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Phyllis Webb (1927 – 2021)

November 15th, 2021

Poet Phyllis Webb, who received the 1999 George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia, Order of Canada in 1992 and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1982, died on November 11, 2021.

Kevin Williams, president of Talonbooks and Webb’s publisher says she “died peacefully, on her own terms” at Lady Minto Hospital in Ganges, Salt Spring Island.

A few days before her passing, Webb said, “I am happy, so happy,” echoing the last words of Gerald Manley Hopkins, one of her favourite poets, spoke as he was dying.

“Webb was a celebrated and influential writer, admired for her carefully crafted poems, her innovation with form and line, and the unflinching honesty and sharpness of vision through which she wrote about the human condition,” says Williams.

Her final collection of poetry, Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb (2014), edited by John F. Hulcoop, “is a dazzling testament to her masterful use of language and the range of her poetic voice.”

Phyllis Webb circa 2014. Photo by Diana Hayes.

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Phyllis Webb was born in Victoria on April 8, 1927 to Mary Patton and Alfred Wilkes Webb, the youngest child and only daughter in a family of three. Her parents later divorced. She joined the provincial C.C.F. party in 1945 and graduated from UBC with a B.A. in English and Philosophy in 1949. In the same year she ran as a Victoria C.C.F. candidate in the provincial election, becoming the youngest person in the Commonwealth to seek office in a Legislative assembly. In 1940 she attended the national C.C.F. convention where she met F.R. Scott, her most important early literary influence, having participated in an off-campus writing group led by Earle Birney.

In 1950 Webb moved to Montreal and completed a year of graduate studies at McGill. Between 1951 and 1956 she lived in Montreal, associating with fellow writers Louis Dudek, Eli Mandel, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington and Leonard Cohen, and had her first book of poems published in 1954, including poems by Eli Mandel and Gael Turnbull. It was published by Raymond Souster’s Contact Press in Toronto. She also lived and worked in England, Ireland and France. She received a Canadian Government Overseas Award which enabled her to live in Paris for a year-and-a-half until 1959.

Phyllis Webb with bill bissett on CBC Radio’s Ideas program in the 1960s.

Webb returned to Canada and worked as a freelance copy editor for McClelland & Stewart, publishers of her 1956 collection Even Your Right Eye, and also read scripts for CBC. She moved to Vancouver in 1960 and began working as a teacher’s assistant in English at UBC in 1961. Inspired by a 1963 poetry conference at UBC, Webb was influenced by the West Coast experimentalism of San Francisco and Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg (all of whom she interviewed). In 1964 she accepted a job as Program Organizer in Public Affairs for CBC Radio and she moved to Toronto. During this period, with her colleague William A. Young, she instigated the still-running program Ideas, the most distinguished series of programs of its kind in Canadian broadcasting. From 1967 to 1969 she was the Executive Producer of the program.

Phyllis Webb, circa early 1970s.

During a leave-of-absence from CBC, she travelled to the Soviet Union and also discovered Salt Spring Island as a place for writing and revitalization. She became intrigued with the anarchist movement, beginning work on her ‘Kropotkin Poems’. Increasingly drawn to her own writing, Webb resigned from CBC, having interviewed writers on television (including F.R. Scott, Dorothy Livesay, Margaret and bill bissett) and moved to Vancouver, to ‘save her soul’. She published her Selected Poems 1954-1965 with Talonbooks in 1971. The next year she received the B.C. Library Association Prize for ‘the writer who has made the greatest contribution to the poetry of B.C. in the past five years.’

Phyllis with her cat.

The suicides of her friend Lilo Berliner (in 1977) and the anthropologist Wilson Duff (in 1976) intensified her writing and furthered her explorations of West Coast imagery and mythology. Prior to her death, Berliner left her correspondence with Wilson Duff about Haida mythology on Webb’s doorstep. Between 1976 and 1979. Webb taught Creative Writing at UBC and UVic. She was Writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta (1980-1981) and published Wilson’s Bowl in 1980. According to John Hulcoop, when the book had been passed over for a nomination for the Governor General’s Award, a group of fellow poets — led by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol and P.K. Page — collected $2,300 and sent it to Webb, stating that “this gesture is a response to your whole body of work as well as to your presence as a touchstone of true good writing in Canada, which we all know is beyond awards and prizes.”

Talonbooks’ publicity photo of Phyllis Webb.

“My poems are born out of great struggles of silence,” she once wrote, “…wayward, natural and unnatural silences, my desire for privacy, my critical hesitations, my critical wounds, my disatisfactions with myself and my work have all contributed to a strange gestation.” Webb taught briefly at the Banff School of Fine Arts and also the University of Victoria, then moved back to her Salt Spring Island home in 1990.

Webb initiated a chapter of Amnesty International on Salt Spring Island, protested alleged sexist hiring practices at CBC and decried alleged gender bias in Canada Council awards in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Phyllis Webb is a protean writer of lambent sensibility,” George Woodcock wrote, “The shifts in her style, like loops of a spiral, are always introducing us to something new; and usually to something better.”

Phyllis Webb, Writing 4 (Winter 1981-82).

“Phyllis Webb is one of the finest poets now writing in Canada,” wrote Stephen Scobie. “In fact, dropping the academic equivocation, she is the finest.” Scobie has claimed Webb’s writing “has always been distinguished by the profundity of her insights, the depth of her emotional feeling, the delicacy and accuracy of her rhythms, the beauty and mysterious resonance of her images and by her luminous intelligence.”

In ‘Evensong’ she once wrote, “Tending towards music / the artist’s life tends towards solitary notes / slips of the tongue, hand, eye eerily like / intelligence of higher orders.” Webb published two collections of non-fiction and had her work translated into Urdu, Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Finnish, Gujurati and Spanish. The Vision Tree: Selected Poems received the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1983.

Having edited and written the introduction for Phyllis Webb’s Selected Poems (Talonbooks 1971), John F. Hulcoop has stayed the course, contributing a book-length study, Phyllis Webb and Her Works (ECW Press 1990). Fortunate to have such a devoted critic as the nineteeth-century poetry scholar Hulcoop and such a devoted publisher as Talonbooks, Webb has now re-emerged as a poet after a hiatus of more than thirty years with a single volume of all her published, unpublished and uncollected works, Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb (Talonbooks 2014), once again edited by Hulcoop. She attended an event in her honour at the Vancouver Writers Festival, in conjunction with the launch of the book, in 2014. The all-encompassing overview of her work came thirty-four years after the eminent Ontario critic Northrop Frye hailed her collection Wilson’s Bowl as “a landmark in Canadian literature” in 1980.

Joe Plaskett, Double Portrait of Phyllis Webb. Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery.

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