She was a poet’s poet, capable of handling poetic forms from the villanelle to the ghazal. She was also a seeker after justice, a fearless intellectual, sexual rebel, winner of a Governor-General’s literary award, and co-creator of one of the CBC’s most enduring radio programs.
Phyllis Webb’s first book of verse Even Your Right Eye appeared in 1956 to be followed over the years by nine more collections of poetry and two of essays. Critics remarked on the musicality and intellectual play of her work.
She tended to speak of her broadcasting career lightly, as if it had been merely an unavoidable interruption in her true vocation of writing poetry. But she may have touched more people with Ideas, the highbrow CBC series she and her colleague William Young launched in 1965, initially titling it The Best Ideas You’ll Hear Tonight. Though it got off, she said, to “a horrible start,” the show found its feet and is alive and well after 56 years, drawing about 1.5 million listeners five nights a week.
Ms. Webb died with medical assistance on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day, at Lady Minto Hospital in Ganges, on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia at the age of 94. She had been in hospital since July, and she died alone, as she had wanted.
“She was the most independent woman I ever met and the most intelligent,” her niece Star Webb said.
Phyllis Jean Webb was born April 8, 1927, in Victoria, the third child and only daughter of Mary Webb (née Patton), originally from Nova Scotia, and Alfred Webb, a former cavalry officer in the British army. Alfred was employed by the Bank of Canada and moved the family from Victoria to Vancouver when his work required it. The parents divorced in the 1930s. When the father relocated to Ottawa, Mary Webb moved back to Victoria with her children and Alfred dropped out of their lives.
“I was poor and I had no Daddy,” Phyllis Webb later recalled. She found herself attracted to father figures. The Second World War also marked her – she believed it to be insanity. When Walter, the elder of her two brothers, enlisted at 17, she did not speak to him again.
By then she had discovered socialism, pacifism and the CCF (precursor of the NDP). In 1949, aged 22, she ran for the CCF in the provincial election, the youngest person to that time to seek elected office. That same year she obtained her BA degree in English and philosophy from the University of British Columbia, where she was part of an off-campus writing group led by Earle Birney.
Her political leanings led to her meeting and falling in love with the poet, McGill University law professor and political activist F.R. Scott, then the national chairman of the CCF. He was 28 years her senior and married. In 1950, after taking a secretarial course in order to support herself, she relocated to Montreal at Mr. Scott’s urging and was welcomed into his bohemian circle of established poets and artists, including Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington, Eli Mandel and, later on, Leonard Cohen, who encouraged and mentored her.
“Frank Scott influenced my life enormously,” she later told broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel.
In Montreal, she lived a patchwork life on little money, working as a secretary to the principal of Macdonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and later to the chair of the biochemistry department at McGill. She also enrolled in a graduate preparatory program at McGill, and seized opportunities to travel to Dublin, London and France.
“She wanted Frank Scott to marry her and gave him an ultimatum. And then she went off to Paris,” Sandra Djwa, Mr. Scott’s biographer, said in an interview. “He wasn’t willing to leave his wife and that was a heartbreak for her.”
A government grant in 1957 enabled her to live in Paris for a year and half, making a study of avant-garde French theatre. Here she was dogged by illness and depression, yet managed to write the poems in The Sea Is Also a Garden, her next book. After Mr. Scott paid her a visit, she captured their unravelling affair in her poem, A Walk by the Seine, in which a couple holding hands observe the fishermen:
But you and I slowing
our words to a muted tone
(for beauty silences the horse-drawn
carriages of wisdom), meshing
light and leaves in that imperial notion
of stasis and dream, move and stand,
like love and death, at the river’s edge.
Returning to Canada, she found freelance work as a copy editor at publisher McClelland & Stewart in Toronto, and as a script reader at CBC. Ms. Webb moved to Vancouver in 1960 to work as a teaching assistant in English at UBC and became part of a group of young scholars that included John and Sally Hulcoop, the gay novelist Jane Rule (with whom she had an affair) and Ms. Rule’s partner, Helen Sonthoff – all important in her later life.
She attended the celebrated 1963 summer poetry conference at UBC, which brought the experimental San Francisco and Black Mountain poets – Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg – to the campus for poetry readings and seminars. They championed new ways to write poetry that followed the breath and was closer to contemporary language.
The year after, she accepted a job as program organizer for CBC Radio and moved to Toronto. She ran a show called University of the Air, which had a lecture format. Her colleague William Young had a similar show, named The Learning Stage, until they were invited by management to amalgamate the two into something livelier. The result was Ideas, which kicked off on Oct. 24, 1965, with a program about Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“Phyllis told me that she didn’t expect the show would last more than a couple of years, so when she saw that it was thriving 40 years and 50 years later she was surprised,” said Bernie Lucht, who was executive producer of the program from 1984 to 2014. ”The show changed with the times. It wasn’t caught in a mid-sixties time warp.”
During Ms. Webb’s tenure as executive producer, from 1967 to 1969, she hired Lewis Auerbach, a recent Harvard graduate, as a program producer. He recalled her openness to new ideas, the breadth of her interests, and a vinyl record she brought into the studio to share with her staff. “It was the very first record by Leonard Cohen, not yet released,” Mr. Auerbach said. “She had been a lover of Cohen in Montreal and he had sent her an advance copy. She put it on and it was the first time I heard Suzanne.”
In 1969 she abruptly resigned from Ideas and escaped to British Columbia after she received a Canada Council senior arts grant. In the same decade, her frankly lesbian love poems appeared in the collection Naked Poems.
“I grew up on an island – Vancouver Island – and my one ambition as a teenager was to get off the island … and then by halfway through my life my ambition was to get back on an island,“ she later explained. She discovered Salt Spring Island in 1967, while on a six-month leave from Ideas, and eventually settled there, leaving only to work, to attend international poetry conferences or to receive one of the prizes that rained down on her in her later years. She won the Governor-General’s award for poetry in 1982 for The Vision Tree, and was made an officer of the Order of Canada a decade later.
About her chosen place, she wrote: “Salt Spring Island is a good place for star-gazing and navel gazing, a nice shy corner of the universe which doesn’t clamour for recognition or glory.”
For the rest of her life she supported herself with freelance writing, broadcasting and with short stints teaching creative writing. In the 1970s, she won a discrimination case against CBC Vancouver when her application to be a summer relief announcer was rejected because the station wanted male announcers only. She taught at the University of Victoria, UBC, the Banff Centre and University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she was writer-in-residence in 1980-81.
Then, in the early 1990s, at around the time of her mother’s death at 101, she told her friends that “words abandoned” her. She stopped writing poetry and started taking photographs, which she later cut and collaged. From there she moved on to painting.
Her last publication was Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb, in 2014, edited by Prof. John Hulcoop.
Stephen Collis, her friend and literary executor recalled that as an artist she had only one show, and never sought a dealer, having no ambition to sell her pictures. She had no formal training in art but had had many painter friends, including Joe Plaskett who painted her portrait in Paris; her middle brother, Gerald, was a gifted artist.
“I think she always saw herself as an ‘amateur,’ or at least, a journeyman,” Mr. Collis recalled. “I visited her regularly for almost 20 years. She was always surrounded by her own paintings – on all her walls, stacked in corners.”
Ms. Webb was predeceased by her brothers, Walter and Gerald Webb. She leaves her nephew, Bruce Webb; and nieces, Paola Unger, Sarah Webb and Star Webb.