Phyllis Webb, Reader Trouble, and Gender Trouble


Pauline Butling. Seeing in the Dark: the Poetry of Phyllis Webb. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997. 184pp.

When I first learned about the publication of this book, I found myself recalling the title of an article written years ago by Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic." Not that the two are readily compatible. When Larkin wrote, Thomas Hardy was already the subject of numerous critical studies, whereas Seeing in the Dark is the first full-length discussion of Phyllis Webb’s work. Again, Hardy is superficially a straightforward poet whose angular complexities become evident only later, whereas Webb’s poetry established itself as difficult and challenging from the start. There is a similarity, however: both lived in ages of violent literary transition, Hardy from high Victorianism into the age of Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, Webb from the period of late modernism into our present so-called post-colonial confusions. Yet immediately another contrast emerges. Webb countered the bewildering literary changes of her time with new stylistic responses, while Hardy continued in his own established and independent way, content for the world to attune itself gradually to his vision. At all events, critics tackling ages of transition face a special challenge: what are the new questions and issues that need to be raised in order to illuminate the generally experimental, fluctuating responses of their subjects? A Webb critic, I thought, must evolve appropriate ways of commenting on her poetry; application of already existing procedures are unlikely to work.

I approached this study, then, with interest and with considerable expectations, though I must state at once, regretfully, that Pauline Butling did not reveal herself as the good Webb critic I had hoped for. Indeed, I found Seeing in the Dark a curiously exasperating book because, while Butling raised a good many (though by no means all) of the appropriate questions, it seemed to me that she failed to provide appropriate responses. Her book gave the impression of being uncertain, bitty; I detected signs of threshing around in search of a probably non-existent key, of critical positions not being sufficiently thought through. Still, whatever the rights and wrongs of the case (I make no claims to any confident grasp of the significance and ultimate quality of Webb’s work), our disagreements can be valuable in casting an exploratory searchlight over some of the problems, difficulties, uncertainties, controversies, that clutter our present-day critical procedures. Hence the length and detail of the discussion to follow.


Butling begins well, I think, by defying the old-fashioned pretence of scholarly objectivity and detachment. She is endearingly frank about the contradictory pressures governing her own literary-critical development. "I had been trained," she tells us, "as a ‘New Critical’ reader to look to poetry only for aesthetic pleasures and humanistic affirmations, to value beauty of form and complexity of thought ‘for its own sake.’…I had accepted the ahistorical viewpoint that disturbances in poetry were aesthetic, not social or political…" (vii). But the official doctrine did not jibe well with her situation at UBC from 1957 to 1963, where she found herself in a community in which "radical writing was connected to a radical politics of initiating social and political change" (vii). So Butling herself changed—insofar as she could. She is acutely conscious, however, of a clash of allegiances, of wandering between two worlds: "[i]t has taken me some thirty years to integrate these socio-political experiences of poetry into my critical practice and even now my formalist academic training often demands that I edit out personal pleasures and political concerns, that my social self go into hiding. This book thus represents an uneasy blend of formalist and the more politically engaged methodologies of feminist and post-colonial critical practices" (viii). Later in the book, she comments succinctly: "[o]ld reading and writing habits are hard to break" (37).

I sympathize, and share many of her bewilderments. I too was the first member of my family to attend university, and am aware of the tensions and uncertainties involved. Yet I consider myself, rightly or wrongly, decidedly more fortunate in my early training. Raised in England rather than in North America, I was never subjected to the absurdity of an "ahistorical viewpoint," nor did anyone attempt to implant in me the unlikely notion that literature was divorced from life. Perhaps for that reason I have never felt any temptation to abandon loyalty to "the words on the page" for the arid (and, I strongly suspect, safer and easier) abstractions of "theory." It has never occurred to me to "edit out personal pleasures," and as for political concerns I consider myself able to recognize and admire their expression in literature without necessarily feeling it incumbent upon me to espouse them. Thus I was a great admirer of The Wesker Trilogy in the early 1960s without ever voting along Weskerian lines. One is not separating literature from life if one acknowledges the force and quality of a writer whose politics one does not share.

