George Johnston is one of the most finely tuned poets we have had -- a master watchmaker who can also build Big Ben.
Subtle, varied and elegant, exact in their tuning, traditionally informed yet wholly original, the poems of George Johnston have yet to find the wide readership they deserve. That they flew beneath the radar in Canada during his lifetime can be attributed in part to the vagaries of literary fashion: Johnston’s early verse, in The Cruising Auk (1959) and Home Free (1966), was formal and traditional, using stanza, metre and rhyme with great sophistication, at a moment when free verse had become de rigueur; thus he was dismissed by the reputation-makers of the day as old-fashioned. His later verse, markedly more contemporary in tone though no less formally accomplished, escaped notice for a different reason: its modesty. Johnston wrote on everyday subjects, in language carefully modulated to avoid ostentation, and he masked his formal virtuosity with a conversational casualness. The rhymes are still there, but hidden: half-rhymes, internal rhymes, vowel and consonant echoes. Regularity of metre has given way to accentual rhythm and syllable count. Effects are subliminal, easily missed in a cursory reading. You could mistake this for free verse, and many probably did. But it came at a time when Canadian readers, grown accustomed to prosy-colloquial free verse, expected some novelty of content, shock effect, biting cleverness, or gut-wrenching anecdote to make it ‘poetry’. Lost on such readers was the prodigious artistry at work here, the nuanced ear, the refinements of diction that infuse these quiet poems with uncanny staying power.
Table of contents
The Cruising Auk (1959)
11 The Pool
13 War on the Periphery
14 Cathleen Sweeping
16 Ice at Last
17 Poor Edward
18 In It
19 A Little Light
Home Free (1966)
20 Home Free
22 Spring Moon
24 The Bargain Sale
25 Old-fashioned Chords
26 No Way Out
27 Us Together
Happy Enough (1972)
28 The Day That Would Never Come
33 Late Splendour
Taking a Grip (1979)
36 Ribs, Roasts, Chops, Bacon
39 Goodbye, Margaret
42 A Marriage Poem for Andrew and Kate
Ask Again (1984)
44 A Marriage Poem for Peg and John
46 Farewell to Teaching
48 A Return for George Bowering
49 Laura’s Funeral
51 Let Go
52 Spring Chorus
53 Firefly Evening
Endeared by Dark (1990)
54 Old Tune
55 John Olaf
What Is to Come (1996)
56 What Is to Come
57 A Dark Hour
58 Cigarette Pusher
59 Brigid Newly Arrived
‘Among the recent and much-hyped rebootings of various reputations -- including Crane’s, Spicer’s, and O’Hara’s -- this slim thing, The Essential George Johnston (the inaugural edition of a new series on Canadian poets), is an unpretentious, 64-page relief. There is nothing romantic about Johnston’s obscurity. Until his death in 2004, he was an exacting poet who wrote about the unfashionably everyday, with an attention to form (both fixed and free-ish) that was rigorous but natural. He published in the New Yorker, and taught, but was no careerist; if the poem wasn’t fully realized and utterly essential he didn’t write it. This pared-down selection -- smartly arranged by another exacting Canadian, Robyn Sarah -- is itself all-business, right down to the elegant but unfetishizable cover, a no-frills affair that forces you to turn to the poems -- real poems -- without delay. Okay, it came out in 2007, but nevermind the copyright date; it’s still the best book of the year.’
—Jason Guriel, Poetry (Chicago)
‘Johnston’s diction tends to be simple and his phrasing elegantly spare, though he occasionally upends syntax for the sake of levity or musicality. A poet of small but resonant moments, he’s particularly drawn (as Sarah points out) to the cycle of life as manifested in the natural world and human affairs. Even with weighty subjects, he has a light touch. Some of the most affecting poems here are meditations on mortality; there’s an appropriate gravity, but the poems aren’t sombre.’
