One of Canada’s finest “ and arguably most underappreciated “ poets has died. Jay Macpherson, a professor at the University of Toronto who won the Governor General’s Literary Award for her 1957 collection, The Boatman, died suddenly last Wednesday. A short obituary in the Toronto Star makes reference to a “long-undetected illness,” but a post by James Reaney on the London Free Press blog indicates that Macpherson had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Macpherson was one of the poets included in the recent U.K. anthology Modern Canadian Poets: An Anthology of Poems in English, edited by Evan Jones and Todd Swift. From their introduction:
Jean Jay Macpherson was born in London, England, in 1931 and emigrated to Newfoundland with her family in 1940. She was educated at Carleton University, McGill University, and the University of Toronto, and taught at Victoria College, University of Toronto from 1957 to 1996. She began publishing her poems in 1949, at the age of eighteen, and her first pamphlet, Nineteen Poems, was published by Robert Graves’s Seizin Press in 1952.
Macpherson was friends with Northrop Frye, a colleague at Victoria College and a major influence on her poetry (The Boatman was dedicated to Northrop and Helen Frye), which found inspiration in Frye’s mythopoetic approach to literature. Her last full-length work of poetry, Poems Twice Told: The Boatman & Welcoming Disaster, appeared in 1981.
From “Ordinary People in the Last Days”:
My mother was taken up to heaven in a pink cloud.
She was talking to a friend on the telephone
When we saw her depart through the ceiling
Still murmuring about bridge.
My father prophesied.
He looked out from behind his newspaper
And said, “Johnny-Boy will win the Derby.”
The odds against were fifteen to one, and he won.