Jill Jones

I was looking over some notes the day I wrote this post (Wednesday). They were towards a piece I had begun some time ago, not completed, about the Canadian poet, Phyllis Webb. As well as reminding me about life’s unfinished projects, it got me thinking about homage, paying respects.

I have a wonderful book by John Ashbery, Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Harvard University Press). In the introduction, Ashbery says he did not want to explain his poetry and chose to speak about poets “who have probably influenced me”. The word “probably” seems to be a key. He chose “minor” ones, not the “certifiably major” (his words), and spends some time discussing how so-called minor poets influence you. He says, and rightly, “most poets, I suspect, have their own ideas on what the canon ought to be, and it bears little resemblance to the average anthologist’s.” He calls this a poet’s “other traditions”. Ashbery’s other traditions include, in this book, John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert.

I will ignore for this post the vexed questions around “the canon” and anthologies (besides, I have been an anthologist) as well as the whole debate that could be had around “major” and “minor”. As Ashbery also points out, via reference to Auden’s remarks on this, one may actually get more delight from reading so-called minor writers than supposed greats. Influence and “like”, or pleasure, do not always coincide.

So let me step away from these asides, though it is only a step away from them, and write in terms of homage, a word I am not entirely comfortable with but it has the right sense of a bow towards, of respect.

How a writer is influenced is often difficult to say. I am often asked about my influences and my answers may or may not be accurate, and are no doubt predictable, if you know my work. But there are those writers you associate with a moment, a place, a way of reading that are an influence by way of a kinship or intimacy. And Webb is intimate, hugely, intelligently intimate.

I don’t exactly remember when I first read her work. I know that I was directed to it many years ago, the early 1990s, by an acquaintance, a gay male poet, in fact. But it was a time well after much of her most well-known work had been published. A late discovery, for me. It would be among a number of my late discoveries that was also formative, literally – forming. The poem on the page.

My copy of Webb’s Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals was purchased some years ago now in a bookshop run by a Canadian in Paris, a long narrow place chock full of books on shelves and in piles everywhere. Many of the sequences in it I had read before, in her selected, The Vision Tree, and in other places. The price on Water and Light is written in pencil on the flyleaf, 77 francs, and then another price, 5.30 euros, on the half-title. The book cover is battered around the spine. I don’t think it is, however, secondhand though it appears to have made a journey over an ocean and from mid-century France into the European Union. And it has now gone nearly all around the world, backwards into time and forwards into day.

There is a strange photograph on the cover. In fact, for some time I thought it was a reproduction of a surrealist construction. It is, in fact, a photograph of waterlilies where the colour registration, is to my mind, just slightly off, giving it a weird yellow and orange brightness. Maybe that is intended. The pages are a heavy stock. The book is 62 pages long, but seems substantial. Or perhaps I mean very present. But the pages are not packed with words.

The poems are presented as a whole, the publication date is 1984, but they had been published, many of them, before. As a chapbook and in the selected. I have often thought I should like to re-present works in different configurations than past. Like this. A book that is whole, not some kind of selected or sample, or best of.

I’ve not really had much to do with the ghazal. I first encountered the form through reading Adrienne Rich. But it has its roots in Persian poetry, of course. It is a disjunctive form both in the classical form, as well as most modernist or post-modernist appropriations into English, that is, the couplets are autonomous. Ghazals, originally, were love poems but Webb calls many of hers, anti ghazals, and they are not love poems

So, not an influence? One convention of the ghazal is for the poet to insert their name in the final couplet. A few years ago I wrote a poem which, though it did not use the ghazal’s traditional rhyming strategy, was written in long-lined disjunct couplets and did spell my name in the last line – though not obviously, I presume, as no-one has ever commented on it. And it was not a love poem.

But form is form, and that is shape. A poem is visual, of course, and there are poets I really like on the page. I liked this book before I read it. And these poems are also filled with people – neighbours, Webb’s poet friends like John Thompson who introduced Webb to the ghazal form. The first poem begins:

I watch the pile of cards grow.
I semaphore for help (calling the stone-dead John Thompson).