—Barbara Carey, Toronto Star
‘Robyn Sarah’s The Essential George Johnston offers a first-rate introduction to Johnston’s poems through a condensed and careful collection of finely-honed rhythms and images. These poems are traditional and original, crafted and self-consciously unstable. Expressing an epistemology of post-Einsteinian timelessness, the formal lines are subtle, truthful, and profound. They lack entirely the ego and ostentation which creep into much of contemporary poetry. The opening poem, ‘Pool,’ with its rhyming iambic tetrameter quatrains, establishes key themes of the volume: the interplay of subjectivity and perception, and the subject’s existential experience of the world. As in Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman and James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles, Johnston’s attention to craft mirrors a sense of visionary possibility, one exciting legacy of a Frye-influenced generation of poets.’
—Monika Lee, Canadian Literature
‘Many of the poems in The Essential George Johnston are similarly ambiguous and ever so slightly unsettled. [Editor Robyn] Sarah is a dab hand; she has avoided Johnston’s longer verse and his translations. Only a couple of poems starring his troupe of everymen -- homier takes on Eliot’s Prufrock and Kees’s Robinson, which appeared in Johnston’s early collections -- have been included. What’s left are some forty-eight pages of the poet’s better poems: the slightly darker, richer stuff. Not that Johnston’s body of work was in dire need of pruning. He took poetry seriously enough not to publish very much of it, and put out a collection something like every six years. Plus, each installment in the Porcupine Quill’s ‘‘Essential Poets’’ series tops out at a humane forty-eight or so pages, which one can not only get through but imagine rereading. Sarah’s sharp editing simply brings a series of unsentimental and utterly essential set pieces into vivid relief: a suicide’s hat makes its way out to sea; a cat toys with a baby bird; a man, considering straw smoke, imagines his cremation.’
—Jason Guriel, Poetry (Chicago)
‘Will the poems that one has made, in answer to some deepseated prompting, find readers in the big world and stay with them for a while? Of the thousand thousand pages of verse that are published and recited, only a few will do this, and who knows which ones, or what about them will make them remembered?’
Introduction or preface
Subtle, varied and elegant, exact in their tuning, traditionally informed yet wholly original, the poems of George Johnston have yet to find the wide readership they deserve. That they flew beneath the radar in Canada during his lifetime can be attributed in part to the vagaries of literary fashion: Johnston’s early verse, in The Cruising Auk (1959) and Home Free (1966), was formal and traditional, using stanza, metre and rhyme with great sophistication, at a moment when free verse had become de rigueur; thus he was dismissed by the reputation-makers of the day as old-fashioned. His later verse, markedly more contemporary in tone though no less formally accomplished, escaped notice for a different reason: its modesty. Johnston wrote on everyday subjects, in language carefully modulated to avoid ostentation, and he masked his formal virtuosity with a conversational casualness. The rhymes are still there, but hidden: half-rhymes, internal rhymes, vowel and consonant echoes. Regularity of metre has given way to accentual rhythm and syllable count. Effects are subliminal, easily missed in a cursory reading. You could mistake this for free verse, and many probably did. But it came at a time when Canadian readers, grown accustomed to prosy-colloquial free verse, expected some novelty of content, shock effect, biting cleverness, or gut-wrenching anecdote to make it ‘poetry’. Lost on such readers was the prodigious artistry at work here, the nuanced ear, the refinements of diction that infuse these quiet poems with uncanny staying power. Lost on them, too -- in an era given to courting the brash, the bizarre, and the ugly -- was the idea that the quotidian should be celebrated. (P. K. Page, an admirer of Johnston, said of him when reviewing Ask Again, ‘[He] is at his happiest writing about family and friends. This sounds terrible. It isn’t.’)
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 books 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 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; mortality. I have included examples of his occasional verse -- poems commemorating marriages, births, deaths -- and just one acrostic poem, ‘A Return for George Bowering’, whose initial letters spell out ‘Nice poem you wrote about me, George.’ Mostly, I have included the poems I love best.
What does it take to appreciate the poems of George Johnston? It will help if we have some acquaintance with the English lyric tradition and with Old English poetry, but neither is necessary. What we do need is something we are all at pains to find: we need time. These are not poems to be read once, or quickly. They yield their fullness of meaning only in the familiarity that comes with repeated readings, as lines begin to insinuate themselves on mind and ear and to resonate in memory: the cat that has caught a baby bird and ‘lets it go a bit /As though she held it by a thread /Or love, perhaps’; the ‘late-playing child’ for whom ‘Dusky games are hardest /to quit’; late crickets and katydids making ‘End of summer chime /in the aftergrass’; the newborn baby, arriving ‘head first /from all-knowing /into our wonderment.’
