Robert Bringhurst was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1946, and raised in western North America, moving back and forth across the US/Canada border. He moved to Vancouver in 1972 as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia and has lived on the B.C. coast ever since. He is the author of fourteen collections of poems, as well as pamphlets and broadsides, first collected in The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (1982). His Selected Poems was published in 2010 by Cape. His manual The Elements of Typographic Style, first published in 1993, has been translated into ten languages and is a standard in the field. His three-volume Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers was enthusiastically reviewed in the Times of London by Margaret Atwood and chosen as the Times Literary Editor’s Book of the Year in 2004. A new edition of volume one of that trilogy was published in London by the Folio Society in 2015.
This interview was in begun February 2017 and conducted by email, the interviewer in Manchester, UK, the interviewee on Quadra Island, BC.
EJ: Can I begin by asking about form? Do rhyme and meter hold any interest for you?
RB: As a kid I messed around with whatever came my way – music, painting, poetry, carpentry, auto mechanics, and so on – but the first art in which I had any formal instruction was architecture. In architecture, form is not optional. You can vary it, of course. You can also disguise it, masking the real structure with a decorative surface, but if you leave it out or get it wrong, your building collapses. It’s not much different in carpentry or mechanics. That’s the kind of form that interests me: the kind without which your engine doesn’t run, and your sonata doesn’t either.
Then of course there’s beauty. Not as something painted on but as liveliness and grace intrinsic to the structure. A good building doesn’t just accommodate people’s needs. It doesn’t just give them adequate headroom and a place to go to the toilet. It improves the rhythm and texture of life for the people inside it, and for those outside it too. I want that kind of literary structure. It doesn’t come from mindlessly repeated pilasters or quatrains, but it also doesn’t come from simply turning on the garden hose of language.
Good carpenters get interested in wood. They stop thinking of it as board feet of lumber and start to see it as tissue – living tissue whose life has been arrested and whose form has been, for a while at least, preserved. They start to collaborate with the wood instead of simply sawing it up and nailing it back together. That’s how I try to work with wood myself, and that’s the way I like to work with language. Few things interest me less than regular picket fences or purely formalist verse, but sensual and intellectual pleasure both interest me a lot. A good piece of carpentry makes you want to reach out and touch it. A good piece of writing makes you want to say the words aloud, to feel them in your mouth and in your mind. That’s not everything in life, but it’s a part of what I’m after.
Rhyme and meter are natural features of language. But of course in natural speech the rhymes are mostly imperfect, and they occur at irregular intervals. And in natural speech the meter keeps varying too, like the grain of wood or the texture of a forest. That’s the kind of rhyme and meter that appeals to me most. The enchanted forest is really a forest; it isn’t an orchard.
EJ: In the introduction to your 1982 selected, you write, ‘Most of the poems are products more of oral composition than of writing’. How does the oral composition work with visual poetry effects, for instance enjambment?
RB: When I’m writing down a poem, I choose the line ends and stanza breaks as carefully as I do the words – but if the whole spatial arrangement disappeared, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it. Either the typographic form is real – which is to say, you can hear it in the language, so you or someone else could reconstruct it if you lost it – or else it doesn’t matter very much.
Poetry, as you know, is a whole lot older than writing. When European scribes began transcribing the poems they heard, or poems they’d composed, they wrote them down the same way they wrote everything else: with no spaces between the words and no breaks between the lines or stanzas. The line breaks in Homer and Aeschylus, Sappho and Sophocles, were put there centuries later by editors – and the editors could do this because the lines, like the words, were audible. The poems are metrical, which makes this process easy most of the time, but not always. The meter of the choral odes of Aeschylus and Pindar, Sophocles and Euripides, is generally complex. So editors disagree to some extent on how they should be written out or printed.
It’s pretty much the same story elsewhere – in China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and with Mayan scribes in Central America – except that there the editorial stage, when empty space was affordable, came later or never came at all. Even in Europe, the transition was much slower than you might suppose. In the 16th century, there were still writers and printers – including some very good writers and printers – who envisioned the prose book as a single 300-page paragraph.
We live in a time when paper is cheap – way cheaper than it ought to be – and typography is not just possible but universally available. I see this as a luxury – a really astonishing and unsustainable luxury, like air travel. Air travel, cheap paper, and good type are available to me now, so I do what I can with them. But the best mode of travel, so far as I’m concerned, is walking, not flying or driving a car. And the best way of taking in a poem is to speak it or hear it spoken aloud. If the arrangement of words on the page helps you speak the poem or hear it, then it’s useful, but like the airplane, the ferry, or the car, the page is an intermediate conveyance: a way of getting quickly from one listening place or thinking place to another.
