Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) (Vol. 18)
Page, P(atricia) K(athleen) 1916–
Page is a Canadian poet and painter. In poetry noted for its whimsey and luxuriant imagery is limned the poet's struggle to shape an identity through an alignment of private and external worlds. She paints under the name P. K. Irwin and has written under the pseudonym Judith Cape. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
[Sun and Moon] bears a direct relation to Miss Page's writing in verse form, and is at once a counterpart and explanation of her poetry before she felt the influence of social ideas. The two themes of the early poetry—themes of unhappy love and of the escape from it into the world of nature—are, it would seem, mirrored in the novel. The "I" of the romantic poems is also identified with the moon…. I suspect that Miss Page was as dissatisfied with her youthful poems as a critic would be, and that in Sun and Moon she made a half-hearted attempt to portray the flaw in the poet of nature. The "I" of the poems is crucified in the person of Kristin. Did this escapist "I" long to be one with nature, to enter into it and breathe its very soul? Then she would gain her wish by having a mortal malady inflicted on her, and instead of just metaphorically being identified with stone, become literally and physically that dreadful thing. But being new at speculation in neurosis, Miss Page is not sure whether it tastes good or not: she is still undecided whether Kristin is an ugly or romantic being. Kristin becomes stone and nothing, but she also becomes the triumphant tree: there were more consolations in her illness than one had dreamed of. And if Miss Page was quickly dissatisfied with the novel—she did publish it under a pseudonym [Judith Cape]—perhaps it was just because she came to realize that her heroine was an incurable romantic, leading her out of the introspective "country of the mind" straight into a blind alley. The solution was a subjective one and would change nothing without the intervention of some new idea. (pp. 14-15)
Miss Page's "social consciousness" is a vaguely intellectualized composite of the attitudes which produced the early poems and Sun and Moon…. The poet's idea of what is wrong with society is decidedly confused, bound to the caprices of a personal conflict, and so her idea of a solution is vague and weakly felt. She is thinking in terms of class in a poem like Photograph, where the two lovers are ironically placed "beneath the sea," and the "swimmers" overhead are "shrinking the distance between continents". But her feeling for the "wonderful soil" of the future lacks the energy of her attack on all classes indiscriminately, and generally consists of a tag line or stanza at the end of the poem. In spite of the venom of her so-called social poems, she finds the Marxist thinking too harsh, and prefers a love which shall hold the "poor soil" and the "rich uplands"—proletariat and bourgeoisie—in a single embrace. (p. 17)
The first two lines [of Landscape of Love] echo the conclusion of Livesay's Outrider—"O new found land! Sudden release of lungs / Our own breath blows the world"—and the poet seems to have been unconsciously imitating Miss Livesay and wishing to share her point of view. But this isolated comparison serves to sharpen the contrast between the art of Miss Page and that of the ingrained Canadian tradition of which Miss Livesay is one representative. Our tradition of social optimism—I include Birney, Scott, Marriott and others—is also our tradition of mediocrity. We are not convinced by its faith in magic remedies and in the better world that is just around the corner; we regard that faith as the device of sentimentalists for discounting unpleasant facts. And it seems logical that its products should be a poetry...
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The central tension in P. K. Page's poetry arises from the effort to mediate between the private world and the external one. It is possible to describe this tension in political terms, but it would be misleading, in my opinion, to trace its source to a sympathy for political minorities or for the underdog or for the "victims" of society who are isolated in some way, but cannot subscribe to their external reality. These elements exist, but are not, I think her major preoccupation. As I hope to show, her "involvement" is primarily that of an artist, rather than political. The two kinds of involvement are not mutually exclusive; but the second is subordinate to the first, and is, indeed, an extension of it. That the artist must make the effort to mediate between the internal and the external is central to her poetry. No matter how painful the process may be there can be no turning away, no ivory tower aestheticism. Even the observer's stance is rejected and though several of her poems deal with it, she is extremely critical of its validity. That the temptation exists is an almost inevitable result of the tension at the core of her poetry. The individual trapped in his ivory tower of memory and reminiscence, the victim in the grip of impossible social circumstances, are merely offshoots of the central persona: the woman caught within the confines of her inner reality, her personal Noah's Ark, seeking some way to reconcile the internal and external, to make a harmony out of the double landscapes. And for this woman the essential mode of mediation is the artist's activity, the painter's art…. (p. 21)
Initially an examination of her "political" poems—those that deal with victimization in some form or another—is instructive. Not only do they clarify her position, but even in these poems it is possible to see a secondary issue emerging that is more characteristic of the body of her poetry. The Preview group of which she was a member had leftist leanings, and several of her poems reveal what may be termed a "pro-proletarian" consciousness. In poems such as "The Stenographers", "Shipbuilding Office" and "Offices" … she seems to be drawing upon personal experience…. There is "class consciousness" in her poetry, but it is a rather white-collar, anglicized one…. [Her] most obviously political poem perhaps is "Election Day". In the poem she votes against the Tories and casts her ballot, "a bounder, in the box". (pp. 21-2)
What is most interesting about the poem, however, is the distinction that P. K. Page makes as a matter of course between the private and personal. When she goes out to vote, she leaves behind the "tight zone" of her "tight and personal thought". As she listens to the election results she is aware that for the moment her privacy is no longer intact, though on this occasion she does not seem to mind very much. (p. 22)
As a rule, the poems in which P. K. Page deals with tyranny in one form or another reveal a sympathy for the victims rather than an identification with them. There are, however, two poems, which to my mind, form an exception. These are "Only Child" and "Portrait of Marina". (p. 23)
Now, what is most noteworthy about the poems "Only Child" and "Portrait of Marina" is not the fact of victimization as such, but the precise way in which the tyranny is exercised. The only child is not permitted to work out the relationship between his feeling for the birds...
