Phyllis Webb, OC, poet, broadcaster (born 8 April 1927 in Victoria, BC). An Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General’s Award, Phyllis Webb is a writer of stature in Canadian letters, and a groundbreaking feminist poet. Her work is brilliantly crafted, formal in its energies and humane in its concern. In Webb's poetry there is a sadness about the pomposities of human nature, variegated with a visionary sympathy with natural life and landscape, and with the human impulse toward freedom. In addition, Webb's political activities, her work as a public-affairs broadcaster and her interest in political theory infuse her work with a concern for public life.
Education and Poetry
Phyllis Webb attended the University of British Columbia, where she received a BA in English and philosophy, and took a qualification year for graduate studies at McGill University. At 22, she ran in the British Columbia general election in 1949 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, becoming the youngest person in the Commonwealth to seek office in a legislative assembly.
Webb’s first collection of poems appeared in Trio (1954), an anthology of poetry published by Raymond Souster and Contact Press that also featured the work of Eli Mandel and Scottish poet and physician Gael Turnbull. Her next book, Even Your Right Eye, was published in 1956, and in 1957 she won the Canadian Government Overseas Award, a grant enabling her to study theatre in Paris. In her early poems, Webb is acutely conscious of being a female poet working within a largely male tradition. Early in her career, she was drawn to male poetic mentors such as Earle Birney, F.R. Scott, Louis Dudek and American poet Robert Duncan. In Trio, she identified with cloistered nuns — passive, self-sacrificing and, ultimately, self-effacing. At the same time, she was also drawn to writing about powerful male figures like King Lear or Vincent Van Gogh who thought of their gifts as a kind of curse and were filled with existential angst. In the self-referential ars poetica “Poet” from Trio, Webb writes, “I am promised / I have taken the veil / I have made my obeisances / I have walked on words of nails / to knock on silences”. Here, one senses, the “words of nails” refers to the binding patriarchal traditions she has to use in order to explore the silences she, and women in general, are confined by. These volumes offer a harsh view of life, full of despair and alienation, even nihilism.
While Webb first oriented herself in terms of male literary figures — she confessed to Pauline Butling in 1986 that, “I was very susceptible to male influence, and I think that was because I lost my father at such an early age through divorce" — in the 1960s and 70s she began to engage consciously with feminism and feminist critiques of the literary canon. “[I] start[ed] thinking about where some of my problems in writing were coming from," she told Janice Williamson. “Finally, I had this overbearing sense that there had been too many fathers, literary or otherwise.... I wrote a little piece in which I dispatched the fathers to the river Lethe, and I saw them sail away.”
This trajectory towards a more female-embodied poetic voice is apparent in The Sea Is Also a Garden (1962), which moved away from the cerebral to something more sensuous, embodied and immediate. Naked Poems, a series of intense, haiku-inspired poems, appeared in 1965, which fellow poet Phil Hall called "the mother of the long poem in Canada”. In 1967, she received a grant to visit the Soviet Union to do research on the Russian anarchist Peter Krotopkin for a series of poems on his life. (Although this work never materialized in book form, pieces of this project later appeared in Wilson's Bowl as “Poems of Failure” and “from The Krotopkin Poems”). In 1971, her Selected Poems 1954-65 was published. Wilson's Bowl (1980) is one of the most important collections of poems written during the 1970s. The Vision Tree, for which she won the Governor General’s Award, appeared in 1982. Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals, a series of poems that engaged with the ghazal form of Persian poetry, was published in 1984. Other books include Hanging Fire (1990) and Nothing but Brush Strokes (1995). Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb appeared in 2014.
Webb’s poetry has not been without controversy. In his famous 1973 article in Open Letter, John Bentley Mays claimed that Webb’s poetry is “a testimony, as a woman and a writer, of her decisive, unmitigated failure,” and that the “melodramatic hollowness and overwrought stageyness of her poems” is in the end a “symptom of unhealth.” Influential critic and poet Frank Davey largely agreed, asserting that her poetry “aspires not to greatness but to the simple recording of its own small melodramas and failures.” Feminist critics since have tended to regard these harsh assessments of Webb’s works as expressing the degree to which these writers assumed the dominant maleness of the poetic tradition and were threatened by the specifically femalepoetic voice Webb had by then assumed.
Broadcast Journalism and Later Life
Phyllis Webb began producing a lecture series called University of the Air and went on to found, with William A. Young, the CBC program Ideas, of which she was the executive producer between 1967 and 1969. Ideas has now been on the air for over 50 years. Talking (1982) is a collection of some of Webb's reviews, articles and CBC broadcasts. In 1992, she became an Officer of the Order of Canada. Throughout the early 1970s she continued to work with the CBC, although on a freelance basis. “If I had stayed," she told literary historian John Hulcoop, "I would have become reasonably powerful and fairly well off for a single person, and I felt that my sympathies were on the side of the powerless.” Subsequently, in 1978 she turned to teaching creative writing, instructing at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria and the Banff Centre. Apart from some grants and a stint as writer in residence at the University of Alberta, this teaching supported her until her retirement in 1990.