I don’t know whether there is any such thing as a “normal career” among Canadian poets, but if there is, Phyllis Webb has not had one. She is approaching ninety now and has not published a book of new poems in twenty-five years. She experienced silences in the past, too – a highly critical article about her poetry by John Bentley Mays published in Open Letter, in 1973, drove her into years of retreat – but it now seems safe to say that she abandoned poetry two-and-a-half decades ago for painting. All along the way, even for those (like me) who knew her only from her work and not as a friend or colleague, there were signs aplenty that she found writing difficult, suffered from various kinds of anxiety and despair, and often thought poetry a command, not a choice, that might not be worth the psychic displacement; the writhing in public, as it were. As early as 1954 (when she was twenty-seven) in a poem from her first book, she envisioned a future “where pain / is a lucid cargo.” Eight years later, in “Countered,” from The Sea is Also a Garden, the world is said to “tether joy,” a joy she defines powerfully, if sadly, as “creation’s sweet pathetic trust.” The poems in that book are full of the “anguish of being,” and its contrary moments of comedy and high spirits are more than overwhelmed by images of the “only/remotely human,” and statements such as that thinking about the various manners of suicide constitutes “surely the finest exercise of the imagination.” Naked Poems, published in 1965, embodied a different affect. Minimalist utterances that feel barely articulate, in a way, the poems nevertheless seemed to embody the emotions of a sometimes-joyful lover, not a poet constantly under threat of erasure, or at least of silence. The final section, which as Mays suggested, appears to be organized like a psychotherapy session, with questions and answers, reveals some of the dread underlying the love poems and culminates in the interlocutor, whoever that is, saying, merely, “Oh?” And with that, Webb did not publish another book for fifteen years, including the time when she was, as she admitted, licking her wounds after the publication of the Mays article.
With Wilson’s Bowl (1980), Webb seemed to rediscover her creative direction, and even if many of the poems in that book derived from a separate book about Peter Kropotkin that never cohered and was never published as such, and even if she talks quite openly about failure in many of the poems, the poetry itself demonstrated a greater technical sophistication and a broader range of emotion and music than her earlier books. Water & Light followed, in 1984. A friend had introduced Webb to the Persian poetic form known as the ghazal (memorably brought into Canadian poetry by John Thompson in his book Stilt Jack). She clearly found the ghazal’s typical combination of dislocation and emotional power congenial. To my mind, Water & Light contains her best poems, while Hanging Fire (1990), her final collection, embodies a less-focused poetic intelligence and feels emotionally more decentered. Webb herself is on record as saying that Hanging Fire contains poems that she thought of as “my uglies,” and while every poet deserves readerly latitude to publish “ragged” poems as well as polished work, nothing in Webb’s final book is as beautiful and accomplished as the ghazals, particularly the so-called anti-ghazals in a section of Water & Light entitled “Sunday Water.” John Hulcoop, the editor of Peacock Blue, includes a large group of uncollected and unpublished poems in a section following Hanging Fire. It is good to have these new poems to add to Webb’s corpus of books, but they do not alter the shape of her lifetime’s work in any surprising or unexpected way. With Hanging Fire, her work came to an end. Peacock Blue makes all of it available again in a well-edited text.
Phyllis Webb comes from a generation of modernist Canadian poets that begins with Irving Layton (b. 1912) and includes P.K. Page (b. 1917), Louis Dudek (b. 1918), Raymond Souster (b. 1921), and D.G. Jones (b. 1929), among others. There is little similarity in the work of these poets, so while they are connected by generation, they do not share a common aesthetic in the way, for example, that Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath – all born over a similar span of time as the Canadian group – more obviously do, whatever their dissimilarities. Phyllis Webb published her first poems in a group book called Trio, where she shared space with Eli Mandel and Gael Turnbull, a book published by Contact Press, which Layton, Dudek, and Souster had founded just two years earlier. Her early poems are formal, often rooted in discernible metre and with recourse to end-rhyme, as in these opening lines from “The Second Hand”:
Here, Love, whether we love or not involves the clock and its ignorant hands tying our hearts in a lover’s knot;
now, whether we flower or not requires a reluctance in the hour; yet we cannot move, in the present caught
in the embrace of to be or not;
This poem moves to a pleasant tetrameter music, and the rhyming, while not perfect (“hands” does not ever rhyme with another word), is well done; that is, it has semantic as well as sonic significance within the poem. The work in Even Your Right Eye (1956), Webb’s first solo collection, often moves with a similar formal grace, as one can hear in the first stanza of the wonderful “Lament”:
Knowing that everything is wrong, how can we go on giving birth either to poems or the troublesome lie, to children, most of all, who sense the stress in our distracted wonder the instant of their entry with their cry?
