Sunday Night Journal, May 13, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, May 20, 2018

52 Poems, Week 20: Ballad of Fine Days (Phyllis McGinley)

The collection of Phyllis McGinley's work called Times Three is organized by decade. This poem is from the "The Forties." 

*

BALLAD OF FINE DAYS

"Temperatures have soared to almost summer levels...making conditions ideal for bombing offensives."
--Excerpt from B.B.C. news broadcast

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 blossoms tonight in Essen
  What bloomed in Coventry.

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

*

I knew that I was going to include a poem by Phyllis McGinley in this series, but had no idea which one, as I hadn't read her for a while and didn't remember many particulars, but rather a general sense of low-key enjoyment. Nor had I thought about when I would include her. But I was spurred to do it this week by this appreciation of her in National Review. I don't like conscripting artists into the culture war, and I don't like the headline on that piece:"The Left's War on Motherhood." Yeah, yeah, there's certainly something bad going on there, but do we really have to call everything "The [Other Side]'s War on [Good Thing]"?

You'll notice that the headline is not part of the URL, which sounds much less pugnacious: "mothers-day-writer-phyllis-mcginley-reminder-importance-of-motherhood." It's a Mother's Day piece, and it is certainly true, as the writer says, that McGinley's work presents a view of domesticity that's greatly at odds with feminism and the propaganda for it that contributes so much to the way we see these things now, and it's refreshing. But that's not why I like it. I like her dry, wry, modest, shrewd, elegant, and very skillful voice. 

This poem is actually somewhat atypical. No, not somewhat, quite a bit. Much or maybe even most of her work is indeed at least loosely classifiable as "light verse," though I don't really know why that should be considered such a distinct thing. She sometimes gets close to Ogden Nash territory, but less acrobatic. That makes the occasional very serious note seem even more powerful. This one I find very much so; that last line is stunning. When I picked up the book to look for a poem to post, I found that this poem was the only one I had marked, though there are many others that should be.

Coventry, you know, was pretty much devastated by German bombs in November of 1940. Essen I think did not fare as badly.

I was only vaguely aware of McGinley's name when, fifteen years or so ago, I picked up a copy of Times Three at some kind of used book sale. Maybe it was Auden's name on the foreword that sold me. I eventually read it cover-to-cover, and it's a pretty large volume (for poetry). I guess it's no surprise that she would be thoroughly out of fashion now, but I suspect her work will be read for a long time, possibly longer than that of some currently much bigger names. I read Sylvia Plath back in the '70s when the feminist movement had made her a very big name (as she probably still is--I'm not really in touch). And I thought she was good, in that outraged, enraged woman way, but I've never felt much inclination to read her again. Whereas Times Three is a book I'll probably keep with me if I ever have to greatly reduce my holdings. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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Did Maclin Horton write this?

AMDG

I don't know. I'll see if I can find out.

Apparently so.

I'm laughing that it took you an hour and a half to find out!

He seemed uncooperative. Grumbled that it was his blog and he didn't have to identify himself.

I can't find the cat here either...

I was trying to decide whether ir not ro read it.

"Ir" Guess I deserve that.

AMDG

Mac Horton's war on Sylvia Plath!

I just typed that because it sounds funny.

:-) :-) It does.

Actually the reason it took an hour and a half was that I was on the wrong computer (the work-I-get-paid-for one).

Did you decide ro read it, Janet? :-) Btw I didn't mind you pointing out the lack of byline. I was just goofing around.

I didn't really mind if you minded. ;-)

Not yet. We are listening to a book in the car. I will read it when I get some place quiet.

AMDG

Here is an article by John Barr (whoever he is) about the distinction between verse and poetry.

Verse, I have come to think, is poetry written in pursuit of limited objectives: to entertain us with a joke or tall tale, to give us the inherent pleasures of meter and rhyme. It is not great art, nor is it trying to be. Verse, as Orwell says, tells us something we already know—as often as not something we know we already know. Verse is not an instrument of exploration, but rather a tool of affirmation. Its rewards lie not in the excitements of discovery, but in the pleasures of encountering the familiar.

and, "A poem begins in delight, [Frost] says, and ends in wisdom. Verse begins in delight and ends in . . . more delight."

Poor McGinley, she was probably just too sane for the times she lived in. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, not so much.

Also, she was already in her late-30s during World War II, while Sexton and Plath were still young girls. Living through the daily horrors of that war must have given McGinley a deep appreciation of an ordinary life in suburbia.

As I recall she has some very poignant poems about boys going off to war. She didn't have any sons though so it wasn't an immediately personal thing for her. I think there is also some griping about rationing and other wartime annoyances.

Robert, I've only read the paragraph you quoted, but I don't buy that verse-prose distinction. It sounds like he's using "verse" to mean "light verse." Even then I'm not sure I'd agree. I don't know what dictionaries say, but I'd be hard put to come up with definitions of both words that made any very clear distinction between them. I guess I think of "verse" as referring strictly to form, with "poetry" being used more flexibly.

Is this a patische of some more familiar poem? Maybe just sort of R. L. Stevenson.

AMDG

Not to my knowledge, but that certainly doesn't mean it isn't.

What did Orwell and Frost mean? The point is that verse can be well-crafted, but it's not an adventure. Or something like that.

Right, I understand what they mean (I think), I just don't agree. It's too long to quote but I have a book called The Poet's Handbook by Judson Jerome in which he recounts an incident from his college days. The instructor asked the class to define poetry. He let them blather on for a while with a lot of grandiose but imprecise definitions, maybe somewhat like Frost's and Orwell's, and then told them that he defines it as "metrical writing". I like that a lot. Orwell's and Frost's seem rather gaseous. Not that they're wrong about what good poetry does or can do, but it's not sufficient to distinguish verse from poetry.

"What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed"--by Orwell's definition would Pope qualify as a poet, I wonder?

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