Phyllis Webb Helen W. Sonthoff - Essay

Helen W. Sonthoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)