No “ramshackle thinness” Within

Reviewed by Marc André Fortin

On December 10, 1961, George Whalley wrote to Douglas Gordon Jones about having received Jones’ most recent collection of poems:

Your later work brings me to delight, mixed in a personal way with distress at the ramshackle thinness of my own published verses. The consistency and singleness of this book of yours comes from something other than lyrical accident: the imaginative sinew comes from your careful or quiet discipline.

Whalley’s modest and sympathetic nature, as expressed in this letter to his former student, belies the truth about his ability to craft poems of depth and sensitivity. Although Whalley and Jones may have produced two distinct poetic voices in their respective works, both poets share the elegance of quietness and thoughtfulness in the small moments of being that resonate with the darker questions of self in their poetry. This shared search for the deeper meaning of experience through language can be seen in two recent editions of Whalley’s and Jones’ poetry, both of which offer chronological perspectives on their evolution as poets as well as previously unpublished poems. In these collections we find lyrical sculptures to the joy and suffering of existence, testaments to the interior vision that can arise from having thrown oneself into the task of living a joyful, careful, and painful life with grace and mercy.

Michael John DiSanto’s The Complete Poems of George Whalley is an outstanding collection that offers readers a wide-ranging and extensively researched perspective on a poet and scholar (and so much more) who deserves renewed attention. DiSanto’s introduction to The Complete Poems crafts an intricately woven outlook on Whalley’s life, poetry, and criticism that speaks to the depth of Whalley’s love for language, his breadth of knowledge and experience, and his critical philosophy on poetry. The textual notes offer readers a glimpse of Whalley’s writing process and the history of a poem’s production, and the explanatory notes help explain the extensive historical and geographical points of reference in Whalley’s poems. DiSanto accurately points out that “Whalley’s poetry has not been given a place in Canadian literature alongside the works of his contemporaries.” While D. G. Jones is a recognizable name to most, Whalley himself seems to have resisted being given a place in the canon. In an earlier letter to Jones, Whalley wrote:

I hope the MS finds quickly a publisher, and you the acclaim the poems deserve—though not perhaps the free impromptu of whistles and football rattles that now customarily announces, like a Hollywood opening night, the immodest disclosures of the literary Establishment. (2 May 1960)

What DiSanto points out as Whalley’s “privacy and reticence” may also have been the reason for his lack of recognition by the “Establishment.”

This resistance to the accolades of the external world is perhaps what drives the inner force that underlies the depth of feeling that can be found in The Complete Poems, and across the ages of Whalley’s life. In his 1935 poem “Testament of Youth (A Sonnet),” which rallies against the wisdom of age and mechanical wartime death in a culmination of youthful (or Yeatsian) love of life, the speaker cries out: “We seek to live!” By 1964, however, when Whalley began writing “My heart is not here in the pages,” his poetry and perspective had softened into a mature expression that turns towards the majesty of existence and loss:

Beauty to me is too dear

to rob it of all it holds

in light and colour and sound.

Let the others take it, wear

the petals torn from the rose,

the dust from the butterfly’s wings.

This collection offers the full expression of Whalley’s capabilities, and underscores DiSanto’s exceptional capabilities as an editor.

The Essential D. G. Jones is a collection of poems taken from each of Jones’ main publications throughout his career, with four uncollected poems at the end. It includes a short foreword by Johnstone as well as a biography of Jones. Johnstone’s collection offers a perspective on Jones’ evolution as a poet from a selection of poems that constructively show Jones’ range of experimentation and interests. Published shortly after Jones’ death in March of 2016, this collection updates his previous volume of selected poems (A Throw of Particles, 1983), and is an excellent introduction to his full career as a poet. It would be unfair to compare the two texts, as they serve different purposes, but DiSanto’s collection suggests that it is perhaps time to compile a “collected poems” for Jones with the in-depth critical perspective given to Whalley in his Complete Poems.

This review “No “ramshackle thinness” Within” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 160-161.

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