Sweetness & spite: the forgotten pleasures of light verse.
IT IS ALWAYS SAD when a valuable artist perishes. It is sadder still when a valuable art form perishes. It is saddest of all when a valuable art form did not need to perish, but was simply hounded to the culture's periphery by a deliberate, malicious process of what Fred Reed has called "enstupidation."
One art form belonging firmly to this last group is light verse. Today it is a drab, tiny creature, which, insofar as the major media tend it at all, survives more in Britain than in the States. Things were very different in the two decades following World War II. Back then, among Americans, light verse flourished. It owed part of its exuberant health to the enlightened attitude of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who had an admirable policy of paying substantially more for light-verse contributions than for conventional free-verse bromides. But The New Yorker was not light verse's only home. The New York Herald Tribune, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post all found abundant room for it. As critic William H. Pritchard observed, "Books by [light verse's] practitioners were reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, the general sense being that, in the age of [T.S.] Eliot and Wallace Stevens, it was an excellent alternative to high modernism." The practitioners themselves won Pulitzers and honorary doctorates. They could even earn a middle-class living by producing the stuff.
There was E.B. White, a dab hand at such confections, although even in light verse's heyday White remained better known for his children's literature (Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little) and for his periodically acrid New Yorker cartoon captions. (Doting mother to fractious infant: "It's broccoli, dear." Fractious infant: "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.") There was Ogden Nash, with his preposterously ingenious line endings: who else would have dared to emphasize that "calliope," properly pronounced, rhymes with "diaper"? There was Morris Bishop, professor of Romance Languages at Cornell, not to mention biographer of Petrarch, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and Samuel de Champlain. Bishop excelled above all at mimicry, as in his swipe at graffiti-carving tourists, which begins with a straight quote from Shelley's "Ozymandias" but finishes:
And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Also the names of Emory P. Gray, Mr. and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer Of 17 West Fourth St., Oyster Bay.
Representing postwar light verse's Little League was the young John Updike, whose recent obituarists largely ignored his poems yet who once admitted, "As a boy I wanted to be a cartoonist. Light verse ... seemed a kind of cartooning with words, and through light verse I first found my way into print." Far too much of Updike's seriously intended poetry--the verse in which he took most pride--bore the unprepossessing paw-prints of Walt Whitman, whom P.J. O'Rourke accurately but unavailingly called "a self-obsessed ratchet-jaw with an ear like a tin cookie sheet." Happily, every technical virtue that Updike forgot in his serious efforts, he remembered in his light ones. Witty rhymes, as in a meditation on, of all topics, Venus's magnetic field: "Stern Mars is cold, Uranus gassy, / And Saturn hopelessly declasse"; equally amusing enjambments across lines of otherwise strict meter: "Just turned nineteen, a nicely molded lad, / I said goodbye to Sis and Mother; Dad / Drove me to Wisconsin ... "; lampoons that showed how well he knew the literary canon, as when newspaper reports of a pampered Iranian oil magnate reminded him of Coleridge:
In Naishapur did Khaibar Khan With stately ease exclaim 'Kerchoo!' And Standard Oil dispatched its man With bales of linen to Iran To minister unto his flu ...
By general consent at the time, though, the doyenne of light versifiers in this period was not Updike or Nash or Bishop or White but Phyllis McGinley. A straw poll recently taken among half a dozen of my most bookish colleagues revealed that not a single respondent under the age of 50 had even heard of her. Seldom has any once vast reputation been so completely dissolved. Who now would imagine that in 1965 such was her renown that she broke bread with LBJ and appeared on the cover of Time?
Miss McGinley actually disliked the rubric "light verse," preferring to call her manner "poetry of wit." She regarded herself as belonging to the tradition of 17th-century England's so-called Cavalier Poets--Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Edmund Waller, and John Suckling, to name a handful--who eschewed the self-conscious, syntax-wrecking convolutions of John Donne and his followers in favor of a sweet urbanity. Something of this urbanity characterizes McGinley's own oeuvre. Yet a more immediate influence on it is that of her coreligionist Hilaire Belloc (whose poems Jonathan Chaves eulogized in TAC's July 19, 2004 issue). Indeed, one could almost argue that the entire history of modern light verse comprises a series of footnotes to Belloc. When McGinley laments the dullness of modern American lodgings, she does so by invoking Belloc's "Do you remember an inn, Miranda?"
