Sunday Poetry: Ballade of Lost Objects, by Phyllis McGinley

Ballade of Lost Objects

Where are the ribbons I tie my hair with?
Where is my lipstick? Where are my hose -
The sheer ones hoarded these weeks to wear with
Frocks the closets do not disclose?
Perfumes, petticoats, sports chapeaus,
The blouse Parisian, the earrings Spanish -
Everything suddenly up and goes.
And where in the world did the children vanish?

This is the house I used to share with
Girls in pinafores, shier than does.
I can recall how they climbed my stairs with
Gales of giggles on their tiptoes.
Last seen wearing both braids and bows
(And looking rather Raggedy-Annish),
When they departed nobody knows -
Where in the world did the children vanish?

Two tall strangers, now I must bear with,
Decked in my personal furbelows,
Raiding the larder, rending the air with
Gossip and terrible radios.
Neither my friends nor quite my foes,
Alien, beautiful, stern and clannish,
Here they dwell, while the wonder grows:
Where in the world did the children vanish?

Prince, I warn you, under the rose,
Time is the thief you cannot banish.
These are my daughters, I suppose.
But where in the world did the children vanish?

– by Phyllis McGinley

I cannot do justice to Phyllis McGinley by providing one example of her wonderful poetry. Phyllis McGinley is the sort of poet who provides a meal of hors d’oevres – she’s best appreciated by sitting with one of her books of poems and enjoying them by the handful. Her wit rings through in creative rhymes, dry takes on large subjects, and friendly, approachable verse.

Sadly, the quoted poem is often cited as “Ballad of Lost Objects”, with ignorant fans politely correcting what they think is a typographical error by eliding the “e” in “ballade”. In fact, “ballade” is a literary term for the painstaking verse form that Phyllis McGinley tackled in this poem. Four stanza all ending with the same line, and employing the same rhymes, with the final one frequently addressing a Prince “sub rosa” – the ballade dates back to French poetry from the 14th century, and it is, I assure you, a bear to write.

Phyllis McGinley was one of the foremost practitioners of light verse – indeed, her book of poetry titled Times Three was the first book of light verse to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is out of print, but I found a nice copy of it at Spivey’s Books last week for only $6.

Here’s another sample of Phyllis McGinley that might have some resonance for those pondering how to loudly complain about Obama’s choice of invocation:

The Angry Man

The other day I chanced to meet
An angry man upon the street —
A man of wrath, a man of war,
A man who truculently bore
Over his shoulder, like a lance,
A banner labeled “Tolerance.”

And when I asked him why he strode
Thus scowling down the human road,
Scowling, he answered, “I am he
Who champions total liberty —
Intolerance being, ma’am, a state
No tolerant man can tolerate.

“When I meet rogues,” he cried, “who choose
To cherish oppositional views,
Lady, like this, and in this manner,
I lay about me with my banner
Till they cry mercy, ma’am.” His blows
Rained proudly on prospective foes.

Fearful, I turned and left him there
Still muttering, as he thrashed the air,
“Let the Intolerant beware!”

Writing about McGinley is a little like food writing – my only hope of being fully understood is to tempt you to try it for yourself. Short of that, I can compare it to other tasty poets you may have tried, like Ogden Nash or Lewis Carroll, but with a distinctly and proudly feminine twist. She writes with a tremendous amount of intelligence, and she is often touching, but never really sentimental or even “heavy” – she exists to amuse, entertain, and provoke a little thought. One of her other books is entitled “Pocketful of Wry” – a fitting title for her style of poetry that maintains its decorum and humor.

2 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: Ballade of Lost Objects, by Phyllis McGinley”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh my soul! I have been looking for this poem after I heard it once 30 or so years ago. i did not know the auther or even the title,just the one line"and where in the world did the children vanish?" I can't begin to say how thrilled I aqmm with myself and the brains of this computer! I am literally in Phyllis McGinley heaven!

  2. John S. Patterson says:

    I catalogued Ms. McGinley’s papers at the Syracuse University Special Collections back in 1964. I read every piece of paper that she gave to Syracuse University. I was told that her papers were solicited because she had carried on such an abundant correspondence with so many other well known authors who respected her. With her contribution of materials in hand, the university would solicit contributions from those more prominent and important authors. When I finished cataloguing the papers they were appraised by a professional. Ms. McGinley, and her husband, were astonished and happy when the appraiser valued her papers at $10,000.00, for tax purposes. Under the laws of the day, they could deduct that sum as a contribution in kind to SU and thus reduce their taxes for the year in which the contribution was made.

Leave a Reply