Butling’s comments are, then, refreshingly honest, though I find myself querying many of her statements. To "value beauty of form and complexity of thought ‘for its own sake’" need not be—should not be—incompatible with other more committed approaches; disturbances in poetry may well be aesthetic, social, and political all at the same time. And I am puzzled by the statement about the urge to edit out "personal pleasures and political concerns"; perhaps she has resisted the first from time to time (wrongly, I would think), but there is no evidence here of her banishing the second, which are sufficiently prominent that they threaten to stifle other legitimate if more "aesthetic" responses. Finally, there is no reason to "break" old reading and writing habits unless they are shown to be clearly wrong. Supplementing them with additional methodologies is one thing; abandoning them is another.

Butling is, however, accurate in describing her book as an "uneasy blend of formalist and the more politically engaged methodologies." I see nothing intrinsically wrong in such a blend; on the contrary, with a subject herself politically engaged, one who has changed her style and attitudes so resolutely and radically in the course of her writing life, a shifting of approaches as one passes from one phase to the next may be considered essential. Still, the blend is acknowledged as "uneasy," and therein lies the problem. Again, I sympathize. Webb is a difficult writer, and constructing an adequate critical approach to her work must be a daunting task. Butling—once more with an engaging honesty—even shifts to a series of personal journal-entries in an effort to clarify her problem for herself and her readers (38). Yet the book remains, for me, abrupt, lacking in direction. An excessive smoothness would, under the circumstances, be false to her subject, yet we need at least the traces of a consistent and coherent position. Perhaps Butling would have done better to give up the pretence of a continuous argument and offer a set of candid critical snapshots, "Thirty-Two Short Views of Phyllis Webb." There are precedents.

Her uncertainty is well illustrated by her position on the subject of biography. She includes a chapter on biography here—and very useful it is. Yet such chapters were unfashionable in the "New Criticism" world of autonomous well-wrought urns, and a fairly recent methodology, after all, trumpeted the death of the author and so, logically, of biographical relevance. Butling rightly reverts to traditional, pre-New-Critical practice, yet her "unease" causes her to give her chapter the trendy title "The Bio as Text" and to place it at the end of her book instead of at the beginning. This, she claims, is "in order to position biography as context rather than cause" (125). Such a remark sounds impressive, yet in her Preface she makes the curious statement that she wanted to "resist the evolutionary metaphor of growth and development that seems always to invade any discussion of a single writer" (ix). I confess to puzzlement here. If ever a poet’s work demonstrated growth and development—from the earlier modernist poems, through Naked Poems to the "Wilson’s Bowl" sequence, the ghazals and anti-ghazals of Water and Light, and the "angry" poems of Hanging Fire—it is, I should have thought, Phyllis Webb’s. A biography that maps out the lived context of this kind of development is surely helpful, and specially so early in the process of reading and comprehension, even if one stands on modernist ground and insists that, once published, the poem becomes independent of the poet.


Butling’s approach is predominantly if not exclusively feminist. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, especially where Webb is involved. Indeed, part of my high expectations for Seeing in the Dark derived from my sense that a female (not necessarily feminist) reading of Webb’s poetry possessed advantages that no male reading, however appreciative, could provide. But, like any approach, the feminist can be illuminating, cogent, or otherwise. And at this point I am compelled to register a protest. At the opening of Chapter 2, Butling makes several references to "the reader…herself." Now Butling comes from a generation perfectly well aware that, until some fifteen years ago or thereabouts, "the reader…himself" was a phrase commonly employed. But it was known and accepted as a convention, understood as an abbreviation covering both sexes but avoiding the repeated stylistic awkwardness of "he/she"—and was used habitually by men and women alike, including (it seems worthwhile to insist) Virginia Woolf and later feminists of the period. Ever since the phrase was challenged, however, most writers, male no less than female, have taken pains to avoid it out of deference to those irritated by the possible implications. In the late 1990s, Butling’s phrase is unforgivable—not merely because its employment seemingly involves a conscious decision to flaunt a now unacceptable sexist attitude but because it implies either that men do not read Webb’s work or that it has nothing to offer them. It cannot be stated too strongly that both implications are false.

