Phyllis Webb John Hulcoop - Essay

John Hulcoop

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 poets have fully exploited. The elusive but essential "narrative line" with its "lyric intention" accounts for the careful arrangement of poems in the new volume, and suggests how the five sections are to be approached and read. "Suites I and II," "A Suite of Lies" and "Some Final Questions" all have to be read en suite. It would be difficult to anthologize any single poem from a particular suite—for most obvious example, "Oh?"—and justify its autonomy or defend its meaning. But "Non Linear," the central of the five sections, suggests that the eleven poems contained therein do not stand in line, even though they have in common certain thematic material…. (pp. 30-1)

Implicit in [the] poems from the final suite of the Naked Poems is the identification of two processes, love-making and poetry-making, both of which are seen as making a "certain order". In "Non Linear", this identification is explicit and many of the poems are "about" poetry and love-making. Using the sea, perhaps the most important single symbol throughout Miss Webb's work, as an image of flux, of perpetual motion, she writes: "I hear the waves …/they are the root waves/of the poem's meter/the waves of the/root poem's sex." Root means source, essential point or part, and one suspects that the "root poem" is for Miss Webb what "central poetry" is for Wallace Stevens. (p. 33)

Phyllis Webb, in the Naked Poems, declares herself a daughter or an apostle of "the Priestess of Motion", of Flux, for which the "wave interminably flowing" is a perfect image…. The "brief lyric" cries uttered by the Priestess of Motion in her coming to a sexual-poetic climax in "the Act" of making love with the Logos, the godhead to whom she has dedicated herself, whose service is her vocation …—these are the "hieratic sounds", the cryptic letters of "a new alphabet" which "gasps for air" and is given room to breathe in the beautifully printed volume of her Naked Poems which was designed by Takao Tanabe.

This "new alphabet" with which Miss Webb spells out the language characteristic of her best poetry, can be seen in embryonic form in both her earlier volumes…. In the Naked Poems, the new alphabet, taken like a rib from a young old Adam, becomes the "bone-essential statement" with which the poet chooses to work almost exclusively. And though some of the poems she makes out of...

(The entire section is 1591 words.)