Macpherson, Jay 1931–
Macpherson, an English-born Canadian poet, nonfiction writer, and critic, writes sophisticated, intricate verse, focusing on intellectual and spiritual awareness. She is best known for The Boatman, a collection of poems for which she won the Governor General's Award. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
That [ballad poetry] still is the main stem from which poets can put forth their own shoots is shown in The Boatman. All the symbols of balladry—the fish of fertility, the golden apples of love, the suggestive shape of Cupid's bow as it shoots an arrow, the red rose of sex, the unicorn—are here, with just the same technique of double and triple meaning. Indeed, so much in the tradition of ballad punning and suggestiveness is Miss Macpherson that she has a collection of riddles as part of her book.
This is not to say that she is derivative except as all new poets are derivative of the poets who have written before them and from whom they have learned their technique. The Boatman, in fact, presents a new and intensely personal voice in Canadian poetry which has an assurance, a breadth and depth which is as arresting as Miss Macpherson's splendid control of her lyric medium.
Steeped in the symbols of our culture, both pagan and classical, she chisels one exquisite lyric after another in completion of her central task which is to make the reader see with new eyes, assess with newly-rediscovered values and to turn his world upside down to see if it looks any better. (pp. 20-1)
She makes us meditate on the central facts of life, of love and of death, wittily but mercilessly, not scrupling to make us think hard to get her point. (p. 21)
Arnold Edinborough, "High Cockalorum in Verse," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Night), Vol. 72, No. 15, July 20, 1957, pp. 20-2.∗
[The Boatman] has made a great difference in the world of Canadian poetry. Let us proceed to explain the greatness of this difference.
First, what one must remark about Miss Macpherson's whale or "Leviathan" is that it is so very skillfully carved, and so are all the other beasts inside it, for her Leviathan turns out to be a Noah's Ark as well. It can also be said that she is the first Canadian poet to carve angels at all well. No one before had ever told Canadian poets that the Angel was or could be a very suitable and good topic for poetry.
Miss Macpherson's angels, of course, have a lot to do with the fact that she does some very natural but very hard things connected with the Bible. The Bible is still a vexatiously ill-known work in Canada…. I mean that it is ill-known as a key to art and as a source for new art. Miss Macpherson knows her Bible, knows that the natural world about us is not natural, knows how her Bible shows you how to deal with this unnaturalness; so nothing seemed more amiable probably than to have lots of angels, for they are the structure of the Bible and they prove to be a subject that immediately creates a tension in which any object or animal or being—Egg, Abominable Snowman and Mary of Egypt—begins to have an outline that glows. In The Boatman there is the "faceless angel" of the Storm, the angel who knows what "sways when Noah nods", the "inward angel"—of a poem called that—who has a "diamond self". There are the angels who look on as Leviathan frolics and there are the seraph forms within the "caverned woman" which are later named "flowers, fountains, milk, blood". In this equation we see that what the poet means by an angel is anything or anybody or any being seen in its Eternal aspect, that is, at its most glorious and most real, its most expanded. Actually, in leafing backwards through The Boatman and tracking down the angels, I've forgotten to mention the very important angel in the last poem:
The world was first a private park
Until the angel, after dark,
Scattered afar to wests and easts
The lovers and the friendly beasts.
This angel represents the giant and supernatural force all Creation lost at the Fall. This force, like a cork in a bottle, stands between us and Paradise in the sense that we must attain to it again before we can return to Paradise. This significant angel and his companions are a great part of the reason why The Boatman is such an exciting book…. To have landed and handled [the concept of the angel] is a real achievement.
Not only is this poet able to arrive at a skill with a very important symbol; she knows also how to deal with a great variety of topics in a carefully modulated variety of ways. The variety of methods or ways or tones is so cleverly arranged that by the time the reader has finished the volume he has boxed the compass of the reality which poetry imitates. This should be an ability an enthusiast for poetry would naturally expect from the author of any volume of lyrics. (pp. 23-5)
One of the proudest conclusions the author of The Boatman might draw about her own volume is that very few of the...
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Welcoming Disaster collects roughly a decade of Jay Macpherson's light verse and mad jottings and brilliant myth-making poems. The volume … is full of bright designs and dark conceits, amphisbaenic or yin-and-yang emblems; invocation, asides, and acknowledgments have all been severely dealt with…. [There] is really no describing a production like this—no substitute for having it. The book has a plot of sorts: at the end of a special and intimate friendship, presumably a love affair, the poet tries to get her capsized vessel afloat through a return to the terrors of childhood and the necessary unmourned losses of adult life. Her injunctions of self-command are directed to, or rather deflected off, a splendid toy bear called Tadwit or Ted, as the sequence moves from consolation to guilt to terror and finally to a deepened consolation. Miss Macpherson looks at her own life as well as Ted when she beckons to a "needed, familiar pain. / Come, little thorn." Surely, Blake would have smiled in baffled delight at the woman who could ask, "Having so much, how is it that we ache for / Those darker others?"; or speak of the search for a blessed monster "through the caverns wild / Where the giant led the child"; or hint, so calmly, at the difficult weight of love…. Yet I am reducing Miss Macpherson's grandness and verve by giving them a name. She will put readers in mind of Graves and Wordsworth, of Auden and Dickinson and Stevie Smith, of every poet who ever wrote truly about innocence and its...
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Superficially, there seem to be some obvious differences between The Boatman and Welcoming Disaster. The second in some ways seems much "simpler." It is my purpose here to explore some of the similarities and differences….
As Reaney makes clear, the central myth of The Boatman is that of the ark [see excerpt above]. The ark appears to contain us, as though we were trapped in the belly of some monstrous creature, and its contents appear to be hopelessly miscellaneous; but properly perceived, Man, in fact, contains the ark, and its contents are ordered…. (p. 54)
Noah's salvaging operations at the time of the flood correspond to the activity of the poet, the man who perceives or "dreams" and thus makes "a Cosmos of miscellany." In other words, Noah, Endymion (the sleeping shepherd) and the poet merge into one another. The type of the poet is, of course, Orpheus; and Narcissus, Orpheus and Psyche are interconnected figures. Narcissus is not seen in a negative light by Jay Macpherson. He also is the type of the poet, and the elegiac Orpheus engages in the same activity. But the poet as an Orpheus or as a Psyche are conceptions that are of greater importance to the second book (Welcoming Disaster) than to the first, because both stories contain an element that is missing in the stories of the other figures. Both Orpheus and Psyche have to make a journey underground. Redemption is no longer a matter of starting with the world of the fall and gradually proceeding upwards. In the second book it becomes necessary to hit bottom and then to make the journey up with a fully regained or "half-regained Eurydice." Now the problem is not simply to get the animals outside, but to find the way to that perception again, the source of dreaming…. (pp. 54-5)
[As] Reaney makes clear about The Boatman, the separation of the sexes corresponds to the separation between Man and Nature…. In The Boatman it is enough to say that in a fallen world all attempts at union are bound to be somewhat unsatisfactory…. In Welcoming Disaster the corpses that result from this disjunction have to be recognized and acknowledged. They have to be given their due. It is only then that they can in any...
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