Phyllis Webb is a Canadian author, poet, and radio broadcaster. Born 1927 in Victoria B.C. she has written poems, anthologies, and essays some of which hail to feminist views. In her early twenties, she ran for a position in the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) becoming one of the youngest people to do so, and also one of the few women in that organization at the time. Webb has published over 20 works of poetry, winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1982 for Vision Tree and the Canada Council Senior Arts Awards in 1981 and 1987. Before Webb found her feminist voice she said that “I was very susceptible to male influence, and I think that was because I lost my father at such an early age through divorce”(Thesen).
Phyllis Webb’s Poetics Against the Angel of Death is a poem about the constricting nature of poetry. In particular she speaks of iambic pentameter, and how ruinous it is to her work.
Webb begins her poem with “Iam,” which, along with sounding an awful lot like iamb, puts iambs as what may be causing her death, as in the first line she says, “Iam sorry to speak of death again” (Webb 1). This first line sets the scene for the antagonist, although the meaning is fairly discreet in its execution. Next in the poem, Webb speaks of Wordsworth’s Prelude and how the poem finally makes sense to her via “the measure, / the elevated tone, the attitude / of private man speaking to public men” (Webb 4-6). William Wordsworth’s Prelude is an autobiographical poem that some consider an epic because of the length, but is written entirely in unrhymed iambic pentameter discussing all of his experiences and analyzing them in philosophical and psychological attitudes. Interestingly enough, Wordsworth in his semi epic poem, portrays himself as the hero of the story, much like a typical epic poem would do. What Webb is attacking in her poem is a sense of superiority that Wordsworth emulates in his Prelude, this heightened sense that iambic pentameter sets the author above regular poets, raising potential questions of patriarchal systems.
This poem is not just about succumbing to iambic pentameter and its constrictions, but rather Webb`s fight against it. This rebellious theme is important in her next two lines that say, “ Last night I thought I would not wake again / but now with this June morning I run ragged to elude” (Webb 7,8). The first line, speaks of how she thought she was going to die, but didn’t. This line is the turning point in the poem, where Webb, through the speaker, realises her own potential. The next line, “but now with this June morning I run ragged to elude” (Webb 8) is curious for a few reasons. Firstly, the fact that she is now running in June speaks towards the turning point mentioned above, as early spring can be quite ugly in the way it clings to winter; however, June is the coming of summer which is a much brighter time. Secondly, this line exceeds the required metrical feet for iambic pentameter, measuring in at fourteen syllables long. This contrasting design of metrical feet is amusing as Webb purposely extends the poetic line simply to spite iambic pentameter. Thirdly, amplifying the humor, the speaker is “run ragged” from this extra length, and in a latinate expression where the verb follows at the end of the line, the “to elude” seems to dangle, leading nowhere, the suggestion being that meaning and purpose in such stilted poetic construction is elusive, a subtle mockery of Wordsworth, as “elude” harkens back to “Prelude” both in sight rhyme and in meaning. Webb’s next lines, finally name the antagonist of her poem as “The Great Iambic Pentameter / who is the Hound of Heaven in our stress” (Webb 9,10). The Hound of Heaven, an interesting choice of words. This no doubt it is an allusion to God in Francis Thompson’s poem, Hound of Heaven. By comparing iambic pentameter to a relentless Godly being, we get this sense of dominance, both over man and over poetry. Even the title of the poem mentions the Angel of Death, another force that influences and constricts mankind. Not only is the Hound of Heaven an unrelenting force, but in Thompson’s poem, God explains to the main character that true happiness is where he left it at home before running away from God. Relating this to Webb’s poem, iambic pentameter is a false happiness, offering a feeling of comfort and structure in stressful times. However, Webb is alluding to the false hope of structure and comfort, and in her next line her true desires are seen “because I want to die / writing Haiku / or, better, / long lines, clean and syllabic as knotted bamboo. Yes!” (Webb 11-14). These final four lines in her poem capture Webb’s escape from iambic pentameter, and her desire to write haiku which is free from iambic monologue and historically, imagines naturalistic scenes. The “I” in “I want to die” can also be referring to iambs, and how Webb wants them dead. Overall, Webb’s poem offers the reader a different view on how poems should be written. Rhyme and structure are some of poetry’s more noteworthy subjects, yet they can also be restricting and could end up hindering a writer’s creativity.
Webb’s poem grabbed me. Most poetry I read that has any influence on me usually grabs my attention within the first few lines, not to say that good poetry needs to start with a bang, but when I choose a poem that I enjoy, I know immediately whether I like it or not. The poem’s form had little impact on my decision, in fact, I had no idea it was written in iambic pentameter until after I had re-read the poem a few times. I based my decisions purely on the way it sounded. My decision to do a Glosa was after reading P.K. Page’s poem Planet Earth (which used Pablo Neruda’s In Praise of Ironing as it’s base poem) because I wanted to take Poetics Against the Angel of Death and completely turn the feeling of the poem inside out. Webb’s poem, as mentioned above, is a slightly somber poem about the constricting nature of iambic pentameter. In order for me to create my more humorous poem I needed to choose lines from Webb’s poem that could have multiple meanings, and would not result in my poem having one or two sad lines mixed in with it. I started my poem with the line “I thought I would not wake again” (Webb, 1) because this sets the scene of my poem, and can flow from a line that grabs attention to the lighthearted lines that follow. “The Great Iambic Pentameter” (Webb 9) is used in the same way that she used it herself, naming the antagonist of her poem, and myself doing the same. In Webb’s poem, iambic pentameter is the main antagonist, while in mine, the dog who does not fall asleep except when listening to it, is more the focus of my poem. I created the scenario of the annoying dog based a little bit on my own dog, who annoys me immensely when I attempt to sleep, with his incessant need to snuggle and take up the entire bed. I chose to write my own poem entirely in iambic pentameter, to keep a little bit with the irony in Webb’s poem, and even give the reader a sense that the very poem they are reading, is one the dog has also heard.