When I got home yesterday, there was a pile of mail waiting for me. Most of it was books for review, but one slim package contained The Essential George Johnston and a brief letter from Robyn Sarah, its editor. Robyn sent me a free copy because she'd used a comment I'd once made on Johnston's Collected Poems, Endeared by Dark, as a cover endorsement.
(To the best of my knowledge this is the second time I've been quoted on a dust jacket, the other instance being on John Smith's latest book, Maps of Invariance. As some readers of CLM know, I have an intense distaste for the blurb qua literary sub-genre, but one can't prevent someone else quoting you. In the cases of Smith and Johnston, I was pleased to find out I'd been quoted, since I genuinely admire both poets' work and the excerpt was in tune with my overall opinion. But I've also been quoted in publisher publicity bumph, completely out of context, an ellipsis eliding the true substance of my commentary. Specifically, this review got boiled down to "a linguistic tour de force." This is dirty pool and it's the sort of thing that makes reviewers paranoiacally cautious about where and how they dispense praise, lest it come back on them in some kind of mutant form.)
I love the idea of the "Essentials" series that the Porcupine's Quill has inaugurated with this book. I've been arguing for a while that we need more of such slim, tight-focus looks at our best poets. Wilfrid Laurier UP has started a somewhat similar series, but theirs is more academic in orientation and thus far their choices of poets and/or poems have been underwhelmingly predictable or just plain strange (tho I'm glad to see that M. Travis Lane is being included).
Johnston was a consummate craftsman and a few of his poems are as fine as any other lyrics of the last century. Sincerity and irony, humour and seriousness in Johnston's work are perfectly balanced, and there's just the right synchronic tension between spontaneity of syntactical invention and intricacy of formal stanzaic and metrical structures, public speech and private feeling. I haven't re-read the selection in this book yet, but given that Robyn has made it, I reckon it'll be pretty damn good; there are few if any critics or poets better attuned to Johnston and his world than she is. I have read her introduction, which is eloquent and appropriately brief. Anyone interested in a longer treatment of Johnston's work by her would do well to check out her book Little Eurekas, in which is included a substantial essay on Johnston.
There's a quote from Johnston in the biographical afterword: "I am not so much a poet as a teacher and a family man who has been lucky enough to write some acceptable poems." The modesty is wholly credible from this particular poet--and typically deceptive, since "acceptable poem" means a lot more coming from someone of GJ's standards than it does from most. My aunt had the good fortune to take a class of Johnston's in Old English at Carleton U. She once told me the story of a student in that class asking GJ why he didn't teach Creative Writing, since he was such a good poet. "Why," he replied, "I do!" Lovely. In his introduction to Endeared by Dark, GJ inveighs against CW; it's hard to imagine there ever being a place in the workshop-driven industry for a poet of his skills, erudition and preoccupations. One can easily imagine his students complaining that they're being made to work--instead of having their formless emotings fiddled with and rubber-stamped as art. George Johnston did not follow trends, and his verse should endure all the better for it. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of this book or, should you want a more substantial serving, Endeared by Dark, if you can get a hold of it.
UPDATE: Hear me read George Johnston's Veterans
An essay by WJ Keith on Johnston's later poetry
A memorial essay by Stephen Morrissey
Amanda Jernigan on GJ's "Firefly Evening"