This lapse is accompanied by a tendency to parade the word "patriarchal" at every opportunity and frequently to assume some kind of male discrimination without clear justification. For instance, Butling records Louis Dudek’s literary advice to Webb in the early 1950s but refers to "his paternalistic, mentoring relationship to Webb" (133). But "paternalistic," with its inevitable echo of "patriarchal" and its hint of superior condescension, is gratuitous and unwarranted. To be sure, Dudek reflected the modernist attitudes that were part and parcel of his own aesthetic and that of his generation, but his advice to younger poets is now well documented, and I detect nothing in his criticisms of Webb’s early verse, either in content or in tone, that he wouldn’t have written to a younger male poet. A small point, perhaps, but this kind of unjustified militancy is irritating, and weakens the legitimate feminist cause in challenging actual discrimination that, unfortunately, still exists.

A more important general issue is, however, involved: the assumption in certain quarters of an automatic male/female split or hostility or bias, call it what you will (I shall have more to say about "bias" a little later). This makes us all hesitant, suspicious, edgy. I find myself wondering whether there is any longer any point in a male critic’s reviewing a book by a female scholar about a female poet. Will any reservation I have be promptly shrugged off as inevitable, typical male prejudice? It used not to be so. We may grant a gender difference affecting certain basic attitudes, yet a male response to a female subject (and, naturally, vice versa) ought to be valuable for that very reason. I repeat, I welcomed the publication of this book because I wanted to learn from the insights that a female reading—and only a female reading—could offer. This should be available without a complicating polemic.

Moreover, this polemic sometimes takes the form of unargued assertions that I find dubious. For instance, in a chapter entitled "Shifting the Shifters—from ‘I/You’ to ‘I/We’" Butling writes: "[w]hen a woman writer uses ‘I,’ she inhabits a space that has a long tradition of male dominance. She often feels uncomfortable, an imposter, a fake" (75). Really? Such a statement may fit well into current feminist "theory," but is it justified? I can only say that it sounds most unlikely. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning began her well-known sonnet "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," I find it impossible to believe that she was "uncomfortable" or was using the first-person pronoun differently from her predecessors, male or female. The same applies to Christina Rossetti’s "Remember me when I am gone away" or P.K. Page’s "I none too sober slipping in the mud" and "This lens I look through is as clear as glass" (just to mention the first who come to mind). Even when Page asks, "Who am I / or who am I become that walking here / I am observer, other, Gemini…?" I hear a speaker who—self-questioning, to be sure—has no gender inhibitions but displays a well-earned confidence in her artistic proficiency. So is it, surely, with all writers worthy of the title.

The limitations of a too exclusively and too unquestioned feminist approach can useful illustrated by Butling’s reading of Webb’s "Thinking Cap" in Hanging Fire. (It is to her credit, by the way, that Butling does offer a number of detailed readings, valuable even if one does not fully agree with them.) This is a fanciful, light-hearted, allusive poem about William Carlos Williamsland, in which Webb alters the well-known lines from "This Is Just to Say" about eating plums intended for breakfast that he finds in his wife’s refrigerator because "they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold" to "because they were / cold and beautiful / and couldn’t // speak." According to Butling, Webb here "protests [Williams’s] masculist bias" manifest in "the association of plums with female genitals" (102). This seems to me Freudian reductiveness of the most blatant kind; there is a difference between the sensual and the sexual, whatever psychologists may claim. (Why modern feminists still kowtow to that old Viennese chauvinist with all his grotesque notions—penis-envy and the like—is more than I can tell.) I do not consider this helpful commentary.

But Butling’s use of the word "bias" here should also give us pause. Williams is, certainly, expressing a masculine viewpoint: he could hardly do otherwise, and why not? But "bias" is a different matter entirely. If Williams shows bias, then Webb is merely replacing it with her bias—which I would argue is to do her a severe disservice. Butling’s terminology must be accounted dubious. Indeed, it seems possible that her own bias intrudes here, and prevents her from coming fully to terms with the relation between the two poems. Webb may well be said to rewrite Williams’s poem from a female perspective (and again, why not?)—one that exists in juxtaposition with the original. I submit that this is closer to what the words on Webb’s page appear to be saying. Webb’s poem depends upon Williams’s, could not exist without it, yet succeeds in encouraging us to regard it in a new way. To be fair, Butling also says that "the Williams texts [‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is involved as well as ‘This Is Just to Say’] are also addressed affectionately" (102), but "protests" and "bias" still cloud the issue. (I would also add, as more useful than an aggressively gendered reading, the observation that, in imagining a "thinking cap," Webb is wittily offering a "thing" involving an "idea," a sophisticated commentary on Williams’s famous "no ideas but in things" dictum, too often misinterpreted as an anti-intellectual stance.)