EJ: You’ve been very quietly revising your poems over the years. ‘Bone Flute Breathing’ between your 1982 selected and the more recent 2009, for instance, has some subtle differences. Do the changes reflect the oral composition? Or are they editorial?
RB: Any poem that stays in my active repertoire, or returns to it after an absence, is in danger of revision. If I don’t perform it, nothing is likely to happen to it. If I do perform it, some words might change, or some lines might drop out or get added. By this time, however, I’m working with and on a written text. The process is oral, but it hardly qualifies as oral composition. If you want a name for it, you could call it oral editing. It’s oral because, once a poem is written down, I tend to hear it more closely if I perform it than if I read it sotto voce to myself or stare in silence at a printed version.
The fact is, I write and edit everything aloud – prose as well as poetry. I’ve done this with poetry for as long as I can remember. And until I started doing it with prose, my prose was pretty dreadful.
EJ: What do you see as the difference between prose and poetry, if the visual aspect is less significant?
RB: Texture. There’s more of it in poetry, less of it in prose. And it seems to me this is not just a matter of language. A poem has something to say, and the thing it has to say reverberates or resonates with the rest of reality in a way that is not prosaic. Even before it’s written, a poem is in motion, and its motion has a texture. It doesn’t just walk or stride or shuffle along; it dances.
But once it’s composed, a poem, like a piece of prose, becomes a structure of words, not just a fistful of rhythms or a tissue of unarticulated ideas. We expect, in that structure of words, some perceptible reflection or refraction of the resonance or texture of the subject of the poem: some echo of the texture that was there before the words.
If the texture we’re offered in the finished work is purely visual – just an artful arrangement of words on the page – then I think it’s a cheat. It could disappear for good through someone’s stripping out the tabs and hard returns. If that’s the case, then the texture you see is not in the language, it’s just in the typing. The poem, if it is a poem, has something resonant to say and needs to resonantly say it. The something-to-say and the saying itself will fuse if things go well. If that happens, there’ll be something you can hear as well as think: a phonological texture, a semiotic texture, and a syntactical texture too. There will be prosody, in other words – and a three-stranded prosody at that: texture of sound, texture of meaning, texture of grammar. If you live in a literate culture, you can represent at least some of this prosody visually. And if that visual representation were lost, it could be decently restored by retranscribing the spoken words.
EJ: What about the historical connection between truth and poetry?
RB: Goethe, as you know, wrote a book called Poetry and Truth, and it purports to be historical as well as personal. But I don’t think poetry and truth are what Dichtung und Wahrheit is actually about.
We can learn quite a bit about poetry and truth if we skip Goethe’s love affair with himself and read his poetry instead – but then what we learn isn’t historical, it’s ontological. That’s probably where we should start. Poetry is a property of reality. So is truth. If we try to approach them historically, what we’re mostly going to get is the history of us: the history of the ways in which we’ve mangled and misunderstood them, even at times tried pitting them against each other.
In most oral societies, literature is the major art form, and the main genre in oral literature isn’t the novel, it’s mythtelling. Myths are conveyed through narrative poetry. So in oral cultures, by and large, poetry is the main way of trying to tell the truth. That, in a nutshell, is the history of poetry and truth for the first nine tenths of human existence. Then you start to get literacy. Then pretty soon you get prose and mathematics. You start to get experimental science. You get historical, philosophical, epistolary, and scientific writing. Later still you get prose fiction. Now you have lots of ways of trying to tell the truth – and lots of ways of trying not to – so different truths get told. A lot of humans get more interested in themselves than they are in the larger world. This isn’t just a literary phenomenon, of course. Urbanization, central heating, fossil fuel, and the electrical grid have a lot to do with it too. Print and broadcast journalism accelerate it. The internet sets it ablaze. People find themselves living in a sea of human voices, most of them talking of small-time human concerns. Human truth – heavily laced with human falsehood – obscures all other truth, and poetry suffers, like everything else, in these conditions.
EJ: Can I ask about your process of composition for a poem? How does the writing of one of your poems begin and end?
RB: Those are the parts of the process I know least about, so there’s not much I can tell you. I become aware of the poem first when some part of it comes into view: a verbal phrase, or a rhythmical shape, or a little melody, or just a sense of connection between some ideas. Where did it come from and how long was it under my tongue or behind that tree before I was aware of it? I have no idea.
The other end of the process is equally elusive. At some point, I’ve seen what I can see, done what I can do, and any attempt to do more will be counterproductive. So it’s a lot like watching birds. If the venture is successful, the end-product isn’t a bird in a cage, nor a mounted specimen, nor dinner. The end-product is spiritual and intellectual nourishment. Part of which lies in knowing that the bird escaped – frightened perhaps, but unharmed and, if I’m really lucky, nourished in its turn.
