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Essay

Yvonne Blomer on Phyllis Webb's "Proposition"

(How Poems Work, April 2004)
Phyllis Webb was born in Victoria in 1927. She currently lives on Saltspring Island, on the west coast of Canada. Webb’s most recent book is Hanging Fire published by Coach House Press in 1990. She won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1982.
“Proposition” is a strong example of the connection between form and content and how that connection strengthens meaning. It explores the complicated proposition of love: what it is to be divided by or united to another person. The narrator’s hesitation is heightened through the use of the couplet, short lines and punctuation. Webb makes use of white space to slow the eye, allowing the reader to contemplate each line. As we read the propositions become more complex as does the poem’s construction….

Phyllis Webb was born in Victoria in 1927. She currently lives on Saltspring Island, on the west coast of Canada. Webb’s most recent book is Hanging Fire published by Coach House Press in 1990. She won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1982.

“Proposition” is a strong example of the connection between form and content and how that connection strengthens meaning. It explores the complicated proposition of love: what it is to be divided by or united to another person. The narrator’s hesitation is heightened through the use of the couplet, short lines and punctuation. Webb makes use of white space to slow the eye, allowing the reader to contemplate each line. As we read the propositions become more complex as does the poem’s construction.

Phyllis Webb was born in Victoria in 1927. She currently lives on Saltspring Island, on the west coast of Canada. Webb’s most recent book is Hanging Fire published by Coach House Press in 1990. She won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1982.

“Proposition” is a strong example of the connection between form and content and how that connection strengthens meaning. It explores the complicated proposition of love: what it is to be divided by or united to another person. The narrator’s hesitation is heightened through the use of the couplet, short lines and punctuation. Webb makes use of white space to slow the eye, allowing the reader to contemplate each line. As we read the propositions become more complex as does the poem’s construction.

The first two couplets, as complete sentences, portray a sense of finality. The narrator is exploring love through the leaf, which represents the two people in the poem. It also represents the two parts of a person: the part given and the part kept.

The third couplet has no punctuation between lines. The lack of punctuation lets us linger; there is nothing to encumber that looking across. It is freeing and yet there is a feeling of jumping off, parachute forgotten. The end-stopped lines in the fourth couplet: “and seeing you there,/or not there,” lend an absoluteness to both possibilities.

We move into the sixth couplet, where the leaf is replaced by a hand taken and one given. The hands are metaphorically compared to the leaf through the caesura, or mid-line punctuation, in the seventh couplet. The caesura marks the point of separation in the poem: “like a split leaf/ or like two leaves separate.” These lines reiterate the first couplet and yet the feeling is different. In the first couplet the divided leaf brings the two together, now there is a stronger sense of separateness. Perhaps doubt is creeping in.

The eighth couplet delves further into the idea of the giving and taking of leaf and hand. The fact that this couplet contains two end-stopped lines, is a complete sentence, and a caesura lends it significance. This couplet forms a shift in the poem from proposition to analysis. All that comes before is reduced to mere signs and offerings: “just passion, just encountering.” The word “just” has the possible meanings of “only” and “fair.”

The narrator explores a more active proposition in the ninth couplet with both the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ joined, speeding their “dreams and visions” toward the same “direction” and/or “decision.” The second line of the tenth couplet uses peculiar syntax, placing “find” at the end of the sentence. This placement, even though there is a period, allows the reader to take that “find” into the line: “The split leaf floating on the river” and into the final couplet: “the hand sketching in the air.”

The last line of the poem shows that in love there is something given and something kept, whether it is visible or in shadow: “a half-moon, its hidden wholeness there.”