There are a number of other instances where I find myself unable to accept Butling’s readings as either sufficiently rigorous or as providing the kind of assistance one might reasonably expect from a book of this kind. Take, for example, the discussion of Naked Poems. Butling sees the sequence as "a radical shift in Webb’s poetics to ‘field’ composition" (22), and in literary-historical terms I can grant that this is at least partly true. But I doubt if the situating of these poems within the new poetry associated with Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and the Tish poets ultimately helps very much. The importance and originality of Naked Poems ultimately lie elsewhere. If one starts from the poems themselves, other issues emerge, and I don’t think Butling takes full account of them. She writes: "they are often cited as evidence of Webb’s exemplary sensitivity and delicate emotionalism (Davey, Hulcoop) without referring to their lesbian context or their intellectuality" (115). I am not sure about "intellectuality" (Butling never elaborates) but the "lesbian context" needs pondering. Quoting Frank Davey, Butling explains the alleged silence by referring to "the polite conventions that governed literary criticism at that time" and a concern about "social or employment repercussions for Webb" (122), but I suspect a third factor. Primarily, I would argue, these are love poems. Certainly, they arise out of a "lesbian context" but the restraint and delicacy of the relationship are not confined to such a context. (Consider Shakespeare’s "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day," which is only limited by reference to the homoerotic.) Naked Poems can speak eloquently to readers for whom lesbianism is remote. Butling’s students who, she tells us, tend to "assume they are heterosexual love poems" (123) are assuredly ignoring the details, but may well be right (on their own terms) in responding to the love rather than the lesbianism.

In addition, another feature of Naked Poems needs to be stressed: their remarkable reticence (not a word we usually associate with writing of the 1960s). The poems certainly convey a striking sense of intimacy, but there are none of the four-letter words or detailed descriptions of the sexual act that became so drearily standard in the years immediately following the Lady Chatterley trial. Webb, by contrast, insists on indirection and on what is not said. She does not try to pass off the poems as anything else but lesbian, but the emphasis falls elsewhere—on the word Lawrence once wanted to use as the title for his last novel: tenderness. Davey and Hulcoop were, I would argue, closer than Butling to what is central in Naked Poems when citing their "exemplary sensitivity."

One of the critical difficulties in approaching Webb’s work is conveniently illustrated by Butling’s remarks on the late Michael Estok’s misreading in a review of Water and Light: "[r]ecognizing the seductive and erotic quality of many of the poems in Water and Light (also their similarity in form and tone to Naked Poems), Estok assumes they were written to a lover. The dedication of one section of the book to Connie Rooke leads him to conclude that these are lesbian love poems" (120). There is much inviting comment here. For one thing, I do not detect any "similarity in form and tone to Naked Poems"—the two sequences seem totally different, and once again Butling doesn’t elaborate—but that is not the point I wish to emphasize. Instead, I prefer to consider the wider-ranging implications of Estok’s error. I had not heard about this hermeneutic flurry before, and it had never occurred to me to read along these lines when I first encountered Water and Light soon after publication. Going back to the sequence, however, I can readily follow Estok’s process of thought. True, he should have taken note of the section-title "Frivolities" (no resemblance to Naked Poems here), but then, faced with the line "Seduce me, Mulberry, with your silk-spun eyelashes" and a poem that ends "and I would say Mulberry tree, Catalpa, / and you would say, simply, Phyllis," and aware of the subject of Naked Poems, Estok’s reading is surely explainable. And it leads to a further (and, I think, extremely important) point: is not Webb, in her enigmatic allusiveness, partly responsible for the confusion? If one speaks through indirection, leaving the reader to pick up and interpret clues that are often by no means obvious, such misreadings may be seen as inevitable. It is hard to draw a clear line in such cases between critical incompetence and the consequences of authorial ambiguity.


All this leads up to the crucial question: for whom does Butling write? Yet again, on the evidence of Seeing in the Dark one cannot be sure, since she will often shift styles from paragraph to paragraph. Occasionally she writes sentences like "Webb’s various interminglings within the ‘grand dark’ allow female subjectivities to avoid this kind of erasure while also finding the room to develop agency and visibility within reconfigured semantic and social fields" (52). This is the kind of non-language that theorists too often produce for each other. For the most part, mercifully, her prose is more readily accessible, though, as we have seen, she sometimes gives the unfortunate impression of writing for women only. But in general, she appears to be addressing the audience she surely ought to be addressing: readers who enjoy the reading of poetry but require help with a more than usually indirect and allusive poet.

