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March 17, 2016 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 64 – Jay Macpherson presented by Eleanor Cook

Jay Macpherson, memorial service, 11 June 2012

Over the last few weeks of Jay’s final illness, a phrase began to repeat itself in my head, “bitter constraint,” and then more fully, “Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear.” The words come from the opening of Milton’s great pastoral elegy, Lycidas. Later I realized why this echo was so right for Jay. Here she is describing her childhood days as a war guest:

I spent most of the war years living with a . . . family in Newfoundland, and the BBC radio news was my main link, if mainly symbolic, with home . . . .
One day . . . when the news was rather gloomy, it was followed by – I think – Michael Redgrave reading – definitely – Lycidas. I knew I had Lycidas in the Oxford Book of English Verse that my mother left with me . . . ; from then on it became in effect my book of exile. It had England and the countryside in it, and it had all those enthralling names that one could spend time in the library looking up, or in my window-seat on the stairs looking over Duckworth Street turning over pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (UTQ 61.3 [1992]: 388)

She was ten or eleven then. She had learned to read when very young, and had the run of her parents’ books – except for the Bible, that is, which was snatched from her hands when she asked awkward questions about some of the earthier passages in the Old Testament.

For years after hearing Lycidas, she carried around with her a file of 193 index cards, one for each line of the poem. That’s about as good a training for a poet as I can imagine, though of course the poem has to be yours, has to speak to you the way Milton spoke to that ten- or eleven-year-old in exile. Milton glossed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica is also an undergraduate course in itself on classical and biblical matters.

I first met her as a fellow graduate student, and we became friends when I joined her as a don at the Victoria women’s residences. She was a striking figure, with her waist-long hair piled on top of her head. She had just won the Governor General’s Award for The Boatman, she was a fund of recondite knowledge, she was at once formidable and funny, sometimes darkly funny. I cherish a photo of her walking me back to Annesley after my Ph.D. oral, plus the verse she wrote, punning on –what else? – passed-oral and pastoral. The third stanza reads:

At sight so Fair the Fiends forbear!
The Virgin does prevail!
And Monsters shagged obsequious wagged
The unaccustomed Tail. (1)

That’s the English Department, or was.

She once wrote a propos of A. B. B. Moore, the President of Victoria University, that “learning to find the right words is one of the things an education in the humanities is all about – something we both work at and help our students with . . . finding such words can be a real service to one’s community.” That was the link between her poems and her teaching and scholarship, between the words that were a gift from the muse and her later profession. Her everyday command of language put most of us to shame. It was not a matter of eloquence or entertainment, but, as with her tribute to Moore, a matter of integrity.

Hearing her read her poetry was a memorable experience, for she read as one possessed by the poems themselves, a voice through which they came. In the fall of 1997, she came down to Yale to read. Two of the people who turned up said they had heard her read twenty years earlier and were not about to miss another chance. Her voice itself was memorable, including her voice when angry. I recall a self-important Irish visiting speaker whom we entertained with drinks, and who chattered on about poetry, quoting a couple of lines, written, he said, by X. Jay murmured quietly, “Thomas Moore.” Irishman, in a condescending dismissive tone: “Oh, I don’t think so.” Jay, loudly and as if ground out between gritted teeth: “Thomas Moore,” after which she quoted two full stanzas.

Milton’s Lycidas echoes in her poetry, and so does the sense of knowing what it is to be in exile. The Boatman varies Milton’s phrase, “Look homeward, Angel,” but her startling second collection, Welcoming Disaster, comes with a far different sense of exile. In 1967 she gave me a souvenir from a trip to Hong Kong, a hand-made bookmark, with a biblical text: “Oh, God. O beg you don’t keep silent; Oh God, O beg you don’t shut your mouth, and don’t keep speechless too.” It’s Psalm 83, verse 1. Seven years later she published Welcoming Disaster, the great disaster being her muse’s abandonment of her. Not Milton now, and, if Blake, Blake the rebel in literature as in life.

I’m not sure how many people in the academy had much idea of how very good the poetry was, and is. She was the person that major American poets used to ask me about when I ran into them, people like the late Anthony Hecht or Mark Strand, Pulitzer-Prize winners both. A recent British editor called her one of the great poets of the twentieth century, and compared her with Stevie Smith, but her emotional range is far wider than Smith’s. She once called herself a minor Housman, yet there is nothing minor about what she wrote, and again the emotional range is wider. If ever the William Blake of Songs of Innocence and Experience found a descendant, it was in Jay Macpherson. Like Blake, she held both radical innocence and experience in a creative tension, and Blake’s visionary mode was also hers for a long time. In her final illness, she called the disease that was killing her “the invisible worm,” Blake’s phrase. A poem that had seemed a bit overblown suddenly took on terrible force. Real poems, hers included, are like that, waiting ahead of us for the time when we need the right words. Blake would also have liked her protest songs, I think: after all, he was once charged with sedition.

She had a second great gift of a different order that I’ll just mention briefly, a gift for friendship – friendship especially for those engaged with the craft of words or the arts more generally, and for those in need. Many in this room and beyond have been touched by it, many by the poems, some by both. As one of her oldest friends said, what we feel is chiefly gratitude.

(1) © estate of Jay Macpherson


To learn more about Jay Macpherson, please visit these articles.

Week 30 – Jay Macpherson presented by Tanis MacDonald

Week – Jay Macpherson presented by Chantel Lavoie

Week 69 – more about Jay Macpherson


Eleanor Cook is Professor Emerita of English, University of Toronto; her book Elizabeth Bishop at Work is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

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