Melissa Dalgleish recovers a great Canadian poet from the ashes
GIVEN HER FIRST name, it’s no surprise Jay Macpherson often wrote herself into her poems as a blue jay. But she also appeared as the phoenix—dying when her Muse abandoned her, reborn when it returned, rising “phoenixed and identical” when her child-self died and she emerged a woman, although still with a child’s face. (“Don’t mistake my face for me,” she warned.) Macpherson died in 2012 but she deserves one more rebirth: as a central figure in mid-century Canadian modernism.
My interest in Macpherson began a few months after I finished a Master’s thesis on the poet Anne Wilkinson at Dalhousie in 2007, and had begun working in the offices of Macpherson’s publisher, Oxford University Press. I had decided to move home to Toronto, work for a year, and then write a PhD study of four Canadian poets who rose to prominence in the 1950s: James Reaney, Eli Mandel, Wilkinson, and Macpherson. It had become clear to me that while Canadian modernism is still a going concern in academia, no one was talking about this group. And on the rare occasions someone brought them up, the poets were almost always lumped under the label of the "Frye School”—insinuating that the richness of their experimentation wasn’t much more than the conversion of Northrop Frye's theories into poetry.
Frye was a systematic thinker, and his major works attempted to make it possible to read any work of literature in relationship to the system of literature as a whole. Like Jung, he broke stories down into patterns and archetypes that could be traced across times and cultures, and his favourite source of those archetypes was biblical and classical myth. Macpherson and her 50s colleagues were likewise myth- and archetype-obsessed, an interest attributed to Frye. But like fashion and food, literary theory cycles through trends. The rise of deconstruction, which mistrusted and broke down the systems that Frye worked to build, shouldered aside mythopoeic theory and poetry alike. Recovering the mythopoets meant separating what they and Frye were doing so that the poetry didn’t get thrown out with the theory bathwater. Was there a way to explain their interest in mythic, archetypal poetry that didn’t resort to Frye?
I started the chapter on Jay Macpherson first. Not because I was most drawn to her work, but because I wanted to get it over with. I had read her best known poems—“The Third Eye,” “Anagogic Man,” the Ark poems—and found myself bored. Partly, I was still under Wilkinson’s thrall, but it was also hard to shake the suspicion that Macpherson was just converting Frye's theory into poetry. Macpherson, after all, had been the closest to Frye—they studied and worked together for more than forty years, and Macpherson dedicated most of her work after Nineteen Poems (1952) to him. These poems seemed to prove her indebtedness to him. What was “The Third Eye,” other than a poetic expression of Frye’s notion of apocalyptic vision, the all-encompassing sight that helped him include all of literature in his system? And “Anagogic Man” was a knowing and affectionate portrait of the theorist and his theory, a poem about that same apocalyptic vision that is often used as evidence of Frye and Macpherson’s personal relationship. As the poem originally read (its subject is called “Noah” in the published versions),
Norrie walks with head bent down;
For between his nape and crown
He carries, balancing with care,
A golden bubble round and rare.
Its gently shimmering sides surround
All us and our worlds, and bound
Art and life, and wit and sense,
Innocence and experience.
Macpherson made me mad—for letting her affection for a married man be so visible in her poetry, for not being independent enough to work with Frye as an academic but maintain her separateness as a poet, and for screwing up my thesis that mythopoeic Canadian poetry arose alongside, not because of, Frye’s theories about myth and archetype. She seemed to weaken my argument that the poets were responding not just to Frye, but—in their desire for order, for explanation, for stories that transcended national and cultural boundaries—to the fragmentation and dislocation of the world—post-war, post-modernity.
But every time I delved into Macpherson’s poetic development, I'd get pulled in deeper. When I read her Contemporary Verse publications and first collection, Ninteen Poems—which Robert Graves published in 1952, years before she met Frye—I realized that her apocalyptic perspective wasn’t imbibed but bred in the bone. “The Third Eye” had been written when she was an undergraduate, years before she met Frye, and she had published her unrecognized first poem in Canadian Forum when she was only fifteen, under the initials “J.M.” That poem, written just before the publication of Frye’s Fearful Symmetry and during a period in which Macpherson considered herself a “fanatic Blakean,” encapsulates in ten lines Blake’s argument with Locke about perception (an argument that takes Frye the good part of a chapter to explain):
Turning from shadow to shadow, we find
Nowhere the expected revelation,
Never can establish a connection
Between eye and image, surface and hand.
Contained by crying flesh and bone,
Unenvying, we lack
Water’s ignorance of pain,
The self-sufficiency of stone,
Fire’s easy taut and slack;
And therefore shall be hurt again.
