planet still, and men know hunger,
go shelterless, betrayed, may perish soon.
the coffee’s weak again. in sudden anger
Daniel throws down his spoon
and broods a moment on the kitchen faucet
the plumber mended, but has mended ill;
recalls tomorrow means a dental visit,
laments the grocery bill.
then having shifted from his human shoulder
the universal woe, he drains his cup
rebukes the weather (surely turning colder),
crumples his napkin up
and, kissing his wife abruptly at the door,
stamps fiercely off to catch the 8:04

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A platitude from her dentist turns into something more as McGinley lies back waiting for the ‘narrow anguish’ to be over.

Intimations of Mortality

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.

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McGinley is writing about a different time, about middle to upper-middle class white people, a world recently popularized on television by Mad Men. In that ‘Myth of the Mid-Century’ men were the “bread winners” who went to ‘the office’ while their contented wives stayed behind to keep house, raise the children, run charities and arrange social occasions. But sometimes myths are almost reality for a particular family.

There are Americans in the 21st Century who are trying to bring back the 1950s, believing “everything was better then.” Two things I remember quite clearly about growing up in ’50s to ’60s suburbia: how uncomfortable and often unattractive the clothes were, and how much alcohol the adults drank.

The 5:32

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.


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.

I wish I didn’t talk so much at parties.
It isn’t that I want to hear
My voice assaulting every ear,
Uprising loud and firm and clear
Above the cocktail clatter.
It’s simply, once a doorbells’ rung,
(I’ve been like this since I was young)
Some madness overtake my tongue
And I begin to chatter.

Buffet, ball, banquet, quilting bee,
Wherever conversation’s flowing,
Why must I feel it falls on me
To keep things going?
Though ladies cleverer than I
Can loll in silence, soft and idle,
Whatever topic gallops by,
I seize its bridle,
Hold forth on art, dissect the stage,
Or babble like a kindergart’ner
Of politics till I enrage
My dinner partner.

I wish I didn’t talk so much at parties.
When hotly boil the arguments,
Ah? would I had the common sense
To sit demurely on a fence
And let who will be vocal,
Instead of plunging in the fray
With my opinions on display
Till all the gentlemen edge away
To catch an early local

Oh! there is many a likely boon
That fate might flip me from her griddle.
I wish that I could sleep till noon
And play the fiddle,
Or dance a tour jete’ so light
It would not shake a single straw down.
But when I ponder how last night
I laid the law down.
More than to have the Midas touch
Or critics’ praise, however hearty,
I wish I didn’t talk so much,
I wish I didn’t talk so much,
I wish I didn’t talk so much,
When I am at a party.


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.


Sunday Poetry: Ballade of Lost Objects

Where are the ribbons I tie my hair with?
Where is my lipstick? Where are my hose –
The sheer ones hoarded these weeks to wear with
Frocks the closets do not disclose?
Perfumes, petticoats, sports chapeaus,
The blouse Parisian, the earrings Spanish –
Everything suddenly up and goes.
And where in the world did the children vanish?

This is the house I used to share with
Girls in pinafores, shier than does.
I can recall how they climbed my stairs with
Gales of giggles on their tiptoes.
Last seen wearing both braids and bows
(And looking rather Raggedy-Annish),
When they departed nobody knows –
Where in the world did the children vanish?

Two tall strangers, now I must bear with,
Decked in my personal furbelows,
Raiding the larder, rending the air with
Gossip and terrible radios.
Neither my friends nor quite my foes,
Alien, beautiful, stern and clannish,
Here they dwell, while the wonder grows:
Where in the world did the children vanish?

Prince, I warn you, under the rose,
Time is the thief you cannot banish.
These are my daughters, I suppose.
But where in the world did the children vanish?

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Of course, she also wrote about many non-domestic topics. Here, she muses about ‘advances’ in warfare.