Her theological allegiance--through which, on occasion, she subjected Calvin and John Knox to gentle raillery--will do nothing to dispel the widespread half-truth that America's only major modern writers have been Catholics or Jews. Orwell, a lifelong foe of Catholicism, nevertheless maintained that Catholics produced the best comic writing because they had "a serious purpose and a noticeable willingness to hit below the belt." Certainly, Belloc did so at times, as did his literary descendant Roy Campbell, who numbered among his plentiful aversions Elizabeth I's regime ("Cecil's Ogpu") and Spain's bespectacled prime minister Manuel Azana ("Four-eyed Janus ... the sodomites are on your side"). But where Belloc and Campbell wielded bludgeons, McGinley preferred a stiletto. Where they bellowed, she teased.
She adopted, without necessarily being aware of doing so, William Carlos Williams's doctrine: "No ideas but in things." Suburbia awoke in her a passionate instinct for what a 19th-century Anglican hymnodist had called "the daily round, the common task":
Mankind is better off 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.
Dwight Macdonald spent all too much of the 1950s bewailing Midcult and Masscult, yet from the vantage point of 2009, the 1950s were the great age of almost universal Highcult. Intelligent American artists then enjoyed genuine popularity, as they never afterward did. During the Pax Eisenhoweriana, Princeton and Petticoat Junction spoke, to a surprising extent, the same tongue. McGinley's collections of verse had an average sales figure of 60,000 copies. Not for her the usual appurtenances of poets today: the vanity presses, the passive-aggressive demands for taxpayer funding.
For some peevish spirits--notably Comrade Betty Friedan, who treated her to special invective (a badge of honor in itself)--McGinley just was not dismal enough. Domesticity, that "concentration camp" of Ugly Betty's feverish imaginings, seemed to McGinley something like heaven:
Less woman, I suspect, than mouse, To alter fate I would not bother. I like my plain suburban house. I like my children and their father.... In fact, I find it hard to see Exactly what I should disparage. I like my nationality, I like my relatives-by-marriage. Trapped, tricked, enslaved, but lacking sense To enter in the conflict single, I wear my chains like ornaments, Convinced they make a charming jingle.
Then, at the very moment when you have McGinley pegged for a mere joke-smith, she can turn around and overwhelm you with her tenderness, as in this tribute to her adolescent daughter:
Thirteen's no age at all. Thirteen is nothing. It is not wit, or powder on the face, Or Wednesday matinee, or misses' clothing, Or intellect, or grace ... Thirteen keeps diaries and tropical fish (A month, at most); scorns jump-ropes in the spring; Could not, would fortune grant it, name its wish; Wants nothing, everything; Has secrets from itself, friends it despises; Admits none to the terrors that it feels; Own half a hundred masks but no disguises; And walks upon its heels. Thirteen's anomalous--not that, not this: Not folded bud, or wave that laps a shore, Or moth proverbial from the chrysalis. Is the one age defeats the metaphor. Is not a town, like childhood, strongly walled But easily surrounded, in no city. Nor, quitted once, can it be quite recalled-- Not even with pity.
Note the assurance with which she makes the shortest lines bear even greater emotional weight than the iambic pentameters. Having demonstrated her brilliance at such exigent medieval French verse genres as the ballade, the rondeau, and the villanelle, she told The American Scholar in 1965, "Discipline is the groundwork of all art. The abstract painter has to know first how to draw, the symbolist to write ordinary lines. And the poet, no matter how soon he intends to throw overboard his formalism, has first to be capable of a correctly rhymed and metered stanza."
A recent New York Times profile made the depressing allegation that McGinley in her last years became friendly with the priapic poltroon Nelson Rockefeller and followed his counsel even to the extent of supporting abortion. One hopes these allegations are false. But even if true, they did her no worldly good. Apologists for the 1960s Confessional Poets had only contempt for her poised, supple idiom. Clive James, himself an accomplished bard, referred with understandable tetchiness in a 1977 essay for London's New Statesman to the Confessional crew as being characterized by "stringy hair, open-necked shirts, non-rhyming sonnets that multiplied like bacilli, and nervous breakdowns." The Confessional Poets, with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman constituting their trinitarian godhead, turned poetry into that branch of psychobabble that it has mostly been ever since. Imitating McGinley or her rivals requires skill, not to mention a functioning auditory nerve. Imitating Plath's "Thalidomide" or Sexton's "Menstruation at Forty" requires no discernible talent save the purest, most unembarrassable exhibitionism: any number can play. Such exhibitionism signified Whitman's posthumous triumph. By extension, it also showed the decline of any artistic medium that--like light verse--prides itself on knowing its architectural limits and on acknowledging (although seldom slavishly copying) established literary traditions.
Largely forgotten, McGinley died in 1978, a month before her 73rd birthday. Perhaps on her gravestone someone should have carved the credo of Dorothy Parker, whom in her steely metrical intelligence she so much resembled:
A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself. Humor, imagination, and manners are pretty fairly interchangeably interwoven.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.