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Two Playful Performers on the Page: John Robert Colombo
 and Northrop Frye in The Northrop Frye Quote Book

The Northrop Frye Quote Book by John Robert Colombo - Reviewed by J. S. Porter

Poet, aphorist, author, translator, editor, compiler, anthologist, reviewer, an authority on Canadiana, expert in the fantastic, the occult and the mysterious ~ with each passing year, John Robert Colombo seems less like a single individual and more like a hive of bees or an army of dream-chasing adventurers.

You may know him as the master gatherer behind Colombo’s Canadian Quotations (1974) or The Penguin Dictionary of Popular Canadian Quotations (2006). You may know him as the maker of two poems – “” and “A Said Poem” – that birthed two brilliantly animated shorts from the National Film Board of Canada.  You may know him as the force behind Colombo.ca, one of Canada’s most interesting websites.

(I know him best as the poet of a found poem on the last medical requests of Dr. Norman Bethune and as the former writer-in-residence at my old college of Mohawk in Hamilton.)

You will want to know him – need to know him – as the compiler of The Northrop Frye Quote Book (2014).  The text consists of 3,600 quotes with 1,140 subject-headings from A to Z.  Colombo presents a most accessible and engaging Frye to an audience, recognizing that Frye’s method of proceeding was “to write detached aphorisms in a notebook...” Most of his writings “consist of an attempt to translate aphorisms into continuous prose.”

Colombo undertook the Herculean task of combing through 30 volumes of the Collected Works and culling the pithiest kernels on a wide range of subjects. Here are a few from the letter L:

A little Latin, so the argument ran, is a dangerous thing, for all it can lead to is more Latin, which is practically a fatal thing.

Los Angeles, a city never designed at all, seems to have broken through the control even of the automobile. It was, after all, named after angels, who traditionally do not travel through space but simply manifest themselves elsewhere.

If we read a sixteenth-century poet, we do not look primarily to see what he is going to say. We know what he is going to say: he is going to complain about the cruelty of his mistress.

Unlike some ϋber-serious makers of books, John Robert Colombo – like his subject Northrop Frye – is playful and has a sense of humour. When I think of him, I think of the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s words: “Everything good in life – love, nature, the arts, and family jests – is play.”

Play, I suspect, is one of the things that drew Colombo to Frye along with genuine reverence for Frye’s insight into the mythological structure of literature.  If Colombo lives to a hundred, he may also generate a Quote Book for Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Trudeau, Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood.

In the meantime, I’m happy seeing him at play with Northrop Frye, the man who drew the circle into which all of us as readers fall.

                                                  – John Porter, Hamilton

The Northrop Frye Quote Book
Dundurn (March 15 2014)
ISBN-10: 1459719581

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