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...
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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...
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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)...
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