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The Essential Jay Macpherson by Jay Macpherson and Melissa Dalgleish  

The Essential Jay Macpherson reveals an unexpected complexity in the poetry of one of the leading figures of Canada’s mythopoeic modernist movement.

Jay Macpherson’s allusive lyricism and penchant for mythic resonance have made her work central to the development of Canadian poetry from the mid-century and beyond, influencing the careers of writers like Margaret Atwood among many others. Her wry, somewhat formal verse demonstrates an interest in ideas of duality and opposition as well as an enduring fascination with transforming ancient myths into contemporary commentary. Her unique blend of erudition, irony and musicality led her to win the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and to become the first Canadian to receive Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize. The Essential Jay Macpherson brings together her most recognized lyrics alongside unpublished or little-known works, charting Macpherson’s poetic development and revealing the splendid variety and complexity of her work.

The Essential Poets Series presents the works of Canada’s most celebrated poets in a package that is beautiful, accessible and affordable. The Essential Jay Macpherson is the 15th volume in the series.

Review text

The Essential Jay Macpherson is a must for poetry enthusiasts, if only to experience the pleasure of deciphering the complexities of a brilliant mind.

The Essential Jay Macpherson is an anthology of the award-winning poet that presents a wonderful sampling of the various permutations of Macpherson’s work throughout her life. The volume is the fifteenth in Porcupine’s Quill’s Essential Poets Series spotlighting the works of Canada’s most celebrated poets.

The selected poems showcase the range of Macpherson’s poetics, beginning in 1946 with early periodical and unpublished poems, and running up until the year before her death at age eighty in 2012. Excerpts from several of her books are featured, including poems from The Boatman, which earned her the Governor General’s Award in 1958. The volume includes a foreword written by Melissa Dalgleish, who selected the poems; a bio of Macpherson; and a bibliography of her work.

Macpherson was a leading figure in the mythopoeic movement, where myth and fable blend with contemporary imagery. Early in her career she borrowed from the classic and biblical myths and "always claimed an allegiance to what she called ’authentic myths,’ those that retain emotional and psychological resonance, even in their debased mass-media and marketing forms, because they speak to the fundamental feelings, dreams, and desires that make us human," writes Dalgleish. It was Macpherson’s ability to thread those ancient myths and fables into the current world that created the excitement present in her work.

Some consider her poetry impenetrable at times, especially her earlier work, which has also been described as academic. However, several readings of these complex poems are all that’s needed to uncover wit, irony, and lyricism. One must work for the bounty of allusions that Macpherson so brilliantly buries within the lines of verse.

At times her work verges into political and activist poetry, rooted firmly in the world around her and focused on the lives of the less fortunate: children, women, and the unloved of her community. At the end of her life, straightforward laments such as in the poem "Plants" showed an entirely different side of Macpherson:

It’s sombre, looking at plants
This dying shoot in my window
Mistreated by me all winter
Puts out what it can.

The book is made with thick and substantial paper sandwiched between beautiful green endpapers embossed with leaves. A delicately painted narcissus from Redouté’s Les liliacées decorates the cover and refers to the Narcissus myth, which was significant to Macpherson. The loving care with which this book was produced will make one think twice before underlining favorite passages.

There are vast rewards in store for those who tackle the enigmatic verse of Macpherson. The Essential Jay Macpherson is a must for poetry enthusiasts, if only to experience the pleasure of deciphering the complexities of a brilliant mind.

—Diane Prokop, Foreword Reviews

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‘I was delighted by this collection and by the discovery of a clever and witty poet whose style reminds me in some ways of the arch humour of Margaret Atwood....

‘ I enjoyed these concise, deliberate poems; wry, clever, referencing literature and the bookish past, while yet being freshly modern and told with a feminine slant. She doesn’t shy away from topics like racism in the academy (‘‘The Ballad of Dr. Coolie’’) or questions of female autonomy. There is much solemn mythologizing, but also a lot of quick humour and language play. I think I could probably read these over again a few more times before beginning to get a grasp on them—it feels like there is a lot more to them to explore.

—The Indextrious Reader

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‘The effect of linking the poems together without interruption ... seamlessly represents Macpherson’s evolving poetic, philosophical, and psychological sensibilities. As such, this collection is recommended for any admirer of Macpherson’s work as well as students, teachers, and researchers of Canadian modernism and mythopoetry.’

—Emily Bednarz, Canadian Literature

Excerpt from book


Turning from shadow to shadow, we find
Nowhere the expected revelation,
Never can establish a connection
Between eye and image, surface and hand.

Contained in crying flesh and bone,
Unenvying we lack
Water’s ignorance of pain,
The old indifference of stone,
Fire’s easy taught and slack
—And therefore shall be hurt again.

The Boatman

You might suppose it easy
For a maker not too lazy
To convert the gentle reader to an Ark:
But it takes a willing pupil
To admit both gnat and camel
—Quite and eyeful, all the crew that must embark.

After me when comes the deluge
And you’re looking round for refuge
From God’s anger pouring down in gush and spout,
Then you take the tender creature
—You remember, that’s the reader—
And you pull him through his navel inside out.

That’s to get his beasts outside him,
For they’ve got to come aboard him,
As the best directions have it, two by two.
When you’ve taken all their tickets
And you’ve marched them through his sockets,
Let the tempest bust Creation: heed not you.

For you’re riding high and mighty
In a gale that’s pushing ninety
With a solid bottom under you—that’s his.
Fellow flesh affords a rampart,
And you’ve got along for comfort
All the world there ever shall be, was, and is.


Credit: Victoria University Library (Toronto)

Jay Macpherson (1931 – 2012) was an author, publisher and educator central to the development of Canadian mythopoetry in the 1950s and 60s. She became the first Canadian to win Poetry magazine’s Levinson prize in 1957. In 1958 she won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for The Boatman. In addition to her verse, Macpherson was the founder of Emblem Books and an instructor at The University of Toronto’s Victoria College. Macpherson died in March of 2012.


Credit: Alexis Godard

Melissa Dalgleish is a writer, researcher and research administrator whose work focuses on the professional development of graduate students and on mythopoeic modernism in post-war Canadian poetry. Her work has appeared in Canadian Literature and English Studies in Canada, and she regularly blogs for the feminist academic site Hook & Eye. She is also the co-editor of the online project Graduate Training in the 21st Century. She lives in Toronto.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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POETRY / Canadian

POETRY / General

ISBN-13: 9780889844018

Publication Date: 2017-02-28

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 64

Price: $14.95