P(atricia) K(athleen) Page Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) (Vol. 7) - Essay

Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) 1916–

An award-winning Canadian poet, P. K. Page is also esteemed in Canada as the painter P. K. Irwin. She has published a novel under the pseudonym Judith Cape. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

[Of] the Canadian poets who led the second wave of modernism in the Forties and Fifties, P. K. Page holds a curious and somewhat anomalous position; she had certainly not received the critical attention that the remarkable fusion of psychological insight and poetic imagination which characterizes and individualizes her poems would lead one to expect. Perhaps the effort to discriminate between the subjective and objective elements of her work, or between image and symbol or memory and desire, has been thought by the critics too unprofitable or found too fatiguing. There is no doubt that she is a difficult poet—at least I have found her so—and the difficulty is not intellectual. Her moons are not reason's, so that what the reader who is to get the maximum enjoyment needs—or the critic who is to get the maximum comprehension—is a sensibility and an intuition that have to be nourished and educated by the poems themselves as he reads and re-reads them. Though I feel a certain presumption in approaching this subject, I can say that I have found the experience of trying to come to terms with it an absorbing one. Her gardens may be imaginary, but more than the toads in them are real; and are not her angels also?…

What is most strange and most revealing in this world is that the workings of its Mind are almost unconscious, often as in dreams, and that even the wit is controlled from Elsewhere. Hers is in its final effect a poetry of vision, and it demands a quality of sympathy in the reader that its poetic richness helps to create. Indeed, to speak for myself, it casts a spell that has made it possible to value it not as vision only but as revelation….

"Stories of Snow" is the outstanding success of P. K. Page's first volume [As Ten, As Twenty], comparable in magnificence and complexity to "Images of Angels" in her second. These are perhaps the finest of the many very individual poems that seem to grow like beautiful flowers out of childhood memories, recurring dreams, and a crystal clairvoyance. Innocence and experience, illusion and disillusionment, find expression in an overflowing of powerful emotion, remembered not in tranquillity but with a craftsmanly excitement and an exquisite shiver that sets the rhythmical pattern of all her most moving poems.

"Images of Angels", like "Stories of Snow", "Photos of a Salt Mine", and some of the newer poems, "After Rain" and the finest of all "Cry Ararat!", is a kind of sentimental education—sentimental not in any pejorative or ironic Flaubertian sense—that, recognizing worlds without love, seeks to explore ways of transforming them or coming to terms with them….

Images of sterile salt and metallic cold are found in a number of poems that analyze self-love with what can only be described as a kind of cold fury. Among these are "Isolationist", "Only Child", "Foreigner", "Man with One Small Hand", "Mineral" and "This Cold Man". The last three are particularly impressive for the concentrated angry wit that turns experience into a new universal and instant myth.

A.J.M. Smith, "The Poetry of P. K. Page," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 17-27.

P. K. Page has the eye of a draftsman and the ear of a poet. She also knows how to fit the right phrases to her observations—e.g., conveying the effect of snails upon a garden as making "broderie anglaise from the cabbages"…. Her wit carries her still further, into full-scale and barely viable conceits….

Miss Page particularly enjoys writing about people with small lives, about children, dreams, and dreamy moods. Some readers may wonder whether the poet does not condescend when she assumes that her own vision encompasses that of gardeners and stenographers. Some may be put off by the repeated suggestion that children discover or exhibit corruption only as they grow up. Some may not wish to participate in the trancelike states that fascinate the poet. Even those who admire her mingling of fantasy with sharp observation may long for Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, or Elizabeth Bishop when Miss Page succumbs to whimsy. A celebrated definition of poetry called out for real flowers in imaginary gardens but for real toads. Miss Page's gardens are too often filled with glass flowers. Nearly all readers will feel troubled by the poet's over-indulgence in certain images. These poems provide one with too much air, water, and snow, too many fish, swans, and drifting motions, too many epithets or adverbs like "terrible" and "somehow", which beg the whole question of poetry.