Another thing I can say is that this beginning and ending is happening all the time. In that respect again, it’s a lot like watching animals. I live, as you know, in a house in the forest. I walk in the forest every day. I see many of the same individuals and species day after day, year after year. I learn a little more about them with every encounter. The poems I write down are the poems that reveal themselves to me in a similar way: an occasional major revelation, but mostly a little bit here, a little bit there. A few lines a day if I’m lucky. I never get close to knowing all that could be known about the other creatures living here – and I never know all there is to know about the poems I’m writing down. So the text I can read to an audience or give to a publisher is always provisional.
EJ: How do you approach the translation of literature? Does the bird metaphor you used above extend to translation? That is, can your translation nourish the original? Is that desirable?
That’s a lovely idea. I suppose, in a perfect world, it would be true. Scott Moncrieff’s translations of Proust would nourish Proust’s originals. But the world I live in is pretty messed up. I’d be glad just to think that some of my translations might help to keep their originals from being altogether lost or trashed.
A lot of the translation work I’ve done has been just exploratory drilling – a little test hole here and there, to try to teach myself a little more about a language I was studying or a text I was learning to read. Many of those translations have never been published and probably shouldn’t be. They don’t add up to anything more than a series of notes on my own reading. They’re things I’ve done for my own benefit, trying to learn how something worked, and trying to see how close I could come in English to something that took my breath away when I saw it done by someone else in another language.
I’ve worked a little harder at Greek, trying to do some things that might be useful to other people. And I’ve now spent more than half my life studying Native American languages, translating a few neglected masterpieces, and doing some of the background work to make it easier for other people to read them. This isn’t going to save the world, but it’s my way of trying.
EJ: What do you see your translations as doing in the contemporary literary landscape?
You can translate across space, or you can translate across time. The space is sociolinguistic, so the distances involved – physical, cultural, or linguistic – can be large or they can be small. If you translate across time, the time is usually real historical time, and it is usually combined with a lot of linguistic and cultural space. It’s translation across time that interests me most, because time, not space, is where I’d otherwise feel cramped.
I see the present as a two-dimensional surface. If you live long enough, you get a slight sense of depth, like bas-relief, but still the face of time is essentially flat. You could think of it as a floor that holds you up, or a wall that holds you in, or a window. I’m particularly interested in the window possibility. That’s the one form of time travel we have: if you look through the windows of art, science, and literature, you can see your way into the past – and that’s your only chance of getting some perspective on the present and the future. That, to me, is the sweetest promise of translation.
In North America, the colonial languages – English, Spanish, French – don’t go back very far: only as far as the great campaign to inflict drastic changes on the continent, turning the forests and deserts and grasslands into farms, factories, shopping malls, and amusement parks. Suppose you want to know how people understood this place before that transformation got underway. Suppose you want to know how people saw this place when they loved it, and knew how to live in it, basically just the way it was. To see it through their eyes, you’d need to learn a hundred or more indigenous languages. That’s too many; you can’t do it. So you’d need some good translations to help you along. A few of the ones you’d need already exist. I’m doing my part to make a few more.
One or two people have told me that this translation campaign is the old colonial enterprise conducted by new means. It’s not. Translation doesn’t destroy the original – and a good translation doesn’t demean or degrade the original; it honours it instead. And if you’ll pardon me for harping on the obvious, a good translation of a Native American text honours a Native American viewpoint and a Native American voice. It honours the individual mythteller who dictated the text, and it honours that mythteller’s language and culture. Nothing colonial in that.
EJ: In your ‘Leda and the Swan’, which I read as a response to Yeats, Leda is more an instrument (xylophone, lute, harp) than young woman. In both poems, she is dehumanised. Can you tell me about your reading of Leda as a mythological figure?
RB: Leda’s story fascinated European painters for several hundred years, but the Greek and Roman poets, who were much closer to it, scarcely touch it. Ovid gives it a single line, Euripides four lines. Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides spend thousands of lines on the stories of Leda’s children and grandchildren, but Leda they leave in the shadows. Could that be just the accidental consequence of what got lost and saved? I don’t think so. Maybe the bestiality offended them, though all sorts of human cruelty didn’t.
And why did the painters and their patrons, twenty centuries later, swarm around the story? That’s maybe an easier question. Voyeurism might be a big factor. Anyway, the painters mostly tell it as a story of seduction. To me, it’s a story of rape – and a story about living in a culture where the divinity-in-chief expects to get away with rape. It’s also, as I understand it, the story of Leda being raped a second time, on the same day, by her husband, the king. So to me, the crass denial of Leda’s humanity is central to the story. If I wrote about Leda and left that out, I’d be lying. But the blindness and cruelty involved aren’t the interesting part, so I don’t prefer to dwell on them.
