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Listening for the Heartbeat of Being: The Arts of Robert Bringhurst

By Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson, Editors

Review By Ceilidh Hart

June 15, 2016

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017  | p. 210-211

Poet Robert Bringhurst has been just on the periphery of my attention for many years, and it seems I’ve been in good company. Although he has made a name for himself in some circles (he is a celebrated figure in the world of typography, for example), as a poet, he has not been well-anthologized or much studied within the academy. Indeed, the editors of this new collection of essays about the poet’s life and work describe him as a “shadowy figure not only among the Canadian public but among literati and academics.” “Scholarly attention,” they point out “has been as elusive as commercial success” (4). Listening for the Heartbeat of Being: The Arts of Robert Bringhurst provides a wonderful opportunity to redress that neglect. It re-opens conversations about some of the author’s controversial projects, but more important, it takes stock of his long and varied career, offers deep analysis of his work, and shows his vital and continuing interest in the responsibilities of the artist.

The emphasis on plurality in the book’s subtitle (“The Arts of Robert Bringhurst”) is an important cue for readers, for the collection embraces diversity in many ways. Bringhurst is described on the first page as “poet, translator, typographer, cultural historian, essayist, lecturer, and student of languages,” and the collection introduces us to all of these various Bringhursts in contributions not only from literary critics, but also colleagues, collaborators, and friends. Despite this range of perspectives, the carefully written introduction gives the book a convincing coherence by synthesizing the imperatives — always to do with listening in some way — that underlie Bringhurst’s art in all its forms, so that, for example, Brent Wood can draw parallels between the typographer’s attention to the fabric of the page and the poet’s attention to the fabric of the voice (102).

Although the collection is interested in the various facets of Bringhurst’s career, it is his poetry that receives the lion’s share of scholarly attention, and these essays provide detailed and thoughtful readings of the author’s complex poetics: Brent Wood’s synoptic view of Bringhurst’s writing, with attention to his use of rhythm in particular, clearly delights in Bringhurst’s delight of language and pattern. Iain Macleod Higgins’s discussion of Bringhurst’s process of drafting and collecting his poems offers a clear articulation of Bringhurst’s developing poetic persona and how it has been shaped by his interests in philology and in the music of thought. Katherine McLeod’s analysis of one particular project, the two-voice performance poem The Blue Roofs of Japan, provides a detailed and compelling analysis of polyphonic oral poetry in action — oral polyphony being a principle crucial to any understanding of Bringhurst’s philosophy. For this and several other essays I wished for an accompanying sound recording.

Nicely counterpointing the longer, more traditionally academic essays are shorter, personal and anecdotal ones. Ishmael Hope’s essay pairs nicely with Nicholas Bradley’s, for example; Dennis Lee’s series of sketches balances Katherine McLeod’s formal analysis. The inclusion of informal essays in a collection such as this is refreshing, and helpful in shedding light on a key figure in the world of Canadian culture, and yet there’s a tension that emerges at times between a focus on the work and a focus on the man that isn’t entirely productive. Some of the more anecdotal contributions seem to insist too emphatically on the virtues of the man, and so out of these personal essays emerges a sense that this book project involves not just a reclaiming of space for the artist’s too-long neglected work, but a recuperation of a man’s reputation. The inclusion of an essay published by Margaret Atwood in 2004 in the wake of the controversy surrounding Bringhursts’s Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers, seems to clearly work to this purpose. And yet, given how full the collection is with important questions about art and artistic legacy, about ethics and translation, about beauty and responsibility, these other gestures seem perhaps beside the point.

Underwriting Listening for the Heartbeat of Being is editor Mark Dickinson’s claim that Bringhurst is Canada’s “overlooked literary genius” (44). Whether the book supports that claim or not, what it certainly does do is show Bringhurst to be an innovative, compelling, and crucially relevant artist, deserving of serious and sustained attention.

Listening for the Heartbeat of Being: The Arts of Robert Bringhurst
Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson, editors
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. 284 pp. $60.00 cloth