Yet often enough, Miss Page joins her observations in a shape that makes proper demands on one's sensibility while moving on to elicit the sudden, matching emotion….

"Poetic Vision," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 26, 1973, p. 1306.

Inferno and Paradise: these [images] reveal something of the dimensions of Patricia Page's imaginative universe. At one pole a vision of hell shading into social concern; at the other a mandala expressing harmony and wholeness, like Dante's multifoliate rose. In "Photos of a Salt Mine" a picture of innocence and beauty gives way to a vision of evil. In "Another Space" what appears to be a "primitive" (and, because of a reference to Chagall, brings to mind a Chassidic) ritual dance expresses the ultimate wholeness and harmony of a universe that is forever "surging and altering" and yet forever one.

"Most of my poems," Miss Page has written, "have been doors closing. A few were doors opening." In this smaller group she includes "Another Space" along with "Arras" and "Stories of Snow". All of these particular poems involve journeys into inner space—through and behind the eye. I once observed of another poet of Miss Page's generation that she was a survivor, not an explorer. P. K. Page is an explorer too. (p. 104)

The first [section of Poems Selected and New] contains mainly poems of social observation, many of which yoke together an obviously genuine compassion (especially for girls and women) with a somewhat too-decorative metaphoric busyness and much alliteration: it is to a large extent the period style of the forties, the kind of neo-Freudian neo-Marxist Auden-Thomas rococo that drives a reviewer in desperation to the sort of facile labels I've just applied. These don't, of course, do any justice to the best of the poems. And the style becomes sharper, cleaner, more refined and more definitively Page's own as the book proceeds. (p. 105)

[In the second section] Miss Page seems to be reaching beyond the depiction of social flaws and psychological problems to an examination of the deeper roots of these in the atrophied human imagination. In so doing she enters her "other space", a larger dimension of perception and being. This is a natural tendency, it seems, of twentieth-century thought and art. Behind and beyond the highly useful analyses of Marx and Freud is a larger realm of understanding whose nature was perhaps best articulated by Carl Jung (though he does not, of course, have a monopoly on wisdom and insight). Now that psychology and physiology (combined in biofeedback), art, meditation and a number of other disciplines are beginning to see themselves once again as parts of one science, the much-longed-for rediscovery of full consciousness of it may be at hand; in another sense it the psyche (i.e. of the whole mind-body in its whole relationship to the universe) may well be at hand (I mean the was and is always present); Miss Page's rather pathetic angels would then become like Rilke's angels, at home in all worlds.

Interior worlds make themselves felt in the third section; they had, of course, been implicit in the earlier sections too. Metaphors are now more consistently and simply symbolic rather than gaudy and self-serving…. The final poem is the difficult "Arras", in which the speaker apparently feels the stillness of death in the cold perfection of the world of art, and seeks to alter it with vivid life. A peacock insinuates itself into the scene through the poet's eye.

The book's final section contains poems … enlarging upon the themes of the power of metaphor to transform reality and the power of the human imagination to extend itself into the cosmos in a new direction, another space, in spite of physical decline and death. There is here, as throughout the book, considerable emphasis on "see-ing."… The poet is a seer…. I like to think that all poets operate at the interface between inner and outer worlds, but some seem to delve more deeply within than others. One can compare Page's "see-ing" to that of Margaret Avison, who seems to me to effect a more complete union of inner and outer worlds (so that neither threatens to be swallowed up by the other), or to that of Margaret Atwood or Gwendolyn MacEwen in the next generation; Atwood in particular seems to have picked up a great deal both from Avison and Page #x2026;: thus are traditions developed.

As I've suggested, Page's style has been refined and perfected as her insight into the nature of her experience has clarified. She has learned to deploy rhyme, image and sound-effect, and to move lightly in and out of a basic iambic pentameter line, with unobtrusive skill. As poet and calligrapher she delights in details and images, but has learned … to subordinate whimsy to the microcosmic design or large metaphor that captures a sense of the macrocosm…. She is one of our best poets. (pp. 105-06)

Tom Marshall, in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1975.