The Conquerors

It seems vainglorious and proud
Of Atom-man to boast aloud
His prowess homicidal
When one remembers how for years,
With their rude stones and humble spears,
Our sires, at wiping out their peers,
Were almost never idle.

Despite his under-fissioned art
The Hittite made a splendid start
Toward smiting lesser nations;
While Tamerlane, it’s widely known,
Without a bomb to call his own
Destroyed whole populations.

Nor did the ancient Persian need
Uranium to kill his Mede,
The Viking earl, his foeman.
The Greeks got excellent results
With swords and engined catapults.
A chariot served the Roman.

Mere cannon garnered quite a yield
On Waterloo’s tempestuous field.
At Hastings and at Flodden
Stout countrymen, with just a bow
And arrow, laid their thousands low.
And Gettysburg was sodden.

Though doubtless now our shrewd machines
Can blow the world to smithereens
More tidily and so on,
Let’s give our ancestors their due.
Their ways were coarse, their weapons few.
But ah! how wondrously they slew
With what they had to go on.


Ballad of Fine Days

All in the summery weather,
To east and south and north,
The bombers fly together
And the fighters squire them forth.

While the lilac bursts in flower
And buttercups brim with gold
Hour by lethal hour
Now fiercer buds unfold.

For the storms of springtime lessen,
The meadow lures the bee,
And there blooms tonight in Essen
What bloomed in Coventry

All in the summer weather,
Fleeter than swallows fare,
The bombers fly together
Through the innocent air.

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It is the blessing and curse of humanity to be aware of the Past. It is also our nature to prettify it, and long for some ‘simpler time’ that never existed. Progress is never an unalloyed good – there’s always a down side. More and safer food means more of us fight the ‘battle of the bulge,’ living to suffer old age’s loss of teeth and muddled memories, and the slow but steady passing of friends and family. Better communication means less privacy and more interruptions.  But here’s McGinley’s list of complaints about ‘Progress.’ A sign of the times she lived in: assuming all inventions are and will be the work of men.

Reactionary Essay On Applied Science

I cannot love the Brothers Wright,
Marconi wins my mixed devotion.
Had no one yet discovered flight
Or set the air waves in commotion,
Life would, I think, have been as well.
That also goes for A.G. Bell.

What I’m really thankful for,
When I’m cleaning up after lunch,
Is the invention of waxed paper.

That Edison improved my lot,
I sometimes doubt; nor care a jitney
Whether the kettle steamed, or Watt,
Or if the gin invented Whitney.
Better the world, I often feel,
Had nobody contrived the wheel.

On the other hand, I’m awfully indebted
To whoever it was dreamed up the elastic band.
Yes, Pausing grateful, now and then,
upon my prim, domestic courses,
I offer praise to lesser men—
Fultons unsung, anonymous Morses—
Whose deft and innocent devices
Pleasure my house with sweets and spices.

I give you, for instance, the fellow
Who first had the idea for Scotch Tape.
I hail the man who thought of soap,
The chap responsible for zippers,
Sun lotion, the stamped envelope,
And screens, and wading pools for nippers,
Venetian blinds of various classes,
and bobby pins and tinted glasses.

DeForest never thought up anything
So useful as a bobby pin.

Those baubles are the ones that keep
Their places, and beget no trouble
Incite no battles, stab no sleep,
Reduce no villages to rubble,
Being primarily designed
By men of unambitious mind.

You remember how Orville Wright
Said his flying machine
Was going to outlaw war?

Let them on Archimedes dote
Who like to hear the planet rattling
I cannot cast a hearty vote
For Galileo or for Gatling,
Preferring, of the Freaks of science,
The pygmies rather than the giants—
(And from experience being wary of
Greek geniuses bearing gifts)—
Deciding, on reflection calm,
mankind is better of with trifles:
With Band-Aid rather than the bomb,
With safety match than safety rifles.

