Essay

It's Glorious! It's Grand!

Margaret Fishback was one of the most highly paid advertising women in the 1930s—and a popular poet

“She writes real poetry and it sells for real money,” the New York Daily Mirror declared in 1935. “Not every poet can do that.”

“Girl is Genius!” the Los Angeles Examiner exclaimed that same year. That genius was Margaret Fishback, poet and highly successful advertising copywriter. Fishback was often publicly lauded, but she is little known today. And that is a shame. She is a fascinating proto-feminist figure—declaring in print that she didn’t need a husband and gleefully earning more than enough money to pay her own way—and her delightful light verse is by turns evocative of Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Ogden Nash. Consider the sardonic “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” from her 1932 debut collection, I Feel Better Now

Unfortunately happiness
Depends a little more than less
On undependable, and hence
Absurdly charming elements.

Born in Washington, DC, in 1900, Fishback graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore in 1921, and, after briefly teaching English and history to high schoolers, she moved to New York City, eager for the occupational and cultural opportunities it would afford her. During her early years in Manhattan, she attended the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School for a while and even took the stage a couple of times as an extra at the Met. Meanwhile, she found a position as a divisional ad copywriter at Macy’s in 1926.

A 1934 article called “Advertising is Fun—and Frenzy,” by Ruth Brown Reed in the Independent Woman, which Fishback clipped and saved, proves instructive: “There are precious few other professions where women are recognized and paid on such equal terms with men.” This rare parity had to do with the fact that the consumer economy targeted women, many of whom managed their household’s finances, even if they did not earn the money. “Men in advertising agencies and in department stores must depend, whether they want to or not, on some woman’s opinion,” Reed writes.

A gifted ad woman must possess “critical sense” and “imagination,” Reed says, and Fishback was blessed with both. She helped forge a style that essentially revolutionized advertising. A 1932 Macy’s in-house publication explains: 

Time was when advertisers didn’t jest about such sacred things as merchandise. But Margaret Fishback of our Advertising Department thought that a pea-sheller was a funny little contraption, so why not joke about it? … The public not only guffawed with delight, it came promptly to Macy’s—in droves—and bought up those kitchen gadgets.

Thanks to this approach, Fishback came to be known as one of the most highly paid advertising woman in the world in the 1930s. An ad she wrote for Scotch—which the store illustrated with a little man in a kilt marching off to Macy’s—typified her style, declaring, “When you want a wee snifty … / It’s smart to be thrifty.” She accompanied the tagline with this poem:

We’d charge for such a noble drink, 
York House is called THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE. 
Come lift your lubricated voice
With ours, in praise of Macy’s Brand
Of Scotch! It’s glorious! It’s grand!
And popular as all get-out
of that there’s not the slightest doubt.

All the while she worked as a copywriter, Fishback wrote poetry. This was a time when magazines and newspapers included verse in virtually every edition or issue. Her light verse appeared in magazines of broad circulation with generous rates of compensation, from more sophisticated verse for the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and the New York Times to more broadly appealing poems for Woman’s Day, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar

Her 1933 collection of nimble New York verses, Out of My Head, sold through three printings in its first year. Her publisher, E.P. Dutton, focused on the book’s appeal to working women, describing it as exuding “the robust wisdom of life which a busy woman gathers while working and playing in this throbbing metropolis.” 

Fishback published five collections over the course of her lifetime, now all long out of print. Her poems range from the aphoristic, such as the single-sentence “Maiden’s Prayer” 

It’s easy now to get a meal 
From eager gentlemen and sporty; 
But how will they be apt to feel 
And who will feed me when I’m forty?

to longer ones that drew upon her professional expertise. “The Fashion Copywriter Turns Nature Lover,” for example, is predicated on the overlap between her two callings: 

Gunmetal swallows,
Flying here and there,
Honey-beige trees
And sunglow air,
Bronze-nude grass
And silversheen rain—
Beckon me down
A fragrant grege lane.

