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Reviewed by Monika Lee
What happens to the creative writer in the domain of literary criticism? One might argue that normally the relationship between critical and creative work is a marriage of convenience. And yet, what better response to Phyllis Webb’s poetic oeuvre which attempts also to be criticism –than a criticism of that oeuvre which attempts to be poetry? This book is an answer to questions posed by Stephen Collis in its introduction: “Cannot criticism also be ‘creative’?” (12) and “What would such a criticism look like?” (12).
Phyllis Webb and the Common Good is what it would look like. Collis is himself a poet and falls into that Canadian tradition of talented creative writers – Atwood, Lee, Ondaatje – that also write some of our finest criticism. Such writing works against a strictly rationalist critical impetus which can amount, at times, to a suspicion of artistic creativity. There is always the risk in academic analysis of prostituting the creative to the critical by denying the essentially creative act in all writing. Stephen Collis’ Phyllis Webb and the Common Good bridges the distance between the two genres, blurring the boundaries and distinctions between them. It is a delight to read because of its aesthetic and metaphorical approach, its incredible sensitivity to nuance, and its immense respect for the poetic. Collis synthesizes the complexity of a postmodern approach with salient aspects of new criticism and close reading. His approach is thorough, sophisticated and analytical, and his prose, because it verges on poetry, reads less ostentatiously and more pleasingly than most contemporary critical writing.
Even the book’s tripartite and fragmentary structure is reminiscent of a poem. In the first of its three interrelated parts, “Poetics of Response,” Collis’ analysis of the way in which Webb pays homage to her precursor poets, H.D., T.S. Eliot, Andrew Marvell, Rilke, Ghalib, Atwood and Duncan, moves on to ontological questions about and conditions of poetic response. Collis argues against the critical commonplace established by Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and other neo-Freudian approaches which configure literary influence as anxiety, rejection or pillaging. Instead, he recognizes poems as calls and responses to other poems: “poetry begins in listening. It begins with receptivity” (32). Typical of his wordplay, Collis invents the metaphorical term “tributary poem” to describe a poem which “flows out of (and perhaps even back into) another source or feeder poem” (60). Such a poem “pays tribute” to the prior poem. This coining of metaphorical critical terminology is characteristic of Collis’ creative intelligence and his sensitivity to words. Frequently, these critical coinages are themselves echoes of and responses to Webb’s poems, and so thereby foreground Collis’ own “response – ability” to her work.
Part Two, “Poetry and Anarchy,” charts the trajectory of Webb’s “anarchist poetics” (89) away from “the lyric self” toward “the multitude of others” with the poem as a place of “communion” (89). Collis suggests that the form of the serial poem, which Webb increasingly favoured, is “the anarchist form par excellence – the formal analogue of anarchism’s decentralist philosophy” (90). In an analysis of Webb’s responses to Kropotkin, Riding, Duncan, Nancy, and others, Collis ponders such issues as anarchy’s relationship to socialism, to relational space, to poetic form, and to “an irreducible simultaneity of the individual and the collective” (111). After distinguishing between individualist and communist anarchists, Collis identifies Phyllis Webb as both kinds, turning to “the common good” of this book’s title, a good “neither singularly private nor collectively public, but common: open to all equally individually together” (103). “Poetry and Anarchy” ends with a dextrous analysis of Webb’s “Kropotkin Poems” and how these poems mediate or represent Webb’s eventual movement away from poetry.
The third and final section, “On Abstraction,” views Webb’s move away from poetry (her silence) and her ensuing career as a visual artist as part of a continuous movement toward abstraction. The poetry is read retrospectively through her painting; her interest in modernist painterly abstraction is read through her poetic abstraction. In this section, Collis provides some excellent close readings, not just of poems, but of paintings as well, placing these adroitly in the traditions of modernist abstract painting which interested Webb in her early poetic career. Earlier in the volume, Collis writes that the best response to a poem is another poem. But now he suggests that the best response to a poem might be a painting: “painting and poetry provide Derridean “supplements” for one another, leaping one into the other’s gap” (178). As in the other two sections, here Collis combines sensitive readings of Webb’s poems (especially “Vision” and “Hanging”) with original theorizing about philosophical questions (the relationship of the self to other, of art to nature) and political questions including the radical and revolutionary nature of abstraction as a repudiation of authority.
A book of literary criticism this intimate is rare. Collis’ quotation from Adrienne Rich sums up his relationship to Webb: “Poetry is really a way of meeting poets” (78). Collis’ respect for Webb’s poetic corpus is uncharacteristic of his chosen genre and all the more remarkable given the theoretical depth of these analyses. His book ranges widely through Webb’s poetry, her thought, and the literary, philosophical and political influences on her writing. Our overriding impression, however, is of its self-conscious poetic voice: “poetry is the genre in which language is able to best explore its own properties and possibilities. Poetry is language that we notice – and it is language in the process of noticing itself” (175). Collis’ cadences and poetic prose fragments describing Webb’s responses to her mentors and predecessors may be applied equally to his own response. His book is “keeping, awaiting, anticipating the call of the other echoing in the shell of the word” (78). In treating Webb’s poems in this manner, Collis manages not simply to shed new light on one of Canada’s most influential poets, but also to say something profoundly significant about what poetry is: “it is the giving and the linking – an aesthetics of joining” (57). Phyllis Webb and the Common Good is a fascinating read for anyone concerned about poetry. Its “strangeness and its distance” (175), its anarchic properties, its abstraction and the common good make it essential for all future work on Webb.
This review first appeared in Vallum Magazine.