Jay Macpherson

Another Canadian poet has died recently: Jay Macpherson passed away on March 24. She was, according to Quill and Quire, one of “Canada’s finest— and arguably most underappreciated— poets.”

Reading an assessment like that always makes me want to find out more. I knew of Jay Macpherson, very peripherally (she contributed some hymn translations for the joint Anglican-United Church Hymnal [1971]) but was not aware that she was a woman (her first name was Jean) or that she had won a Governor General’s Award in 1957 for The Boatman, her third book and her best-known work. Another of her books, Welcoming Disaster, is available in a combined volume with The Boatman, titled Poems Twice Told, from Oxford University Press. She also wrote a non-fiction work on mythology for young people.

Macpherson was strongly influenced by Northrop Frye, resulting in a poetry that made use of “myth as a source of universal poetic meaning,” to quote my high school poetry text. That same textbook also calls her poetry “gnomic and difficult”— not exactly encouraging for students. The publisher’s description of The Boatman is much more inviting: “an intricate sequence of short epigrammatic poems – in which there are echoes of ballads, carols, nursery rhymes, and hymns – that bear a whole cosmos of the poet’s invention, constructed from Biblical and classical allusions.” The few poems of hers that I have read so far are compelling for their pithiness, their skilful use of form, and their resonant language.

You can read several of Jay Macpherson’s poems here, and another in the Quill and Quire article linked above.

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