What do such readers need? They hardly, I think, need the chapter already referred to entitled "Shifting the Shifters—From ‘I-You’ to ‘I-We’." This is a matter that any competent poet learns to control and vary according to the requirements of the individual poetic context. Nor do they need the admittedly interesting survey of Webb criticism, which reaches the hardly surprising conclusion that reviewers and commentators tend to reflect the ages in which they live—a truism that applies all too easily to Butling herself. What they do need, I suggest, is solid exegesis and helpful annotation of difficult passages in the poems, a preparedness to criticize where necessary (Webb’s more impenetrable poems tend to be passed over in tactful but frustrating silence) and, above all, an emphasis on the technical and tonal qualities of the work.

In conclusion, let me cite two instances of the kind of commentary we find in this book that do not, as it seems to me, approach close enough to the ideal we have a right to invoke. First, a poem which Butling refers to only briefly, "Lines from Gwen, Lines for Ben," from Wilson’s Bowl. I must be honest here and state that it is a poem that I have never been able to understand. "Gwen" is immediately identified as Gwendolyn MacEwen, but Ben remained a mystery until now. Butling (155-6) identifies him as Ben Metcalfe, a journalist associated with Greenpeace, though the information does not seem to help within the poem. She then goes on to quote lines from the poem including the enigmatic number-sequence "1,3,5,7." If one knows one’s way around Webb’s work, one can find the MacEwen letter containing a gloss on these numbers, which Webb cites in her collection of prose pieces entitled Talking (71), though once again I don’t find that it helps much in the poem. Webb’s note in Wilson’s Bowl, by the way, adds to the enigma rather than dissolving it, and Butling finds it no more necessary than Webb to explain either the presence of Ben or the significance of the numbers. I am inclined to think—arrogantly, perhaps—that it just isn’t a very good poem; whatever it meant to Webb has not been communicated adequately to the reader. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but Butling’s commentary is of no help here.

More significantly, at the end of her book Butling publishes "The Tree Speaks," a Webb poem that most readers will encounter for the first time. Here is what Butling tells us about it:

Webb wrote the poem to protest the B.C. government’s decision to allow logging to continue in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. However the poem not only scolds the loggers and protesters alike to leave the trees alone; it also serves as a reminder to the reader and/or biographer to stand back a little, to not hold the poet too closely, to leave the poet, like the trees, to "grow old in peace." (162)

There is nothing to quarrel with here, and it is useful to have the immediate occasion explained. But what I would want to stress about this poem is its quality (a triumph of playful tone which subtly makes the poem all the more serious), and the fact that it transcends the status of "protest poem" This is not an angry poem; it is memorable for its unusual tree-perspective and, surprisingly, for its wonderfully poised humour:

                  Listen to me now,
talking out of character like
a member of the human race,
look what you’ve brought me to,
so low that I’m only a foolish
projection of some old woman poet.

This is not Webb the feminist, or the Webb who, at times, has seemed perilously close to a self-destructive brink. This is Webb the consummate poet, with a wonderfully controlled tone, a sense of wry fantasy, and a gift for the colloquial only occasionally evident in her verse.

And these, I submit, are the aspects of poetry that, nowadays more than ever, need to be stressed. Any literate reader can pick out the protest, the feminist platform, the postmodern self-consciousness. But, for all the current emphasis on "verbal discourse," etc., so few can respond to the possibilities of those old-fashioned "words on the page." Which is why I have no hesitation in advocating the older ways of reading. Butling’s book is on a par with most of the critical studies that appear these days, but those of us unimpressed by the currently accepted standard will ultimately ask for more. My hypothetical "good Webb critic," like the good critic of any poet, will be concerned less with fitting the writings into the favoured approaches of the age than with drawing attention to qualities in the poetry that the age neglects but needs to hear. Disseminating appreciation of the subtler qualities of verse has always been a difficult task, and never more difficult than now; yet to offer anything less to potential poetry readers—that seemingly endangered species—is, I fear, to sell them short.

W.J. Keith