Let the earth fall or the earth spin!
A brave new world might well begin
With no invention
Worth the mention
Save paper towels and aspirin.

Remind me to call the repairman
About my big, new, automatically defrosting
refrigerator with the built-in electric eye.

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In the heady but black-and-white days of the Second Wave of Feminism, Phyllis McGinley was despised by some women who mistook her satiric wit for complacency. She hadn’t married until her early thirties, and her marriage was a happy one. She enjoyed having a stable home for the first time in her life, and loved entertaining friends – very out of fashion in the era of The Feminine Mystique. While McGinley was a devout Catholic, she was also socially progressive and a Democrat – her “point, an eternally divisive one, was clear,” Ginia Bellafante wrote in an essay on McGinley in the New York Times: “a woman who enjoyed herself as a wife and mother should not submit to imposed ambitions.” Ironically, many women who accused her of “selling out,” because she was a happy wife and mother who was also a successful writer, might now envy her for “having it all.”

Her ‘light verse’ fell out of fashion. But taking a closer look from a longer distance, there’s ample reason for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry she won in 1961.

Now that it’s so very clear Social Progress is not some straight march into an ever-better future, any more than the Past was some lost Eden, maybe it’s time to appreciate all the colors in between black and white. Then the popularity of Phyllis McGinley’s ‘light verse’ might swing up again.

She once wrote, “In times of unrest and fear, it is perhaps the writer’s duty to celebrate, to single out some values we can cherish, to talk about some of the few warm things we know in a cold world.”
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Phyllis McGinley was born in Oregon on March 21, 1905. Her father was a land speculator, and the family moved frequently; after her father’s death when McGinley was 12, the family moved to Ogden, Utah, to live with relatives. She went to the University of Southern California and the University of Utah. After teaching school in Utah and New York state, she worked as poetry editor of Town & Country before devoting herself full-time to writing. McGinley became a regular contributor of poetry to newspapers and magazines, including the New Yorker, and much in demand. When she married Charles Hayden in 1937, the couple moved to Larchmont, New York, in the beautiful Hudson River Valley. After his death, she moved back to New York City, where she died in February, 1978, just a month before her 73rd birthday.  ________________________________________________________________

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Collected Poems

  • On the Contrary (1934)
  • One More Manhattan (1937)
  • Husbands Are Difficult (1941)
  • Stones from Glass Houses (1946)
  • A Short Walk from the Station (1951)
  • The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley (1954)
  • Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (1958)
  • Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades (1960), won the Pulitzer Prize
  • Sugar and Spice (1960)
  • A Wreath of Christmas Legends (1967)
  • The Adversary (date unknown)
  • Daniel at Breakfast (date unknown)
  • Without a Cloak (date unknown)

Children’s Books

  • The Horse That Lived Upstairs (1944)
  • The Plain Princess (1945)
  • All Around the Town (1948)
  • The Most Wonderful Doll in the World (1950)
  • Blunderbus (1951)
  • The Make-Believe Twins (1953)
  • The Year Without a Santa Claus (1957)
  • Boys Are Awful (1962)
  • How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas (1963)

Essays

  • Saint-Watching (1969)
  • Sixpence in Her Shoe (1964)
  • The Province of the Heart (1959)
  • Fourteenth Birthday (1955)

Sources

Visuals

  • Distorted clock
  • Father-Daughter silhouettes
  • Mother And The Baby, by W.T. Benda
  • Artwork detail from 40s or 50s BonAmi print ad
  • Early ’60s woman at the dentist – note the high heels!
  • Larchmont NY Metro station
  • Christian Dior evening dress circa 1950
  • 1950s ‘Early American’ living room
  • Little girls in pinafores
  • Bikini: Operation Crossroads Test Baker and Bikini bathing suit from ad
  • War memorial at Coventry, surrounded by spring flowers
  • 1960s refrigerator, with ‘Modernism’ collage on the front
  • photo of Phyllis McGinley

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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