Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Essential George Johnston

The Porcupines’ Quill, Inc., has started doing an “essential poets” series, starting with The Essential George Johnston, selected by Robyn Sarah (Erin ON: The Porcupines’ Quill, Inc., 2007). A number of years ago, the same press was experimenting with doing reprints of classic material, including some interesting Irving Layton and Norman Levine, but apparently Canada Council doesn’t pay for reprints, and the sales weren’t there, making the attempt unsustainable. Fortunately, they’re trying again with a new tactic (much the way The Laurier Poetry Series exists at Wilfred Laurier University Press), with a selected of fifty of the “essential” poems of a particular writers career, and a critical introduction (there were rumours of John Newlove being in the same series, but the selected poems we’re doing through Chaudiere Books might have put the kibosh on such; I don’t know).

A poet and professor at Carleton University for years, George Johnston (1913-2004) was an important contemporary and mentor for a number of writers around Ottawa (he arrived here from Toronto to teach Old and Middle English and Old Norse, as well as become known internationally as a translator of the Icelandic Sagas, and the foremost translator of modern Faroese poetry into English), including the former TISH editor Robert Hogg (who moved to Ottawa to teach at Carleton in the late 1960s) and upstart and troublemaker William Hawkins, who was arguably Ottawa’s most important and lively poet from 1964 to 1974. As editor Sarah writes in her introduction:
To select fifty pages to represent a master poet, fifty pages from a lifetime’s work, is a solemn trust – and a fool’s errand. I have interpreted “Essential’, in the title of this series, not as a suggestion that the greater part of a poet’s output might be dispensable, but as a challenge to identify those poems that best bear the essence of an individual poetic sensibility as it evolves over the length of a career and a life. Under constraint of space, most of the imaginary personae who populate Johnston’s first two book have fallen by the wayside: only Mr. Murple and Poor Edward make cameo appearances here. I had to leave out ‘The Hanging Tree’, the singular, seven-page discourse on capital punishment and collective responsibility that begins Home Free. I have not included any of the poems that attempted to revive alliterative forms of Old English and Old Norse poetry.

The sequence I have chosen shows how Johnston moved from traditional to modern verse without falling into the shapelessness of most free verse. I have chosen poems that reflect his thematic concerns: natural and human cycles; human engagement, life passages, meetings and partings; the unsentimental laws of predator and prey; self-examination; morality. I have included examples of his occasional verse – poems commemorating marriages, births, deaths – and just one acrostic poem, ‘A Return for George Bowering’, whose initials letters spell out ‘Nice poem you wrote about me, George’. Mostly, I have included the poems I love best.
The selection of The Essential George Johnston is taken from his previous collections The Cruising Auk (1959), Home Free (1966), Happy Enough (1972), Taking a Grip (1979), Auk Redivivus: Selected Poems (1981), Ask Again (1984), Endeared by Dark: The Collected Poems (1990) and What Is to Come (1996).
Us Together

I do not like anything the way I
like you in your underwear I like you
and in your party clothes o my in your
party clothes and with nothing on at all
you do not need to wear a thing at all
for me to like you and you may talk or
not talk I like you either way nothing
makes me feel so nearly at home on Earth
as just to be with you and say nothing.

I look forward to seeing what happens with the rest of this series.

[The Essential George Johnston will be launched at the ottawa international writers festival on Sunday, October 14 at 2pm with readings by Robyn Sarah (Montreal), John Metcalf (Ottawa), Mark Abley (Montreal), Robert Hogg (Ottawa), William Hawkins (Ottawa) and Stephen Brockwell (Ottawa).]

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