For people who think there are no gods, and who feel that humans are the highest form of life, a story with gods in it can be difficult to follow. People in that condition tend to mistake the gods for another tribe of humans. Where people sense that gods exist, gods and humans can interact. But if humans conclude that a god has committed a crime and look for a way to take revenge, it’s always other humans, not gods, who end up paying. That’s part of Leda’s story too.
Leda’s a human and Zeus is a god, so there isn’t a hope in hell of her resisting his advances. Still, Leda has some powers that Zeus lacks. Her womanhood, her mortality, her humanity, might be powers in this instance, and Zeus’s manhood, his one-sidedness, even his immortality might be weaknesses of a kind. Is it possible that Leda teaches Zeus something even as he rapes her? I’m not suggesting that would constitute justice, nor that it’s any kind of model for how to deal with human rapists; I’m asking if it could happen.
Leda, as part of keeping herself alive, dreams immediately of revenge – but she can’t take revenge on Zeus himself. He’s a god and she’s a human. She imagines revenge the way she can: through other humans, knowing that the gods might be drawn into that. More blindness and cruelty, if you like – but who could deny her such a wish? The question for me is still whether Zeus could have learned something – not because I sympathize with rapists, but because Zeus is a god. I want to know if a human could teach him something.
EJ: You’ve approached the same theme in other poems, such as the first of Arcturus’s monologues in Ursa Minor. And, it appears in ‘Demons and Men’, when you cite Herakleitos, ‘human culture has no purchase on what is, / but god-culture does’. Part of that poem is about the intermeshing of the classical and the contemporary. Can you say a bit about ‘god-culture’ in our time?
RB: It’s a quandary, alright. And if you’re looking to start a dialogue between colonial and indigenous traditions in the Americas, it’s two quandaries or more.
The missionaries who came to North America in the early days all had some education. They had Latin, often some Greek, and some sense, no matter how condescending, of Roman and Greek paganism. Very few of them shared any of that with their indigenous parishioners. And this got worse, not better, over time. Homer and Virgil weren’t taught in the residential schools, and there are no translations of those or any other classical authors into Native American languages. Until the late 19th century, there were no translations going the other way either: no Native American narrative poetry coming into a European language. Where there might have been three or four centuries of dialogue between Europeans and Native North Americans – touching for instance on nymphs and dryads, river gods and mountain gods, the sacred nature of the earth and the numinous character of landforms – there was confrontation instead. That sea of silence is still with us.
Twenty years ago, when I was writing Sharp as a Knife, I felt that I had to try to tackle this question. I also had to find a working vocabulary. A number of my First Nations friends wanted me not to use the word ‘gods’ in translating Native American texts, or in talking about them. In the Dinétah – the Navajo country – the word ‘god’ is used routinely, but only in certain contexts. Haashch’ééłti’í, in English, is Talking God, Haashch’ééłchí’í is Red God, and so on. In many other places – and even for some Navajo – the word is entirely taboo in relation to native tradition. The word ‘spirit’ or ‘spirit-being’ might be acceptable, but the missionaries wanted the word ‘god’ to have one meaning only, and they mostly got their way.
That, in a way, is an easy problem. The meanings exist; the concepts are strong; it’s just a question of what words you can use, what noises you can make, that will carry those meanings. In other words, how can you translate the Haida word sghaana or the Cree words âtayôhkan and pawâmiwin and manitow? Translating the Greek theoi into Haida, Cree, or Navajo is no problem, if you get the chance to do so.
The problem gets a little harder if you’re up against a zealously secular culture – a culture where all the words are free to use, but their meanings are lost or forgotten. How do you talk about gods in a society where land is freely bought and sold, where people choose to see the forest as nothing but timber ready for harvest, rivers as nothing but water waiting for someone to build a dam, and where, as Ortega says, Dionysos has been replaced by alcoholism?
There are only a couple of pages in Sharp as a Knife that address this question head-on, but in a sense the whole book is my attempt at an answer. And the answer in brief is: Listen to what the people who’ve lived here longer and know it better have to say about this place. Which people would those be? Not people who meet some genetic criterion, but people who’ve been nourished by a deeply rooted tradition and learned to nourish it in their turn. Skaay for example. Kâ‑kîsikâw-pîhtokêw for example. Cháálatsoh for example. Or Sophocles for example. Those people never say much about gods. They never give sermons. But everything they say implies their understanding that the world they inhabit is alive and could do with a little respect and affection.