“into the soft irrational sea” || Reflections on Phyllis Webb by an Anxious Poet


I sit upon a hoard of words, like the dragon Smaug nestled within his pile of stolen dwarvish gold deep beneath the Lonely Mountain. Words that tantalize, words that bewitch, words that promise of another world: I gather them all to me, tucking them away in buried notebooks and hazy daydreams.  When I encounter a writer whose creative use of words grabs me by the breast bone, shaking me awake — Catherynne Valente, Karen Russell, Sena Jeter Naslund, and Phyllis Webb — I become ravenous for their work, devouring everything they have written.

While this love affair with words has encouraged my current path as a Master’s in English literature student, there are moments in this journey that seem to chafe against this passion, this fascination with the alchemical rendering of the English language. As it is apparent in this blog series, I have a tendency to infuse my academic word with a creative vernacular. In my amateur opinion, academic work need not exhaust the reader. Rather, what better way to introduce innovative ways of thinking to academia than to cultivate a unique writing style, a hybrid of intellectual and creative registers?

Perhaps my preoccupation with this question — one that features significantly in my work and my engagement with academia — is an underlying cause for my fascination with Canadian feminist poet Phyllis Webb. In addition to Webb’s formal education in English and philosophy and her career as a poet, Webb curated a radio-broadcast public lecture series, University of the Air, for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). Partnered with William A. Young, Webb also founded and produced the CBC program Ideas from 1967-1969, a program that still streams across the airwaves from the CBC (Thesen). I suggest that Webb’s multifaceted identity —  poet, public broadcaster, academic — situates her in the unique position of the public intellectual, as she stands at the focal point where publicity and intensely cerebral work converge.

Webb’s poetry is highly intertextual; a chimera of Shakespearean figures, Biblical allusions, and “canonical” (male) writers lives within her stanzas. Webb uses her poetic voice to invite her intertexts to move in innovative, unexpected ways. Given my obsession with collecting the words, images, and dreams of writers I admire, I found Webb’s skill for manipulating such sources to be enviable, as if she inhabits the same world as these figures and literary images and is, therefore, able to effectively deploy them in her work. Consider, for example, “Lear on the Beach at Break of Day”:

Down the beach at break of day
observe Lear calmly observing the sea:
he tosses the buttons of his sanity
like aged pebbles into the bay;
cold, as his sexless daughters were […]
And there Lear stands, alone.
The sun is rising and the cliffs aspire.
And there Lear stands, with dark small stones
in his crazed old hands. But farther and higher
he hurls them now, as if to free
himself with them. But only stones drop
sullenly a hardened crop,
into the soft, irrational sea (27).

At the outset of the poem, Webb’s repetition of the verb “observe” invokes an almost voyeuristic perspective, as if she shares the same maddened impulse that drove Shakespeare’s King Lear to the cliffside, that in her knowing she can gaze upon the spectacle of his mounting madness.

Yet here is where my close analysis of Webb’s poetry ceases. My voice wanes, my mind grasps at an intelligent analysis.

Throughout my career as a student of English literature, I consider poetry to be my weakest subject area. I admire the poet’s sensitive ear, how attuned they are to the rhythms of speech, their deftness in creating a world in but a line. In the case of Webb’s poetry, the way in which she strings adjectives and nouns together — like a mixture of bones, sea glass, and pearls on a string — leaves me in awe. Indeed, as Webb writes of Lear’s stones falling “into the soft, irrational sea” (27), I yearn to take up a place beside Webb in this intimate look at Lear’s unraveling, to let the waves of such a sea wash over me. However, I find myself unable to comprehend what the majority of her poems mean

In the words of literary critics Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus in their critique of this trend in literary scholarship, “As literary critics we were trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning a meaning to a text or set of texts” (1). As literature students, we are taught from an early age to burrow to the root of what a text, a line of poetry, or a metaphor means: how the words relate to the context in which the work was produced, what wider comment the author may be attempting to offer his or her audience, the symbols lurking beneath the surface of the text. As we mature through the academy, we are tasked with offering critiques on these assembled meanings through our interpretations, to weave evidence from a literary text together with the interpretations of other scholars to arrive at our own conclusions.