To her, the two pursuits—selling products through carefully crafted ads and selling carefully crafted poems—went hand in hand. She kept at both over the years, even as her own fortunes rose and fell and the tastes and attitudes of the culture changed.

From a 1935 Los Angeles Examiner article

 

In 2007, I became the first non-archivist to work with her materials at Duke University. Smitten by Fishback as a person and as a writer, I ended up writing a novel loosely based upon her life and work called Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Looking through her archives, I was struck by the consistency of Fishback’s professionalism and artistry and the ways in which her work as an ad woman and a poet seemed to feed each other. 

As its name suggests, the best light verse has a brightness that gently illuminates whatever subject it takes on. Her ads operate in a similar fashion, staking out space in the realm of the unexpected turn of phrase or a good pun. One of her 1932 Macy’s ads for baby products, for instance, reads “Nature in the Roar” above the image of a naked, screaming infant. 

Both Fishback’s ads and verses play with her ambivalence toward domestic bliss, and her cynical attitudes about marriage were widely known. In 1935, she fell in love with a Macy’s co-worker—Alberto Gastone Antolini, the chief rug buyer—and news of their engagement prompted such headlines as “Sneerer at Love Engaged to Wed” in the New York American. She was 35 years old at the time, considered old to be getting married for that era. A few years earlier, in her 1932 debut, I Feel Better Now, Fishback had summed up her skepticism about the double standard of the day in her epigrammatic “More Preyed Upon Than Preying.” It reads, in its entirety: 

    Bachelors should never be
    Grudged their so-called liberty.

Just four months after she met Alberto, the two were married. Six years later, they had their only child, a son named Anthony. Her author biography for Liberty, a magazine for which she frequently wrote pieces in the 1940s, depicted her as reveling in all her activities equally: “Nowadays poets don’t starve in garrets. Look at Margaret Fishback, who’s combined poetry with a successful advertising career and is bringing up a family at the same time. When she’s not shopping at the grocery store, or romping with her four-year-old son on the farm up in Maine or collecting material for her weekly word to women in Liberty, she’s busy at her typewriter.” Her struggles to achieve what would today be called work-life balance were not always successful, and she and Alberto divorced. But through it all, she kept writing poetry, with her keen ear for rhyme and a gimlet eye for the absurd and ironic. 

Perhaps partly because of her association with women’s magazines and because she was a woman and a writer of light verse, few people in the 21st century have heard of her. (Some who think that they’ve heard of her haven’t. They confuse her with Margaret Fishback Powers, who claimed credit for writing the sentimental “Footprints” poem: “When you saw only one set of footprints, / It was then that I carried you.”) 

The poet/ad woman Margaret Fishback certainly aimed at—and hit—the popular middle but with a tart, Cole Porter-esque quality. It’s easy to imagine many of her verses set to music like popular songs. Her poem “Getting Down to Work” almost suggests a melody with its simple, dashing alternation of just two rhymes: 

My pencil’s dull; besides, I think
I’ve really got to have a drink,
And while I go to get the drink,
My pencil being dull, I think
I might as well go down the hall 
And get it sharpened first of all.
In just one trip I’ll do it all,
One little journey down the hall.  
For how can anybody think
Or try to work, who needs a drink?
I’m positive that one and all
Would start by going down the hall.

In its repetition, the poem freshly captures the familiar obsessive and resistant mindset of the procrastinator. Through its tight control, it provides readers purchase on an otherwise abstract and unconsidered habit of mind. 

Light verse, when it’s good, pleases readers by its tension of opposites: it must balance strictness with liveliness. Accomplished light verse must exhibit precision and focus on common topics in crisp language. Consider Fishback’s “Prayer,” which vividly elucidates the grating reality of trying to rest in the city: 

Now I lay me down to sleep
Eighteen, nineteen, twenty sheep
God, please try to make me grow 
To like the next door radio
That blandly granulates the night,
For if I liked it, then I might
Contrive to get a little sleep
Before the ninety-seventh sheep. 

