The Essential George Johnston
Subtle, varied and elegant, exact in their tuning, traditionally informed yet wholly original, the poems of George Johnston have yet to find the wide readership they deserve. That they flew beneath the radar in Canada during his lifetime can be attributed in part to the vagaries of literary fashion: Johnston’s early verse, in The Cruising Auk (1959) and Home Free (1966), was formal and traditional, using stanza, metre and rhyme with great sophistication, at a moment when free verse had become de rigueur; thus he was dismissed by the reputation-makers of the day as old-fashioned. His later verse, markedly more contemporary in tone though no less formally accomplished, escaped notice for a different reason: its modesty. Johnston wrote on everyday subjects, in language carefully modulated to avoid ostentation, and he masked his formal virtuosity with a conversational casualness. The rhymes are still there, but hidden: half-rhymes, internal rhymes, vowel and consonant echoes. Regularity of metre has given way to accentual rhythm and syllable count. Effects are subliminal, easily missed in a cursory reading. You could mistake this for free verse, and many probably did. But it came at a time when Canadian readers, grown accustomed to prosy-colloquial free verse, expected some novelty of content, shock effect, biting cleverness, or gut-wrenching anecdote to make it ‘poetry’. Lost on such readers was the prodigious artistry at work here, the nuanced ear, the refinements of diction that infuse these quiet poems with uncanny staying power.
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