Thursday, January 5, 2012

Love Note to a Playwright

If you're like me, you've been enjoying Stephen Sondheim's new book Look, I Made a Hat. If you're even more like me, you skipped ahead to the end and read his Epilogue. If you're uncannily like me, you really wanted to read Phyllis McGinley's poem "Love Note to a Playwright", because Sondheim recommends it in the Epilogue "to every hat maker" (i.e. creative person). If you're more like me than can possibly be healthy, you ordered a copy of The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley from Amazon, figuring that the poem would probably be in there.

It is. And so, for all of you who aren't quite exactly like's the poem. I'm posting it here under the reasoning that the book is out of print, so there's no way for McGinley's estate to make money off it anyway. Here it is:

Love Note to a Playwright

Perhaps the literary man
I most admire among my betters
Is Richard Brinsley Sheridan,
Who, viewing life as more than letters,
Persisted, like a stubborn Gael,
In not acknowledging his mail.

They say he hardly ever penned
A proper "Yrs. received & noted,"
But spent what time he had to spend
Shaping the law that England voted,
Or calling, on his comic flute,
The tune for Captain Absolute.

Though chief of the prodigious wits
That Georgian taverns set to bubblin',
He did not answer Please Remits
Or scoldings from his aunts in Dublin
Or birthday messages or half
The notes that begged an autograph.

I hear it sent his household wild—
Became a sort of parlor fable—
The way that correspondence piled,
Mountainous, on his writing table,
While he ignored the double ring
And wouldn't answer anything;

Not scrawls from friends or screeds from foes
Or scribble from the quibble-lover
Or chits beginning "I enclose
Manuscript under separate cover,"
Or cards from people off on journeys,
Or formal statements from attorneys.

The post came in. He let it lie.
(All this biographers agree on.)
Especially he did not reply
To things that had R.S.V.P. on.
Sometimes for months he dropped no lines
To dear ones, or sent Valentines;

But, polishing a second act
Or coaxing kings to license Freedom,
Let his epistles wait. In fact,
They say he didn't even read'm.
The which, some mornings, seems to me
A glorious blow for Liberty.

Brave Celt! Although one must deplore
His manners, and with reason ample,
How bright from duty's other shore,
This moment, seems his bold example!
And would I owned in equal balance
His courage (and, of course, his talents),

Who, using up his mail to start
An autumn fire or chink a crevice,
Cried, "Letters longer are than art,
But vita is extremely brevis!"
Then, choosing what was worth the candle,
Sat down and wrote The School for Scandal.

—Phyllis McGinley


  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I just got home from seeing Tony Kushner's interview with Sondheim at NYU (which was sublime, of course) where, at the end, Kushner (ever the theatrical one :) ), pulled it the poem and requested that Sondheim read it aloud (he'd heard him read it before). Sondheim said, "But I can't read it without crying", to which Kushner replied, "I know!" Well, he did (read it) and he did (cry), and, well, it was life-changing! I am definitely one of those who will let the most inconsequential task pull me away from my creative work, but I am going to hold this near to my heart now and read it often!

    I'm so glad you posted it, because I was figuring it must be well-known, but as I was just typing the title into google (thinking it was "Love Letter...") I became more and more aware that I may not find it and was getting really sad- I didn't know the author so added "Sheridan" and then changed it to "note" and only your blog came up! Anyway, thanks again! I liked your intro, too- I guess I am somewhat like you! :) (I only bought the 1st volume of the book tonight, so wouldn't've found out the poet's name for a while!)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth! Wish I could have heard the Kushner/Sondheim interview. It's fascinating to me that the poem makes him cry...I clearly see why it would be meaningful to him, but it doesn't strike me as a particularly "emotional" poem. Perhaps he's lamenting the time lost, doing non-creative business? He's done pretty well with his time, I'd say...

    At any rate, I hope it won't keep him from answering the letter I wrote him a couple of weeks ago! (Before I had read the poem myself, heh heh...)

  3. I was at that event as well. Sondheim apologized for crying, since it's not a sad poem. He stated that the reason he cried was he found the last verse to be profound.

  4. I also want to thank you for posting the entire poem. After the Kushner/Sondheim event I had a very hard time finding it as the title and author went by very fast.

    I also was very surprised to see Sondheim cry at the end of the poem, although one's emotional state must be in high gear after an hour and a half of unadulterated praise.

    A few questions tried to get at what Sondheim brought from his personal life to his work. He repeatedly said that it was the collaborations and his working partners that were influential, and nothing personal at all. This has made me wonder whether the 'correspondence' in the poem represents 'personal connections' to him. If these missed friendships/relationships have been the cost of his productivity, I could see how it would move him to tears.

  5. I just finished the second book, devouring it as I devoured the first. So inspired, I hunted up every YouTube reference to Sondheim, of which there are many - interviews, him playing piano, explaining the way he works and then so many versions of many of the songs. And then ... back to Oscar Hammerstein's assignment, mentioned in the Beginnings section. Write four works -an adaptation of a good play, an adaptation of a flawed play, an adaptation of something not written for the stage and a complete original. Time to get to work - tomorrow. Sleep tonight - that was another piece of his advice - sleep when sleep calls..

  6. I also just finished the second book -- God, so good! (I am addressing Sondheim there, of course.) I then turned immediately to my iPad to find the poem; thanks much for sharing it here.

  7. Yes, many thanks for the share and I'm sure the crying is for time lost. I am a youthful 64 years old but still have wasted so much creative time. I don't really think having read the poem as a young man would have made any difference but it's nice to think it might have.

  8. "Love Note" has long been a favorite poem of mine. I am delighted to learn that I share this taste with such geniuses as Sondheim and Kushner.

  9. Phyllis McGinley was one of the best light verse poets of all time - as Auden said in his introduction to her collected poems - she needs no puff - she was also living proof that a great artist does not have to be eccentric - she was a normal American suburban housewife and mother - although the kind of poetry she wrote mostly for the New Yorker is not so much in vogue today, her work will live on -