Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poetry has to make its way between: Robert Bringhurst's Everywhere Being is Dancing

“I like thick socks and heavy shirts because I live in a cold country, but all my theories are threadbare.” So states poet, linguist, essayist and typographer Robert Bringhurst in his foreword to
Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Gaspereau Press, $31.95), clarifying from the outset that a theory must above all be useful, like a compass in the wilderness, a way to navigate your path through some thorny terrain. Bringhurst distinguishes between theory and meaning: meaning was already there; theory simply allows us to consider it, or renovate our comfortable ways of considering it.

Everywhere Being is a companion piece to Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning. Everything is the previous book was meant to be spoken. Everything in this new book was meant to be read. The unifying theme is interconnectivity, and Bringhurst approaches the theme by examining the work of such varied figures as Aristotle, Don McKay and Joan Miró. It’s a titanic, unruly theme, and I’m trying to avoid telling you to just read the damn book. At the risk of making excuses for my own critical deficiencies, I feel it necessary to note that it’s a strength of Bringhurst’s essays that they don’t easily lend themselves to neat summation. As with poetry, as with music, a certain basic meaning can be located only in the linkage of one idea to the next.

In the titular essay, Bringhurst tries to explain how poetry is a form of knowing. So far, so obvious –but the beauty lies precisely in the way Bringhurst illuminates what we already know so that we know it better. Bringhurst’s talent with etymological dissection is on par with that of Fred Wah, and he examines root words in Chinese, early Greek and Navajo to call attention to the differences between poetry as knowing, as a reflection of “what-is,” and poetry as artifice, or “what-is-made.”

Particularly interesting is Bringhurst’s realization, new to me at least, that industrialization and the development of verse styles –not to mention, somewhat more abstractly, the development of nostalgia for nature– have emerged in tandem historically. The Navajo for example, while having had different terms for separate genres of poetry, never had a term for verse before colonization. Poetry and verse are not, in Bringhurst’s estimation, at all one and the same.

“At worst,” Bringhurst writes, verse “is merely a grate through which language is pushed.” He suggests that verse, ideally, which is to say, verse as genuine, “knowing:” poetry, has less to do with the limits of any given language, and should rather be most closely tied to human physiology, specifically to breathing. When compressed into a taut conclusion these ideas might sound almost banal, but Bringhurst’s method of approaching these ideas is sophisticated and compelling.

I’ve already used up well over half of my allotted column addressing only the first of 20 or so essays in this book, but it’s the first for a reason. It holds a sort of key for regarding the rest of these consistently stimulating, insightful and humble pieces, for understanding just what Bringhurst is getting at when he calls Glenn Gould “the most colossally improbable of all Canadian poets” or why Bringhurst urges us to read a work of Haida oral literature, in an essay about storytelling and translation that itself is written with an unmistakable flair for storytelling and translation.

In ‘Licking the Lips with a Forked Tongue’ Bringhurst describes how a simple desire to spark a poem from a comment made by someone else, as well as a growing interest in polyphonic music, led him to create texts in which different voices can speak at once through the layering of colour-coded lines. He found that musicians were more able to perform the poem than trained actors (something I discovered myself some years ago when I wrote a play that climaxes with three simultaneous monologues), that harmonization is a concept as jarring to orators as it is natural to musicians. Along the way to explaining this Bringhurst also articulates for me why I’ve always been drawn more to chamber music than symphonic: “In a group of four or five, there is room for both complexity and simplicity to breathe.”

I close with my response to this particular essay on polyphony because it struck me as being particularly, well, poetic, in the way it zeroed in on the conflict between language and meaning, between artifice and a purity so pure as to nearly evaporate when regarded by the likes of mere humans. Since he puts it best, I’ll let Bringhurst have the last word:

“I’m quite convinced that poetry is part of the larger world and not a specifically human possession or creation. When poetry gets utterly absorbed in human affairs or narrowly enmeshed in human language, it is apt to lose its vigor. Yet, as humans, we are trapped in some degree in human language and have to make of it what we can. To the enterprise of thinking, talk is every bit as dangerous as song. Poetry has to make its way between.”

(This column originally appeared in Vue Weekly, 20/12/2007)

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