Robert Bringhurst is a poet out of time. Last year, Cape published his “Selected Poems”, which collects work from his 40-year career. Much of it rubs against the grain of contemporary poetry. Bringhurst’s writing is direct, crystalline and more interested in the world outside than the personality inside. It also shows a preference for the past rather than the present, invoking ancient literature and myth, from the Bible to the Haida stories of his native Canada (of which he is a scholar and translator). In his poem “Deuteronomy” he assumes the voice of Moses; in “The Stonecutter’s Horses” the voice of the poem belongs to Francesco Petrarca, an Italian scholar and poet from the 14th century known as the father of humanism. “These / poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant / as elm leaves,” he writes in “These poems, she said”, channelling his critics, who have accused him of being dry and distant. But while he is never emotionally indulgent, his poems are nevertheless full of passion—for the natural world and for the voices and stories of the past.
As well as 15 collections of poetry, Bringhurst has published 13 books of prose on subjects from moral philosophy to typography. More Intelligent Life spoke to him about his love of Greek philosophy, his preoccupation with death, and how the Bible is a misinterpreted work of literature.
What does Greek philosophy—which you reference in your poetry—teach us about the modern world?
The fact that we remember the early Greek philosophers at all, and continue to read their books, or the fragments of their poems, is pretty good evidence that we and they have shared concerns. Have we advanced in our understanding of those concerns? I doubt it. And maybe we shouldn’t expect to. Good philosophers ask questions of permanent value. For philosophers it’s the questions that are of value, not the answers. The answers may in fact be nonexistent or unattainable, but the questions glow like embers in the stove.
Another influence on your poetry is the Bible. Why do you return to it?
I read the Bible as a work of literature, not as a sacred text. Because of all the editorial mincing and dicing it’s been through, at the hands of people who wanted to transmute it from literature into scripture, much of the Old Testament is in a peculiar condition. Different versions of ancient stories are set side by side or squished together and often whittled down. Basically, it’s a lesson in how not to take care of a literary inheritance. But the mincing and dicing leaves some of those shards of ancient narrative gleaming like the fragments of the pre-Socratic thinkers. I still find light and heat in them, and that’s why they attract me.
You write in your poem “The Stonecutter’s Horses” that “A man carries his death with him / everywhere, waiting, but seldom thinking of waiting.” Is this how you feel yourself about ageing and death?
Life would be unliveable without death. Aging is more complex. Accumulating experience can lead to delusions of wisdom. These delusions, I find, are sometimes not unpleasant. In between feeling bewildered, one can sometimes feel superior and smug. But I take no pleasure at all in the fact that, at 64, I can see less well, climb less well, walk less far, and carry less weight than I used to. The speaker in that poem, however, is not me; he is someone I’ve been interested in. He appears, in fact, to think about death quite a lot. He implies, I think, that life may just be what we do while we’re waiting for death. And that, he says—the shape that life is given by death—is what we seldom think about.
You set much of your poetry in the ancient world. Do you feel cut off from the world we live in now?
Years ago I knew a painter named Herbert Siebner. I was impressed by a phrase he had in relation to his work. He said he wanted his work to look like it’s just been made—and he wanted it to look like it’s always existed. I’d be happy if the poems I write had that quality too. But tangled up with that is another desire, which may be more urgent. I don’t like feeling cramped or confined, either spatially or temporally. Many people are evidently so delighted with the here and now that they take no interest in the past. To me the present age seems very small, and I have a horror of being confined to it. The present moment is something else. The moment can be timeless and therefore huge, but the present age—the historical now—does seem to me too thin, too two-dimensional, for human habitation.
How important is nature to you when writing poetry?
I think of myself as nothing more than a tiny particle of the natural world. London, Paris and other great cities are full of magnificent treasures and when I am there, I am delighted to be there, but I know that sooner or later I must leave. In the mountains, I always feel I could stay forever.
Do you find it hard to write more personal poems about subjects like human relationships?
I believe there are some other personal poems in that book ["Selected Poems"], but you’re absolutely right: I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire, as I was saying, not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession—or to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations too, and had serious questions to ask themselves—but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly. Instead, they painted and sculpted and wrote about historical and mythological characters whose stories in some ways paralleled their own stories and those of their neighbours and friends. You can call this allegory if you like. I like to think of it as narrative polyphony. And if one of the stories takes place in historical time, or in the timeless realm of myth, while the other takes place in the here and now, then both of the stories gain depth. The prison of time can be broken open by that means, and the prison of personality also.
~ J.P. O'MALLEY