Phyllis Webb Gail Fox - Essay

Gail Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.