Fame, US, & Last Words?

Reviewed by Owen Percy

Taking its place alongside recent books by Lorraine York and Gillian Roberts on literary celebrity and prizes in Canada, Joel Deshaye’s The Metaphor of Celebrity offers the first in-depth study into the way that the extra-textual cultural capital of celebrity shaped the poetry of a quartet of Canada’s most recognizable writers. In brief, Deshaye’s critical conceit—the metaphor of celebrity—is that, in the poetry of Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, and Gwendolyn MacEwen, privacy is publicity, and that these poets unwittingly forged “a Faustian bargain” by garnering some degree of national celebrity—“the devil granting success in exchange for the soul, the private self.” As such, Deshaye deftly shows how the poetic careers of each poet provides a model for understanding how the extra-textual trappings of literary fame can inform and challenge the notion of the private self altogether. Deshaye frames the era of celebrity in Canadian poetry as 1955-1980; he is careful to distinguish celebrity from fame and public from nation, and his opening chapters demonstrate a deep, sophisticated understanding of the ways metaphor, celebrity, and poetry functioned as idiomatic forces in CanLit’s golden age. Deshaye crunches numbers and analyzes stats (with plenty of caveats and qualifications) from the CBC, CPI, and Globe & Mail archives in order to establish some frame of reference for quantifying the celebrity of his subjects. His insights on how Layton and Cohen become pseudo-religious, hypermasculine parodies of themselves in the glare of fame, and how Ondaatje and MacEwen “grandstand” as famous others in their flirtations with celebrity, offer fresh readings of texts that might seem to have already had more than their fair share of critical ink. Like the works by York and Roberts, Deshaye definitively articulates and explains widespread cultural phenomena that we might generally (cynically) understand from our ivory towers, but cannot quantify; the result is a book that can and will act as a critical touchstone as celebrity continues to evolve and involve itself in the “literariness” and visibility of texts.

Peacock Blue collects the complete poetry of Phyllis Webb, whose contributions to the kind of celebrity culture Deshaye explores perhaps came more tangibly through her work as co-creator of CBC Radio’s long-running program Ideas than through her own poems. As a whole, Webb’s poetic oeuvre displays a range and formal daring—free verse, sonnets, sestinas, haikus, concrete and sound poems, long poems, found poems, prose poems, ghazals/anti-ghazals—unmatched in Canadian letters. Both the trees and the forest of Peacock Blue make indisputably clear that she has been and remains one of our finest, most linguistically sensitive poets.

John F. Hulcoop’s introduction takes pains to separate text from biography, but he also lovingly traces Webb’s poetic trajectory from the early 1950s by considering the influence of her early socialism, her participation in the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, and the ominous backdrop of Cold War in her poems. Still, he makes clear that the poet has always had a lot to say about the stuff of existence: love, freedom, the quest for mastery or a reliable master (which Hulcoop calls the “central struggle in Webb’s life and in her art”), and, in the poet’s own words, “shy, succulent (tenured) Professor Death.” The poems, presented chronologically according to publication, allow readers to chart Webb’s exploration, experimentation, development, and exhaustion of several poetic forms, and perhaps of formalism itself. Consider the ecstasy of the closing lines from 1962’s “Poetics Against the Angel of Death”: “I want to die / writing Haiku / or, better, / long lines, clean and syllabic as knotted bamboo. Yes!” We watch her take on different lyrical voices, experiment with political disinterestedness, and later rage angrily at that same apolitical apathy. What remains constant throughout Webb’s work is her seriousness, which mostly appears as a kind of fatalistic resignation masking a more genuine hope or wonder. But she can be wryly, wickedly funny too, like when she exhorts “I speak, therefore I am, / or so I say” (“Self City”) or when she notes in “Non Linear” from Naked Poems:

I have given up

but nobody

The volume concludes with 49 uncollected or previously unpublished poems from throughout Webb’s half-century of poetic practice. Like her published work, they demonstrate remarkable range, from the angsty and lyrical (“Little Lines”), to the whimsically playful (“New Year Message for J. Alfred Prufrock”), to the overtly, satirically political (“How the Indians Got Left Out of the Business of Patriating the Constitution”). Peacock Blueshould long have a place in any and all CanLit libraries; as Webb predicts (correctly) in her poem “Letters to Margaret Atwood,” “I’ll leave a legacy of buried verbs, / a tight-mouthed treasure.” With a bit of exploratory treasure hunting and critical spadework, Peacock Blue will pay staggering dividends to readers and scholars for years to come.

This review “Fame, US, & Last Words?” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 142-43.

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