(The repetition of “their” in that final line may represent a defect, but over all, this poem has a sad, tragic conviction that is utterly compelling.) There are poems in that book, however, that dance to a different measure, and demonstrate that Webb will move beyond the poetic conventions she inherited. The opening piece, entitled “The Mind Reader,” uses rhyme, but its musical pointing, set to a narrower and less predictable line (largely four, five, and six syllables), is delicate and elegant:
I thought, and he acted upon my thought, read by some wonderful kind of glass my mind saw passing that way gulls floating over boats floating in the bay, and by some wonderful sleight of hand he ordered the gulls to land on boats and the boats to land.
Or, was it through waves he sent the boats to fly with gulls so that out of care they all could play in a wonderful gull-boat-water way up in a land of air?
The Sea is Also a Garden similarly contains poems in conventional form and line, but also poems that are less obedient to regularity. As the singularity of her music came to prominence, so too sometimes did the content of Webb’s poems become more obscure, as her poet’s ear, hearing music, cared less about semantic definition. “Why should we stop at all for what I think?,” as Ezra Pound put it in an early sonnet.
Naked Poems marked a sharp change in Webb’s work, but one from which, ultimately, she drew back. The emotions are rawer and the forms are extremely austere. In other words, the poetry is naked on every level. Critics have argued over the nature of the love affair that the poems encode, but in formal terms the poems constitute not so much a fruitful new development as an endpoint. Webb admits to “trying to write a poem” during the final conversation in Naked Poems, the one which sounds very like a psychiatric session; the sequence ends with nothing more than a single word, “Oh?,” on one level nothing more than a vowel with a question mark. And so concludes the first half of Webb’s career, with language seemingly disappearing into silence (as she had sometimes threatened that it would), and the lover in the middle of things, unshriven and somewhat unforthcoming, seemingly in extremis, if rather cheerful at times about it (“I have given up / complaining”).
With Wilson’s Bowl began a ten-year period of great creativity for Webb, a decade in which she published three important new books and won the Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry for a fourth book, The Vision Tree, a selected poems edited by Sharon Thesen. Wilson’s Bowl continued and ramified some of Webb’s now well-established themes – the very first poem speaks of the fact “that/we are inconsolable,” and another early poem allows, almost casually, that her decision about what to do next boils down to “Russia, Suicide or France” – but there is a breadth and richness in the poems that is new. She may, in a moment of her typical lack of self-assurance, feel that she’ll “leave a legacy of buried verbs, a tight-mouthed treasure,” but in fact she leaves much more. There is nothing “buried” about the music of lines like these, from the fourth of the “Poems of Failure”:
Far out in the strait low star lights of the ferry boats follow a radar map.
The cat jumps on my lap. She stares.
Wilson’s Bowl ends with a poem about “performing music and extinction,” but Webb was far from finished then as a poet. Her take on the ghazal as collected in Water & Light was, in a sense disrespectful of the traditional formal elements of the Persian poem, but indisputably regenerative for her own work. The “mellifluous / journey of the ten lines” with their “clandestine order” was seemingly highly congenial to her poetic instincts. She could even admit, contrary (or at least contiguous) to her usual lack of faith in the creative powers of nature and human realities, that “Everything is waiting for a condition of grace.” With Hanging Fire she then went on to write more ghazals, prose poems, even visual and concrete poems (not her strength, perhaps), along with a sonnet, a poem in syllabics, and other experiments. And then she stopped. You can feel her stopping in that final book.
Peacock Blue is a huge book of poems. While in a poet’s end-of-career omnium gatherum there will inevitably be poems that go over one’s head, poems that seem weak or failed, and poems that leave one impressed if unmoved – no one can write five hundred pages of poetry without some slips and dips – Webb’s life’s work is a book to return to again and again for its virtuoso music, its philosophical breadth, and its moments of comfort and sanctification; oddly perhaps. The feeling is consistently one of struggle, psychically; she never gives in to a countervailing confessional voice, or at least when she does, she always holds things back. There is spiritual autobiography in Peacock Blue, but seldom literal autobiography. It is an impertinence to ask for names and times and dates from poetry anyway. When she says in the first line of the last poem in Hanging Fire, “Eye contact, and it’s forever,” you know she is not talking just about the Japanese print ostensibly the subject of the poem (“The Making of a Japanese Print”). She is evoking the poet and the poet’s reader. With Phyllis Webb, that relationship, once established, is fated to last a lifetime.
From CNQ 94 (Winter 2016)