Tuesday, October 06, 2009

`Unsurrendering Amber'

Here’s a name to rile the sophisticates: Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), who wrote poetry as though Ezra Pound had never been born. Her Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades came with a forward by W.H. Auden and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Her command of and devotion to meter and rhyme was absolute. If your idea of a poet is Charles Olson, McGinley will read like a joke. If your idea of a poet is someone who sometimes writes memorable verse – “light verse,” to be patronizing about it – you’ll find pleasure in some of McGinley’s work. I’ve been reading Times Three and enjoying myself, and here’s a sample, “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.”

The poem, an early suburban pastoral, was published in The New Yorker on Oct. 25, 1941. “Unsurrendering amber” is excellent, especially as an off-rhyme for “remember.” “Creeper” and “paper,” too, are comically pleasing. The poem is a hymn of praise for middle-class prosperity and security – a theme anathema to most American poets today, despite their own prosperity and security. I make no great claims for it, but find it touching. The war in Europe had started two years earlier and Pearl Harbor is six weeks away. “The 5:32” is a prewar vision of happiness, golden as though cased in “unsurrendering amber.”

Antimatter to McGinley’s matter is another work with the departure time of a commuter train as its title -- John Cheever’s “The Five-Forty-Eight,” first published in The New Yorker on April 10, 1954. Its protagonist, Blake, is a resident of Shady Hill, a middle-class monster, a cold, tyrannical father and husband. He hires a mentally disturbed secretary in the city, arranges a one-night stand and has her fired from the company. Armed with a handgun, she stalks him onto a commuter train. She is sad and pitiable; he, a sociopath. Except for the setting of a suburban train station (which McGinley and Cheever both describes as “shabby”), and publication in the same magazine, the poem and story share nothing. Try to hold both works in your mind at once and triangulate the distance between them. They are the creations of two very different writers, of course, but more than 12 years of global war, Holocaust, atomic weapons and cold war separate them.

Cheever, by the way, appeared on the cover of the March 27, 1964, issue of Time. He had just published The Wapshot Scandal. McGinley appeared on the cover of the same magazine on June 18, 1965. Three days earlier, Bob Dylan had recorded “Like a Rolling Stone.”

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