The Essential George Johnston by George JohnstonThe Essential George Johnston by George Johnston

The Essential George Johnston

byGeorge Johnston

Paperback | September 1, 2007

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George Johnston is one of the most finely tuned poets we have had -- a master watchmaker who can also build Big Ben.

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 w...
Title:The Essential George JohnstonFormat:PaperbackDimensions:64 pages, 8.77 × 5.59 × 0.23 inPublished:September 1, 2007Publisher:Porcupine's QuillLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:088984299X

ISBN - 13:9780889842991

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From the Author

`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?'

Read from the Book

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 to hear 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 cadenc

Table of Contents

The Cruising Auk (1959)

11 The Pool
12 Moonlight
13 War on the Periphery
14 Cathleen Sweeping
15 Cats
16 Ice at Last
17 Poor Edward
18 In It
19 A Little Light

Home Free (1966)

20 Home Free
20 Bedtime
21 Musk
22 Spring Moon
23 Veterans
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
29 Age
30 Outdoors
31 Indoors
32 October
33 Late Splendour
33 Ongoing

Taking a Grip (1979)

34 There
35 Strawsmoke
36 Ribs, Roasts, Chops, Bacon
37 Wintering
38 Delay
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
50 Onset
51 Let Go
52 Spring Chorus
53 Firefly Evening

Endeared by Dark (1990)

54 Haste
54 Old Tune
55 John Olaf

What Is to Come (1996)

56 What Is to Come
57 A Dark Hour
58 Wise
58 Cigarette Pusher
59 Brigid Newly Arrived

Editorial Reviews

`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.'