The Essential George Johnston, The Essential P. K. Page, and The Essential Don Coles

Selected by Robyn Sarah
Selected by Arlene Lampert and Théa Gray
Selected by Robyn Sarah

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that even the greatest of modern poets, meaning poets working since the advent of the lyric dispensation announced by Wordsworth and Coleridge, have a high chaff-to-wheat ratio. In the case of Wordsworth, I have a copy of Volume Two of the Yale edition of his Complete Poems – it runs to 1100 pages – that I think I have only opened once. Homer may have nodded, but Wordsworth throughout most of his writing life walked in his sleep. And he was not alone. The Collected Poems of Dickinson, Yeats and Frost are heavy tomes, but a competent selection from any of these authors will come in under 100 pages with room to spare, and still contain all the good stuff. Scholars may want to savor every syllable of genius, but the rest of us just want the greatest hits.

Enter Erin publisher The Porcupine’s Quill and a new series of Essential Poets “whose aim is to offer the best possible introduction to the preeminent figures in Canadian poetry.” The inaugural volume on George Johnston (born in Hamilton in 1913, died in 2004) is a good example of the treasures in store. Introducing her selection, poet Robyn Sarah remarks that Johnston “flew beneath the radar in Canada during his lifetime.” Which is true for most poets, but is surprising in Johnston’s case given the broad appeal of his earlier work. Perhaps the avant-garde did not care for the jingly graveyard thoughts in the poem “Bedtime” – “Toads are asleep and so are bugs and snakes; / Millions of things are asleep in the icy lakes” – but in lines like that we can hear a bit of Auden’s magic.

That P. K. Page (born in England in 1916, arrived in Canada three years later) is still writing poetry at an age when few of us can expect to be drawing breath is grounds for wonder. That she is still such a good writer, clear, earnest, and engaged with everything from environmental issues (hearing “the planet’s message, dark, admonishing”) to contemporary poetry (a brilliant series of poems expands on samples of lines from other poets), is nothing short of amazing. “Every other day I am an invalid,” she writes in “The Selves,” lying back on her pillow with her hair brushed out “like a silver fan” while the nurses humour her. But “Every other other day I am as fit / as planets circling,” hair brushed out into “a golden sun.” This rich-haired youth of morn gives birth to the poet who, ageless, “stands unmoving, mute, invisible, / a bolt of lightning in its naked hand.”

Don Coles (born in Woodstock, 1927, currently living in Toronto), writes poetry as generally accessible as his fellow essential poets, but with a stricter feel to his language. His claim to have been influenced by the “Hardy-Larkin line” isn’t as convincing as it would have been if made by Johnston or Page, in part because Cole’s lines seem more determined by sound values and sentence structure than regular verse rhythms. Natural, everyday images are made weird by a penchant for what are almost metaphysical conceits: “a girl whose nakedness is endless in our bed,” an aging face that “in sprinting patches rusts / towards” death.

All three books offer an excellent range of selections, and each concludes with a brief biography and bibliography. Robyn Sarah has also written helpful introductions to the Johnston and Coles volumes. The Essential P. K. Page has a very odd Foreword instead, the editors claiming, I think absurdly, that the poetry of P. K. Page “needs no introduction.” Of what poet today can that be said? Even wonkier is their decision to eschew a chronological sequence of poems in favour of alphabetical order, since for Page “time is not linear and she places little value on such distinctions.” While acknowledging Page’s own affection for alphabetical books, the fact is every poet develops and a chronological presentation in this case would have made more sense. But the order is not, in the end, vitally important. And the hope the editors express that their book “will make its way into backpacks, carry-on luggage and doctors’ waiting rooms” is one that is easy to share for all of the volumes in this already essential series.

Review first published June 20, 2009.


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