Johnston composed in his head, from memory, often while walking; at readings, he recited his poems by heart. They are best read aloud: much will pass us by if we do not take the time tohear them. Listen closely, and you will hear a clock begin ticking in the second stanza of ‘The Pool’; boats bumping and the creak and splash of oars in the second stanza of ‘Poor Edward’; the start-and-stop rhythm of peepers in ‘Spring Chorus’; rhythms of rural speech in ‘Onset’, heard over the random banging of flies in the farmhouse kitchen and the insect chorus outdoors. As with songs, it is in the rhythms and cadences of Johnston’s poems that we first intuit their meaning. It is the music of the words that releases, in stages, the meaning of the words, so that each time we return to a poem, we hear more in it.
More what? More truth. More candour, filtered through ironies both hard and tender. More wisdom about the world, humanity, our relation to nature, time, and one another. More feeling. More charm, in quiet humour and in grace of language. If Johnston’s lighter verses have dark overtones, so too can he speak of dark things lightly: in poems like ‘In It’ and ‘There’ he illuminates and levitates even that which for most of us is unspeakable, our own eventual death (what he elsewhere calls ‘the big /summing up’). Johnston brings old words back into currency -- archaic or fallen-from-fashion words, picked up and used again among newer words so unobtrusively that they beguile us into easy acceptance before we have registered their oddity:ness, ruth, foison, wrack, scunners, aftergrass, dree, keek (look them up, they’re all in the Concise Oxford, see how rightly they are chosen).
Far from retrograde, I would call Johnston a radical poet -- radical in the truest sense of one who made the language new by going to its roots. His knowledge of those roots prompted some sleights of syntax -- compressions and inversions that our ear learns gradually to trust and savour -- and some interesting risks. Among all the linguistic antics of the avant-gardists, where will one find anything quite as daring as the second stanza of ‘Firefly Evening’: ‘Airs through windows yet /and through the downstairs let /that over pastures come /thunder from’? We can bang our heads against that, trying to parse it, to put the words in ‘natural order’ -- and come up with ‘Yet let airs (that come over pastures from thunder) through windows and through the downstairs’ -- but we will only have mangled what the lilt and rhyme of the stanza deliver with perfect ease. All we have to do is read it aloud to understand: Don’t close the windows yet, the air is so sweet before a storm.
George Johnston’s poems are like those airs -- permeated with a freshness burdened by foreboding. They teach us our own language, even as they show us how to live.
George Johnston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 7, 1913. Johnston knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and published early poems (often comic-satiric), as well as newspaper columns, film reviews and plays, during his years at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, where he studied philosophy and English.
When war was declared, he joined the RCAF and served four and a half years, including thirteen months as a reconnaissance pilot in West Africa. He returned to Canada in 1944, married Jeanne McRae, and completed his MA at the University of Toronto. In between, he taught two years (1947-49) at Mount Allison University, and in 1950, having found teaching to his liking, accepted a post at Ottawa’s Carleton University where, for twenty-nine years, he was a charismatic and much-loved professor of Old and Middle English and Old Norse. His first book of poems, The Cruising Auk, written during the war, was not published until 1959, when he was forty-six.
Sabbatical years were decisive in Johnston’s life. During his first, 1956-57 at Dorking in Surrey, he met Peter Foote of the University of London, who taught him Old Norse, and began translating The Saga of Gisli in collaboration with him. A second sabbatical, in 1967-68, was spent in Denmark and included the discovery of modern Faroese poetry and the first of four visits the Johnstons made to the Faroe Islands. A last sabbatical, 1974-75, spent mostly in Gloucester, England, included a three-week visit to Iceland.
After The Cruising Auk, Johnston published four more poetry collections before the appearance of Endeared by Dark, his Collected Poems, in 1990. A man whose diverse interests included calligraphy, bell-ringing, wine-making and beekeeping, who kept up a wide correspondence and enjoyed reading the classics aloud with his wife, Johnston retired from Carleton in 1979. He died in August of 2004.