Meet the Poets: Phyllis McGinley – 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

“The Velvet Hand

I call that parent rash and wild
Who’d reason with a six-year child,
Believing little twigs are bent
By calm, considered argument.

In bandying words with progeny,
There’s no percentage I can see,
And people who, imprudent, do so,
Will wonder how their troubles grew so.

Now underneath this tranquil roof
Where sounder theories have their proof,
Our life is sweet, our infants happy.
In quietude dwell Mammy and Pappy.

We’ve sworn a stern, parental vow
That argument we won’t allow.
Brooking no juvenile excess here,
We say a simply No or Yes, here,

And then, when childish wails begin
We don’t debate.
We just give in.”

–Phyllis McGinley

Phyllis McGinley (March 21, 1905 – February 22, 1978) was an American author of children’s books and poetry. She studied at the University of Southern California and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where she was a Kappa Kappa Gamma, graduating in 1927, then moved to New York City. She wrote copy for an advertising agency, then taught at a junior high school in New Rochelle, New York for one year, until her career as a writer and poet took off.

Her poetry was in the style of light verse, specializing in humor and satiric tone. 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 feminist intellectual who rejected the domestic life. 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. She wrote mainly for white, middle-class, educated women and her work was published prolifically in periodicals, including the New Yorker and Ladies’ Home Journal. In her poetry, McGinley humorously depicts a life that revolves around the children and routine of domesticity.

Though her work as largely faded into the annuls of history, McGinley was a hugely popular author in her time and she was the recipient of many literary prizes, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her “Times Three” piece. In 1964 she was honored with the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame (described as ‘An honor to a man or woman who has “enriched the heritage of humanity”‘). She also holds nearly a dozen honorary degrees – “including one from the stronghold of strictly masculine pride, Dartmouth College” (from the dust jacket of Sixpence in Her Shoe (copy 1964)). Time Magazine featured McGinley on the magazine’s cover on June 18, 1965.
She moved to Larchmont, New York in 1937 with her husband, Charles Hayden, and raised two daughters there, singing the praises of domesticity and small town suburbia for nearly 40 years. McGinley died in New York City in 1978.

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