It’s a droll eight-line morsel of a poem, cute with its echoes of the customary children’s prayer and the insomnia remedy of counting sheep, but her description of the radio next door “that blandly granulates the night” sends it into the realm of the unexpected. 

Another admiring newspaper article from 1935—the year of her engagement and the heart of the Depression—quotes Fishback as saying, “I write poetry because it is good for the soul. I write advertising because it is good for business, helps every worker, every factory, everybody.” 

As time wore on, of course, the fashions changed in both advertising and poetry, and light verse and the venues that used to pay handsomely for it began to shrink and disappear. For better or for worse, it’s as though Modernism never happened in Fishback’s poetic world. She never committed to the published page anything remotely fragmentary or obscure. Through the 1960s, when her final book of poetry, Poems Made Up to Take Out, appeared, she remained true to the composition of rigorously rhymed and metered verse. Though it is dotted with foreign phrases, such as “Coelum non animum” (“climate may change but not character”) and “Chacun à son gôut” (“to each his own taste”), her poetry stands a strong chance of being comprehended by most readers. 

She stuck to that approach for decades, but even she could feel the lights dimming on light verse in America. Her later work became more critical, as is the case with “Blackout,” which appeared in 1963 in Look magazine. 

When life seems gray 
And short of fizz
It seems that way
Because it is.

Until late into her life, Fishback stuck to her belief that writing verse and writing ads were far from mutually exclusive. After marriage and the demands of motherhood caused her to leave her full-time position at Macy’s, she continued work in advertising as a freelancer. Over the decades, she had a hand in ad accounts for Chef Boyardee, Clairol, General Foods, Borden, Simmons Beautyrest, Seagram’s, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and many more products. By the 1960s, Fishback was also making money by writing greeting card verse, including this wonderfully weird birthday rhyme for American Artists Group:

By jingo 
The flamingo 
Joins our fandango 
For your birthday slambango. 

As the years wore on, it became harder for her to place her actual poetry. “Verse situation is very tight here at the moment and acceptances are very scarce. But I’ll be glad to look at anything else you might like to send along,” wrote Martin Levin, an editor of the Saturday Review in a letter to Fishback in January 1962.

Fishback, for her part, expressed her bitterness toward the editor in a little verse she jotted to herself in April 1963: 

Martin Levin 
Won’t get to heavin 
because of poetry 
mailed to him on March sevin. 
His idea is to keep Easter rhymes until May 
and verses about Mother’s Day 
Until Momma no longer cares, 
because she is too old and tired and gray. 

In her final book, she formally expresses her anxiety and resentment toward what was considered “good” or “fashionable” poetry of the day versus her heyday. In a verse called “Lines to a Budding Poet,” she warns 

Bear in mind, my little man: 
Never let your verses scan.
And acceptance will be sparse
If, by any chance, they parse.
But whatever else you do, 
Let it not be said of you
That your poetry makes sense....
That’s a criminal offense!

Yet even as she was being edged out of the popularly read pages, people still remembered her. In March 1961, Fishback received a letter from an admiring reader, Katherine J. Garrison. “I have collected and enjoyed your poems for many years. ‘Saving for a Rainy Day’ in January and ‘American Home’ really hit home,” Garrison wrote. “Keep the poems flying to me through magazines—and keep your memories as the basis of future poems for the world to enjoy please.”

Even then, Fishback seemed to know that her reign as a well-paid, well-read poet was almost done. But we still have the poems if we want them. And we should want them.

Her poem “Orange Juice and a Quick Swallow” wrestles with one of her perennial subjects, which feels very much a part of today’s conversation about women and whether they can, in that loaded phrase, “have it all”: 

All the hazards life implies 
Puzzle those who would be wise; 
And there’s no solution when 
Law does not abolish men. 

Though Fishback’s chosen genre of light verse has come to be seen by most contemporary readers as gray and dusty, the questions Fishback raises remain evergreen.

Originally Published: December 14th, 2016

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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