Helen W. Sonthoff
Phyllis Webb writes poems which reveal both the lacerating chaos of human experience and a deliberate cutting in to the hard core, the centre that may hold. Since one may not in the instant know whether pain is ultimately toward life or toward death, the experience of pain in these poems is not resolved in terms of the one or the other. The resulting balance communicates a kind of passionate tough-mindedness, an anguished will to completeness.
Many of Phyllis Webb's poems are luminous, sensuous, richly-colored, free in movement; some burst into a rollicking bawdiness or gaity. In all of them, from the most reckless to the most serenely lyrical, wit both releases and controls the emotion. Balance, in craft and in attitude, is as significant as it is in the poems which look for "seeds of meaning".
In these poems, fury, despair and bitterness are responses to the corruption and insignificance of man in a meaningless world…. This world threatens to shatter or smother whatever value man may hope for. If he retreats, he is trapped in a self too small, too dark to sustain life. If he walks out under the tormenting but blank and nerveless sun, his day is splintered, chaotic in its endless round and rage.
It is in this life and on this earth that Phyllis Webb seeks a vision one might claim "with tense impersonal unworth". If it does not exist here, it does not exist at all. The vision and the hope in these poems are that roundness may show wholeness, that light may be luminous, that darkness may be "a deep place where green begins". But there is always the other and terrible possibility, of meaningless circularity, withering glare, brutal and blank darkness. (pp. 15-16)
[In a early poem, "Sprouts the Bitter Grain",] it is not the brief longing at the end that balances the horror of the main part of the poem. The balance lies...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
Phyllis Webb's most recent and most complex book, Naked Poems, confirms a preoccupation with certain themes—love, poetry, and love as poetry—which was already evident in Even Your Right Eye (1956)…. The Naked Poems clarifies and perhaps finalizes a tendency apparent in the earlier volume towards reduction or refinement as Miss Webb's characteristic solution to certain technical problems arising out of her particular emotional and intellectual temperament…. This solution reflects the poet's attitude towards life. No moment is too short, no event too small, no experience too trivial, to merit the poet's attention. The poems are "small" not because the subject-matter is unimportant, but because the poet's eye sees precisely. Apparently casual and often brief, her glance is exacting and uncompromising. She refuses to magnify or over-state. (p. 29)
Introducing the "Naked Poems" … at a 1963 poetry reading in Edmonton, Miss Webb called them poems refined down to the "bone-essential statement." She said she was trying to establish "a kind of narrative line with a lyric intention". On the almost invisible "narrative line" she threads each "brief lyric" or "pearl poem" and in so doing reveals her self-confessed debt to Sappho and the haiku, and perhaps an unconscious debt to Browning whose experiments with the dramatic lyric opened up the form and left it charged with a potential which twentieth-century poets have fully exploited. The elusive but essential "narrative line" with its "lyric intention" accounts for the careful arrangement of poems in the new volume, and suggests how the five sections are to be approached and read. "Suites I and II," "A Suite of Lies" and "Some Final Questions" all have to be read en suite. It would be difficult to anthologize any single poem from a particular suite—for most obvious example, "Oh?"—and justify its autonomy or defend its meaning. But "Non Linear," the central of the five sections, suggests that the eleven poems contained therein do not stand in line, even though they have in common certain thematic material…. (pp. 30-1)
Implicit in [the] poems from the final suite of the Naked Poems is the identification of two processes, love-making and poetry-making, both of which are seen as making a "certain order". In "Non Linear", this identification is explicit and many of the poems are "about" poetry and love-making. Using the sea, perhaps the most important single symbol throughout Miss Webb's work, as an image of flux, of perpetual motion, she writes: "I hear the waves …/they are the root waves/of the poem's meter/the waves of the/root poem's sex." Root means source, essential point or part, and one suspects that the "root poem" is for Miss Webb what "central poetry" is for Wallace Stevens. (p. 33)
Phyllis Webb, in the Naked Poems, declares herself a daughter or an apostle of "the Priestess of Motion", of Flux, for which the "wave interminably flowing" is a perfect image…. The "brief lyric" cries uttered by the Priestess of Motion in her coming to a sexual-poetic climax in "the Act" of making love with the Logos, the godhead to whom she has dedicated herself, whose service is her vocation …—these are the "hieratic sounds", the cryptic letters of "a new alphabet" which "gasps for air" and is given room to breathe in the beautifully printed volume of her Naked Poems which was designed by Takao Tanabe.
This "new alphabet" with which Miss Webb spells out the language characteristic of her best poetry, can be seen in embryonic form in both her earlier volumes…. In the Naked Poems, the new alphabet, taken like a rib from a young old Adam, becomes the "bone-essential statement" with which the poet chooses to work almost exclusively. And though some of the poems she makes out of...
(The entire section is 1591 words.)
Nothing in my experience quite prepared me for the excitement I felt in reading Phyllis Webb's Selected Poems. But it was an excitement tempered by a real exasperation with the book's design…. [Often], I got lost in the book, and finally was forced to write simply about what I could remember. One does not read a poetry book straight through. But if John Hulcoop is right in his careful introduction, Miss Webb shows an important development in her poems. To acknowledge this development vis-à-vis such an inconsiderate design, seems almost impossible. But all this is, I hope, academic. In Selected Poems, Miss Webb's poetry blazes into life as terrifying as love, and as necessary. For these are poems that both shape "the world in the intimate/terms of self" and follow the "Flights of the mind from the/earth."
Miss Webb's concerns are the concerns of most poets: love, death, time, despair, "the remedy of art," but carried to such an intense degree, that one comes away feeling shaken and humbled. There is wit, resignation and a dark humour…. And there is much despair. A few poems even consider the "numerous methods of killing oneself." Some people would hold such themes to be mawkish, neurotic, or self-pitying…. [But] Miss Webb writes: "If there is agitation there is cause." The cause can be traced through selections from Trio, Even Your Right Eye, The Sea Is Also A Garden, and Naked Poems. (p. 70)
John Hulcoop writes that "frugal" is the "perfect word with which to describe the poetry in Naked Poems." I would argue that "frugal" describes most of Miss Webb's poetry. Although many of the earlier poems are long, they are wrought with impeccable grace and workmanship. There are no surpluses of words, no distracting ambiguities of feelings. The imagery is sharp, cutting, economical as a razor. (p. 71)
Gail Fox, "Books Reviewed: 'Selected Poems 1954–1965'," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LII, No. 616, May, 1972, pp. 70-1.