Phyllis Webb: From Private to Public

One interesting aspect of the poetic craft is that it’s by nature a private and reflective process. The very act of writing poetry is in itself a private activity; most people imagine the solitary poet at their desk captivated by their own thoughts. Yet when poetry goes out to the world – whether read aloud, printed in a book, on a website, or spray painted in graffiti on the side of a post office – it becomes a public work.
Although even after it’s public there remains a private feeling. We retain that private feeling because of the poet’s appeal to our connections as human beings. The poet calls on our emotions, the five senses, collective imaginations linked by common imagery through metaphor and simile, and so on. But a poet can also choose to call on our knowledge of history (social, political, economic, et cetera). Ultimately, poetry exists in a wonderful limbo between the private and public sphere. The poetry – insofar as this discussion goes – is simply the words, so where then does the poet live? Maybe Phyllis Webb can help us understand.
Phyllis WebbIn “The Glass Castle” from The Vision Tree, Webb uses the titular image to represent a living space for the aforementioned poet, stuck at the halfway mark from public to private. We can even consider her as speaking directly about the role of the intellectual as the poem progresses. First, Webb references her castle’s “public beauty” and that it can also hold “private action,” among other things. Later she makes reference to Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, and also the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Finally, the last stanza of the poem contains one more call on the imagery of the glass castle – symbolic of the transparent walls in the poet’s life leaving only “tense and fragile glass” separating the public from the private.
The most compelling portion of the poem comes when she writes: “For who can refrain from action … when even to put out the light takes a steady handfor the reward of darkness in a glass castle / is starry and full of glory.” In my opinion, this is Webb’s clearest point about being a public figure, in that she sees it as a double-edged sword where you can either be public or private, but either way there is a price. More specifically, consider the new age of Twitter and how the public often expects intellectuals to comment on all the major social and political events occurring in the media. In light of Webb’s thoughts, whether an intellectual comments on these various events or not, the public will judge them; a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario if ever there were one. These lines from Webb perfectly capture the state of agony in which an intellectual can find themselves trying to moderate a life somewhere comfortably between public and private. That’s not even considering whether negotiating such an existence is actually possible in the first place, though Webb offers hope for herself by trying to “keep [herself] sane.”
Eichmann TrialOn the other end of the spectrum, a poet can write a piece of work connecting to the public consciousness outside of our common human connections. Even if such a poem uses familiar metaphor or any other common literary technique, there is an entirely different effect to poetry which inserts itself into a preexisting public discourse. Such as the international discussion of the Holocaust.
In her poem “Eichmann Trial,” Webb challenges her reader to connect with history and Holocaust discourse. On the surface, asking a reader to make a connection between a poem and a piece of history isn’t exactly complex. However, the trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1961 wasn’t a simple trial. From an Israeli court, Eichmann’s case reached international eyes and ears, over radio and TV. In addition, this was the first time in Israeli history that the Nazi death camps were publicly discussed. And on top of everything else the Eichmann Trial is forever shackled to a series of articles called “Eichmann in Jerusalem” written for the New Yorker – published in 1963 – by philosopher Hannah Arendt; it’s almost virtually impossible to read about Eichmann and not come across Arendt, including her coining of the phrase “the banality of evil.” As a Canadian poet and intellectual Webb stitches herself into an international narrative. She relies not so much on what the casual reader might deem as typical poetic imagery. She doesn’t necessarily spend much time on Eichmann the Nazi. Mostly, Webb concerns herself with the trial itself and the spectacle it became, which she saw, in part, as a “rehearsal of sorrow / contained by the gestures / of law and the error / of structural analysis.” As opposed to “The Glass Castle” and Webb’s more personal considerations, “Eichmann Trial” is aimed solely at being part of public discourse without much concern for the private life of either the subject or the poet.
ArendtCan we consider Webb’s plight in “The Glass Castle” about being torn between private and public life somewhat ironic considering “Eichmann Trial” and how Webb intentionally inserts herself poetically into public discourse? If we want to keep following along metaphorical, Webbian lines – and without forgetting the poet’s contribution to such a public subject – there is no castle. In writing “Eichmann Trial,” Webb thrusts herself out into the wilderness with the rest of us, discarding her castle and walking amongst the public. Her choice, as an intellectual, shatters the glass walls of the castle, and no longer can she exist anywhere else but in the public sphere.
When a poet or author of any kind purposefully enters into public discourse, with their art or otherwise, it seems like a conscious choice to then leave their once private life behind, at least to a certain degree. Webb’s “Eichmann Trial” makes for interesting contrast with “The Glass Castle” when we consider whether the public and the private life of an intellectual can remain separated.


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