PHYLLIS MCGINLEY liked to say that "by temperament I am a nest builder" and that keeping "a house is my native vocation." The husband and children who lived with Miss McGinley - she died at age 72 earlier this week - were unknown to cherish her homemaking talents, but for the public beyond her suburban doors in Larchmont, N.Y., and Weston, Conn., it was the sparklingly light verse and the whimsical essays that made the McGinley talents worth celebrating. As the first poet ever to win a pulitzer prize (in 1961) for light verse, Phyllis McGinley wrote what she called "sonnets from the suburbs." Amid the lightness and merriment, wry metaphors danced with each other. When the music of her poems played softly one could hear the message that was the substance of her belief: The pleasures and sacrifices of family life were worthy subjects for the poetric craft.
A McGinley verse had little of the gaudy hilarity found in the rhymes of Odgen Nash, and she chose not to be a comedienne playing for the guffaw. Instead, she offered the reader the enchantment of self-recognition: the station wagons, the PTA meetings, the lawns, the dens and the car pools in the McGinley text were sanctums of the obvious peopled by the ordinary. In "Times Three," a collection of her poetry from three decades, she could be both lyrical and witty about so common an event as the children getting off to school:
I love my daughters with a love unfailing,
I love them healthy and I love them ailing.
I love them as sheep are loved by the shepherd,
With a fiery love like a lion or a leopard.
I love them gentle or inclined to mayhem -
But I love them warmest after eight-thirty a.m.
Miss McGinley wrote 18 books between 1934 and 1969, a span long enough to earn her not only the affection of countless readers but also the praise of her fellow poets. Among the latter, W.H. Auden once noted that "Phyllis McGinley needs no puff. Her poems are known and loved." She worked painstakingly on her poems, but not to the point of causing pain to her family, whom she called "my copy." She wrote that "we have all lived together a long time, and our purse is well supplied. We are forever reaching into it for an anecdote or recollection."
Those who reach into the verses of Phyllis McGinley are likely to find her commentary on the American family as trenchant (however wry at times) as that found in some of the commission reports, dissertations and somber volumes currently appearing on the subject. In 1964, when the University of Notre Dame awarded Miss McGinley its Laetare Medal it was because she "enriched the heritage of humanity." That praise may have set somewhat heavily on the shoulders of this modest women, but as she revealed so often and so faithfully in her writing, what better place can a wife and mother begin the enrichment process than amid the humanity of her own family?