Having made it through one semester of my Master’s program, I clearly possess the skill necessary to perform these expected tasks. However, thus far all of the texts I have encountered have been novels, non-fiction travel writing, and short stories. The works of Webb and Phebe Florence Miller are my first contacts with poetry in this degree and I feel as though I am drowning in my attempt to plumb the depths beneath the surfaces of their poems.  This leads me to doubt my place in the academy and whether I am truly an effective candidate for this degree: if I fail to ascertain the deeper meanings of poetry, can I truly call myself a student of literature? An intellectual?

My difficulties with poetry come into sharp focus if one were to examine my annotations of poetical works compared to that of novelists. I am obsessive and fastidious when it comes to annotating a text, as pictured in the lefthand photo in my copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. However, the righthand photo depicts but a few lines emphasized in Webb’s “A Tall Tale.” To be candid, my reasoning for picking out those lines does not stem from any keen intellectual source; rather, I simply appreciated Webb’s use of language in that particular line, the image she conjured with her verse. My annotations of poetry are mostly a collection of notations that embody my admiration for the poetical mind, with scant interpretations and analyses sprinkled throughout.

This becomes a significant source of anxiety for me while attempting to contribute to my seminars. I cannot rightly sit down in class and say to a respected professor, “I liked her words in this passage.” If so, the professor’s attempt to elicit more of a detailed and critical response from me would end there. Simply put: “because it sounded neat” or “made me imagine fantastical things” are not adequate analyses of poetry if such statements may be deemed analyses at all.

My anxiety about interpreting poetry as an academic trickle into my work as a creative writer as well. I dabble in poems, however, I only do so with the reassuring knowledge that they will not see the light of day. Rather, I tend to write in a vaguely poetic form when my creativity is not robust enough to produce a short story or “vignette” as I call them, scenes from what could be larger stories that I turn to most frequently when the creative urge haunts me. Though a piece of my poetry will be published in a journal later this year,  my first very real publication, when I received the letter of acceptance the first thought that crept into my mind was, “Why?”

Perhaps I am a bit like “the soft, irrational sea” (Webb 27) that King Lear hurls his sanity into. My creative mind may be vast, malleable to the influences of other writers and intellectuals like Webb in the way the “soft” sea swallows Lear’s pebbles. Perhaps I am capable of joining the ranks of public-facing poets cum intellectuals like Webb — though without the same gravitas, of course — evidenced by my forthcoming publication that is a work of poetry, not fiction, the genre in which I feel most comfortable. Yet an irrationality that lurks in my mind prohibits effective engagement with this genre, a fear of insufficiency as an academic that translates into my passion for writing. What contributions could I make to both academia and the world of creative writing if I opened myself to this possibility, like “The poet in his vision tree” (Webb 32)?

Works Cited

Artist Unknown. Phyllis Webb: 2004 Judges. Date unknown. The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, griffinpoetryprize.com/judges/2004-judges/.

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations vol. 108, no. 1, Fall 2009, 1-21. Proquest Central. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.

The Lamp Journal. Queen’s University, 16 February 2020. lampjournal.com.

Shadbolt, Jack. “The Place,” 1972. The Vision Tree: Selected Poems by Phyllis Webb, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982.

Thesen, Sharon. “Phyllis Webb.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 10 February 2008. thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/phyllis-webb

Webb, Phyllis. “EVEN YOUR RIGHT EYE 2. In Situ.” The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982, 31-32.

Webb, Phyllis. “Lear on the Beach at Break of Day.” The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982, 27.

Webb, Phyllis. “A Tall Tale.” The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982, 53.


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