Articles & Reviews

Two Sides of George Johnston

Reviewed in this article:

Auk Redivivus: Selected Poems
George Johnston
Ottawa: The Golden Dog Press, 1981

Rocky Shores: An Anthology of Faroese Poetry
Compiled and translated by George Johnston
Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland
Wilfion Books, Publishers

Review by Stephen Morrissey
CV II, Volume 7, Number 3, September 1983

When Farmer Elliott goes among
His bees he is not often stung,
They work with single-minded care
And never look to see him there;
His pace is too benign and slow
For their sweet-centered minds to know
And yet one melancholy bee
One day may dream of such as he.
&mdash"Honey" by George Johnston

For George Johnston writing poetry is similar to the art of beekeeping: one must move slowly and with great care; any false move might ruin the poem, or leave the beekeeper with stings. Johnston's two latest collections of poetry show two equally important sides of his creativity. Rocky Shores: An Anthology of Faroese Poetry gives us Johnston the anthologist and translator, while in Auk Redivivus: Selected Poems we have the best of a lifetime of writing verse. Both books display the high degree of craft and attention that Johnston brings to his work.

Robertson Davies has said that Canadians are a Northern people with much in common with the Scandinavians. This common ground is partly psychological and partly informed by the effect of our northern environment on our way of life, spirituality, and values. In Rocky Shores we have nine contemporary poets of the Faroe Islands, ". . .a small archipelago in the North Atlantic between Shetland and Iceland, consisting of eighteen islands, most of them inhabited."

It is curious that upon reading these poems one immediately feels at home with them. There is a reticence and aloofness in the poems that we also find in Canadian poetry. The poetry of the Faroe Islanders is not one of many intense emotions, but of the single emotion felt strongly. While we in Canada have our long and tedious winters, the Faroe Islander is surrounded by the sea which is experienced as being omnipresent and sometimes oppressive. Karsten Hoydal writes:

Out from the rocky shore
I row my little boat
early in the morning —
prow straight to the sun's flaming wheel
— mightily it rolls up out of the sea rim,
warms me on the back,
spreads gold and red over the slopes and fells.

In this poetry there is a certain detachment or distance between the poet and his reader. We are not reading the words of confessional poets, but poems of those who distance themselves from other people. Could the geographic remoteness of the Faroe Islands somehow account for the apparent emotional aloofness of their poets? Perhaps this is the case. The deliberate statement of feeling is muted through the metaphor of the sea which has become a part of the poets' very personality. Steinbjorn B. Jacobsen's poem, "Seafowl and Sea," contains the following stanza:

My days as a child
come back to me:
seafowl and sea,
its perfect shape
likeness to the sea.

* * *

But you were always
a living thing,
horizon's child,
a sea image.

While the center of their poetry is nature, there is nevertheless an emphasis on human relationships. This may be seen in another poem by Jacobsen in which existence is said to have a triangular form; the three angles being nature, man and woman.

Roi Patursson seems to be the most existential poet in this anthology. His selection is the only one without the omnipresent sea. Perhaps he is writing what the Faroe Islanders feel or believe when he says:

I was an advertisement,
a car or a blind man.

Like a lonely
fluttering candle
on a planet

While someone from the south may feel that these poems of the Faroe Islands offer only a partial or incomplete view of nature, it is apparent that these poets have looked long and deeply into their environment, and like the Eskimos who apparently have dozens of words for snow, they have many metaphors for the sea, the wind, and the islands they live on and obviously love.

In the second collection from George Johnston, Auk Redivivus: Selected Poems, we have Johnston the poet, the meticulous craftsman. The book is divided into three sections: The Pool, the Cruising Auk, and In It, all containing poems which ought to be familiar to anyone who has read Canadian poetry. These three sections correspond to those in his first book of poetry, The Cruising Auk.

There is a certain melancholy rooted in a knowledge of the temporality of life that pervades The Pool. What is permanent is the very impermanence of life. Johnston's poems are centered on family experiences in which there can be great joy, and, ironically, a part of this joy is the knowledge that it is temporary. The boy gazing into the pool is absorbed in his pastime; however, the adult on the same philosophic journey soon knows that there is no profundity in life but only "pride and fear." Delight can be found and when it is it is present in the "small things" of life, for instance in a little girl sweeping a floor ("Cathleen Sweeping"); this is a perception of delight itself.

There are several new poems in this collection that will surely find their way into future anthologies. One is "Between" which deals, at its different levels of meaning, with the theological question: how is man to live without God? The occasion of the poem is a walk to see a "black cherry tree." Again there is delight in the moment as perceived for itself. This perception is not through a veil of intellect, but of things as they are, and this gives the experience of delight. In this delight there is

mutability anymore, no ties,
no crucified yesterday, no risen tomorrow.

One of the impressive things about Johnston's poetry is the craft that he brings to it. This is not poetry that is written without care or thoughtfulness, but poetry in which metre and rhyme play an important role. The poem "Goodbye," one of the most moving poems in the collection, doesn't have a wobbly line in it; the off-rhyming is so cleverly done that one hardly notices its presence:

It turns out to be, as how
could we know, our last walk
and talk together. Sun thaw
made lacy the wrack

of winter in the streets.
He is beautiful, you say.
I know that defeats
are beautiful . . .

As, perhaps, an elderly parent is dying in this poem and the memories surrounding that person are brought to mind, Johnston also deals in other poems with age and the loss of innocence. A poem, for his daughter Nora, ends by saying:

My heart is aging,
yours is nearly fifteen;

you come in from dreams
and scurry with them.

One of the advantages of rhyming or metred poetry is that it impresses itself upon our consciousness; for instance, many people know at least the first few lines of John Masefield's "Sea Fever". It is to George Johnston's credit that he can revive the art of metred and rhyming verse at a time when it is generally ignored by young poets. Several of Johnston's poems have this quality of being highly memorable, and as such they become old favourites of the reader. "O Earth, Turn!", "Honey," "The Bargain Sale," and "In It" are all in that category.

The World is a boat and I'm in it
Going like hell with the breeze;
Important people are in as well
Going with me and the breeze like hell —
It's a kind of a race and we'll win it.
Out of the way, gods, please!

I have left what are probably Johnston's most well-known poems for the end, those from The Cruising Auk, his first and best known book. These poems display a renewed vigour in the use of rhyme. They are both sophisticated and urbane. I think what Johnston's use of rhyme can tell us is that, among other things, it is one of a number of ways of writing poetry and shouldn't be discarded. There is a freedom in the very limitation that the form imposes. We are also reminded that poetry is a craft, something that takes years to cultivate. Poetry is the solitary craft in which one invests one's entire life and not merely the present moment.

Another conclusion that the reader arrives at from reading The Cruising Auk selection is how humour has been debased by situation comedies and mass entertainment. The humour in these poems is understated and attempts to puncture some of our pretentions. They are in the line of Robertson Davies and Stephen Leacock. Today, humour is in the hands of the situation comedy with its ubiquitous soundtrack telling us when we are supposed or permitted to laugh.

Auk Redivivus gives us a fairly comprehensive introduction to a poet who has not promoted himself as vigourously as some poets have; instead, he has given himself wholly to the craft of poetry. While Rocky Shores introduces us to the poetry of the Faroe Islands it also shows us another aspect of George Johnston the poet, that of the translator. These two books either together, or individually, are an important contribu-tion to Canadian literature and to an understanding of ourselves as Canadians.

Copyright © 2007 The author