Macpherson was the missing link between the supposedly belated, post-Eliot mythopoetics of the Canadian fifties and a vibrant community of myth-obsessed writers still active in Europe. Unsurprisingly, what was supposed to be a short chapter kept exceeding its bounds. After spending a few months with Macpherson and her work, I was wholly uninterested in writing about anyone else. At the same time, I knew that the project I now wanted to write—one that would read her life and work as a case-study for the development of the mythic strain of Canadian modernist poetry—was probably impossible. Macpherson was obsessively private, and had done everything she could to ensure that people like me couldn’t use her papers for thesis fodder, tactics that included periodic burnings. No phoenix to rise from those ashes.
I got in touch with Daniel Bratton, who was researching Macpherson’s friend (and former Poetry editor) Daryl Hine. When Bratton had asked to see her correspondence with George Johnston, she threatened to get on a bus to Ottawa and physically bar him from entering the archives. I decided against reaching out. Anyway, she was too ill, it turns out.
But if her death in March of 2012 came as a shock to many who knew her, it also went largely unmarked in the public record. Her family, friends, and colleagues mourned her, and some among them, like Margaret Atwood, Russell Brown, and Daryl Hine, published public statements about her contributions to Canadian letters. Her obituary in The Globe and Mail—which was given the oddly sexist and dismissive title "The Nurturing Nature of Jay Macpherson”—didn't appear until September. I learned from Sandra Martin, who wrote it, that it had only come about because Atwood had encouraged the Globe to remember her friend.
But then I started collecting new clues, and parts of Macpherson's career that had once been mysterious suddenly became clear, like the explanation for why her first book was published by Robert Graves' Seizin Press, how she became friends with Page, why the mother-figures in her poems are often either horrible or laughable, or how she developed her distinctive and influential suite- and collection-building strategy.
As result of all these discoveries, I found a way into the book I was wanting to write, one that I had never thought would be open to me. I made friends with Diana Macpherson, Jay’s niece and executrix, who had arranged to donate her aunt's papers to the Victoria College special collections. We met for a beer at Kilgour's on Bloor Street, and we talked about her aunt and about what I wanted to do with the book. It felt very much like a first date with someone you like enormously, and I was terrified that Diana would deem me unworthy. But I managed to convince her I could be trusted to muck about in the archives at Victoria College.
I’ve now spent countless hours sorting through the miscellany of poems, letters, stories, drawings, photographs, and newspapers, and transforming them into a coherent history of the first twenty years of Macpherson's career. Most of her poems are there at the Pratt Library, many of them unpublished and wholly unstudied. Her short fiction is there, as are some of the handmade books she gave as gifts in the years before she started Emblem Books, the small press that produced some of the most beautiful volumes known to CanLit. So, too, are her letters, the ones she received from (and, because she asked for many back, wrote to) almost every name of note in Canadian letters. And so is the full story of her complicated relationship with Frye, but one that will be protected by archival restriction until I am a very old woman myself.
Also in the archives are Macpherson’s memories of pivotal moments in the history of CanLit, like the one when the mythopoeic poets first recognized themselves as a group, as the practitioners of the new mythic Canadian modernism. At the afternoon poetry readings at the Canadian Writers’ Conference in 1955, “[Reaney] and I and Eli Mandel soon segregated ourselves as the mythologists of the group: had to defend selves against Phyllis Webb and others who have no patience with myth.” It’s not that the mythopoeic modernist turn was just taking hold in 1955, but this gathering of the poets marked the moment when Macpherson and her friends first recognized themselves as CanLit’s inheritors.
Louis Dudek and Irving Layton frequently complained in the early 1950s that the young poets weren't doing anything. In the very first issue of the little magazine Contact, Dudek moaned that the Preview and First Statement poets (but mostly he and Layton) had been responsible for an explosion of poetry in the forties, but no one had stepped forward to take up the powder and torch. In Cerberus, Layton admitted that he knew that people were writing, but he didn’t like their brand of “genteel,” “pseudo-mystical,” very structured poetry. Macpherson, not irrationally, assumed that he was talking about her and her friends. They didn’t count. The poetry of the fifties didn’t exist. And these days, it often seems not to; our histories of Canadian literature tend to skip from the Montreal forties straight to the 1960s.
But the poetry of the fifties does exist. And it’s wonderful—funny, complex, richly allusive, satisfyingly patterned and ordered, revealing of the ways that artists worked to rebirth a new world from the ashes left behind after the Second World War. And Macpherson was at its centre, the missing link between the poetics of the Montreal forties and the Toronto fifties, the book of miscellaneous lyrics and the long poem, the mythic late modernism of Canada and Europe, the mythopoeic turn and life in Canada after the Second World War. The hope is, in reading her words and writing her story, that she will be at CanLit’s centre once again—Jay the phoenix.
MELISSA DALGLEISH writes about mythopoeic modernism in Canada and graduate education in the 21st century. Her work has appeared in Canadian Literature, English Studies in Canada, and elsewhere.