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A poet's identity may be found in the habits of feeling and insight that are particularly, almost obsessively, her own and which distinguish her poetry from that of other writers. Occasionally an individual poem can be found which defines a poet's sensibility. The poem "After Rain" provides such a focus in P. K. Page's poetry. With a remarkable acuity, she explores the dimensions of her own poetic temperament, exposing both the strengths and the potential vulnerability of her art. Like so many of Page's poems, "After Rain" describes a simple domestic occurrence (in this case a woman and a gardener examining a garden) pushed to a level of hallucinatory intensity where insight becomes possible. Here, the poet describes her mind as a woman's wardrobe of female whimsy and there follows a brilliant complex of images, propelled by fantastic associative leaps. (p. 32)
Rarely has one so complete a sense of a poet luxuriating in language. Yet the whole momentum of the poem is reversed with the remarkable line: "I suffer shame in all these images." This line, with its powerful anguish, is the pivot of Page's poetics, for here she articulates one of the deepest impulses of her work. She has such a remarkable verbal gift that the image-making process can become almost too seductive. In her hands, images are self-generating, and multiply and reproduce in a kind of literary osmosis. Thus one has the sense in her early poetry of images taking over and sidetracking the poem into perspectives that the theme does not suggest. "After Rain" is an extraordinary poem in that Page senses not only the technical, but also the theoretical implications of her susceptibility to image. (pp. 32-3)
Throughout [Page's novel The Sun and the Moon], there is a curious sense of reciprocity, of fluid interchange between the human and the natural. The heroine's empathic gift permits her to perceive the static reality of inanimate things; chameleon-like, she can know "the still sweet ecstasy of a change in kind." The author is ambiguous in her attitude toward her heroine; on the one hand, her protean gift of self-effacement gives her access to ecstatic moments of identification with nature. There are convincing passages where the metamorphosis is outward—the heroine becomes a rock, a chair, a tree, experiencing these forms of existence in moments of identity. But there is an alternative rhythm where the self is invaded, and becomes the receptacle of external objects. In fact the heroine becomes succubus; not only her identity, but also the identity of the other is destroyed by her chameleon presence. To my mind comes the analogue of Keats' "Camelion Poet": "When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated." To control this invasion an extraordinary exertion of will is necessary. For the poet, this means a control through technique, verbal dexterity. But P. K. Page's greatest dilemma is to ensure that this control is not sterile, that language is explored as experience, not evasion.
This, then, is the concern of the persona in "After Rain." With a baroque extravagance, the poet's mind builds from the visual assault of nature an exotic web of fragmentary images. They seem to metamorphose spontaneously and any attempt to hold the poet to an emotional or visual consistency is futile. Yet the incompleteness of the poet's private image world is focused suddenly by the presence of the other, the gardener. The poet is trapped by her remarkable responsiveness to nature. Images of rim and hub define the private space which circumscribes her, making her fantasy exclusive, self-involved. The poet asks to break from self-involvement to another kind of seeing, and this appeal is at the centre of Page's work…. Here is the paradox: a sensibility so richly susceptible to sensual detail, to "each bright glimpse of beauty," that even the sense of self, of separateness from the physical world, seems threatened. To the poet this means an almost unlimited store of image and metaphor, but without a controlling principle. Page recognizes the dilemma at the core of her imagistic suggestibility and she would be "unseduced" by the myriad images which seem to assault the eye in "After Rain." She has sensed the need to convert image into symbol, that painful ritual which the poet must impose...
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"Arras" is masterful, an awesome visionary poem which has sometimes been misunderstood. Page contends here with giant forces, and she will triumph—but if we are to follow her toward that victory, we must not be deceived as to the nature of our common enemy. The mistake which has been made is to suppose that the peacock or the royal denizens of the arras are finally sinister. In fact, they represent the glory (the perfection of human life) which is sought by the poet in "Arras" and throughout her work. Her struggle is to join them, to attain their stature, not to escape or defeat them; and her enemy (like ours) is any impediment to that goal….
Perhaps the difficulty begins with the question of...
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