Interestingly, that has never been a way I have worked. What is it about naming names? My question to myself hangs there while plenty of poets work with their nexus, their network of names, roll calls, tombstones. Webb, certainly, acknowledges her influences within her lines.

But what do I find at stake here in Webb’s book? Death is mentioned, poetry, cosmic dust, kitchen extensions, night fall, washing. Two long typographical lines or rules, are set down as the end of the seventh anti ghazal. The eleventh and twelfth poems consisting of more lines than the rest of the sequence. Instead of 10 lines (or the seventh’s typographical lines), the eleventh has twelve lines and the twelfth has eleven lines. A little inverted magic, an extra flutter of words, a small bulge in the poem’s structure, that little bit of the form de-formed. Anti ghazal.

There are a lot of questions. And associations. The poems are about their own making as well about the world they are made in, including the mind of a maker, the mind choices, the sifting through singing language, the registers and dictions. It is a speaking that knows how its speech is formed:

sing well, screech, shriek, scream
… the ‘EE’ sounds …

In the section of the book titled “Frivolities” we even get the name, Phyllis. And you almost suspect, on the next page, that you are meeting, again, Oppen’s deer, “out of the rain-forest where leap the wild, bereft deer”. Almost. This is lightness, not leaping, but moving across layers, you can see it in the lines themselves.

Webb is maybe best known for an earlier work, Naked Poems, published in 1965, much described as being about female desire and subjectivity. To me, it is about space, intimacy and silence, about the process of language, throughness. Simply put, it is a long poem sequence composed of very small poems spread through the space, the field, if you like, of the pages. It is lyric in intimacy, yet a serial, processual work, yet not closed down but open, short lines yet breadth, latitudinal. You only have to look at the pages to see that. The I of the poem is various rather than singular, a means of investigation, a device, a procedure, possibilities.

The space that does not contain text is part of the poem, of course, the text is a small part of it. The placing is deliberate, not just a function of the space taken by typesetting. And, of course, the poems are love poems where the lovers are undoubtedly women, despite Webb’s reticence, or perhaps tact is a better word. The sequence enacts what we have left of the Sapphic – fragments, questions about who is speaking to who, intimacy and invocation, enunciation.

I am aware of work of mine that was influenced by Naked Poems, short-lined and tuned to space on the page, but longitudinal, moving down the page, rather than exploring her latitudes of multiple pages.

If I were a Canadian, I would be more attuned more broadly to the ‘influence’ of this poem sequence, for it is an important work. Webb is not ‘minor’. So, I felt somewhat vertiginous, plunging into 1965 to read these poems in the early 1990s. I cannot link myself to Webb in ways that Canadians who were “there” can. My way of relating to this poet came by means of a suggestion: “you must read this”, and led to me finding in the moment of reading, the effects, the linking in, if you like. The initial impetus led me to seek out The Vision Tree in Sydney’s Gleebooks. And years later, to find more in a small space in Paris on a wintry day.

I am talking about poetry that is separated from me by distance, geographical, and a critical milieu I don’t, and can’t fully apprehend. I taste anxiety there in discussions about Webb. I see Webb’s poetry as open, connected, political but I read that she has been castigated for being closed, private (this is a sin?), apolitical (or politically naïve – who has never?). I cannot hope to enter that space or that moment nor do I wish to. I could be simplistic and note it seems to be male anxiety, but I could be quite wrong. It does have the whiff that rises also from Australia poetry furores, of known actors stalking each other in a small clearing, of debts, calls, personal biffo rather than discussion. But that is another discussion, another agenda.

The important things for me about Webb are form and language, her fluidity and movement. But it is not wifty wafty in any way. She understands forms and uses them, moves through them. This is restlessness, not quietude. This is wrestling with language, asking of it questions, in her “great struggles of silence”, which she describes in the Foreword to one of her other books Wilson’s Bowl. She also quotes Barthes there, “writing is always dense, violent, indifferent …”. And intimacy is full of questions, not answers:

Listen. If I have known beauty
let’s say I came to it

– Phyllis Webb, Naked Poems


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