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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Mission Critical

Bruce Whiteman collects his thoughts

Keith Garebian

Work to Be Done: Selected Essays and Reviews

Bruce Whiteman


320 pages, softcover and ebook

With graduate degrees in English literature and library science, Bruce Whiteman was a rare book specialist for over thirty years, working at McMaster and McGill Universities and later running the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles. Throughout his long career as librarian, poet, essayist, and teacher, he has demonstrated a deep love for literature. His new anthology, Work to Be Done, edited by John Metcalf, comprises thirty-four essays that reflect that depth. In them, he discusses poets including Sappho, Goethe, P. K. Page, Walt Whitman, Philip Larkin, and Leonard Cohen. He considers the life and legacy of Beethoven and Flaubert. And he touches upon the biographers and translators of Ezra Pound and Marcel Proust. The lengthy chapters are drawn from Canadian Notes & Queries, The Hudson Review, Rattle, Poetry Canada Review, The Fiddlehead, and The Canadian Forum, among other publications. Whiteman’s book suggests a rigorous, inexhaustible determination to fulfill the duty of a critic.

Following the many threads of a rare book specialist’s literary life.

Carol M. Highsmith Archive; Library of Congress

Divided into five parts, Work to Be Done reveals a mind steeped in the classics, particularly the works of Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid. The book is rigorous in exercise and academically precise, and it strives for a perspective that sometimes seems Olympian in tone. In describing the mountain of writing by and about Goethe, for example, Whiteman writes, “Goethe’s biographers have tended to carve a tunnel through it rather than ascending it and writing in triumph from the summit.” Whiteman’s scholarship is impressive, but it can also be heavy, lacking the easy breadth of a John Updike, the bite of a Christopher Hitchens, or the wit of an Anthony Burgess. It can be vaingloriously pompous in vocabulary: “inspissate,” “psychoprophylaxis,” “funambulism,” “intercalated,” “anfractuous,” “boustrophedonic,” “Altertumswissenschaft.” I’m reminded of an old joke about scholars: Why say “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” when you can offer “Scintillate, scintillate, diminutive asteroid”? Yet elsewhere, Whiteman is to be complimented for subtlety in his general choice of words, as when he refers to Whitman’s “tropical poetic line,” meaning not the climate but that great author’s use of tropes, or when he brands Guy Davenport’s translation of Sappho “a sort of tonal macaronic,” suggesting a mix of the vernacular and Latin, as well as a form of burlesque verse or inflection. He also demonstrates rhythmic fluency, as when he comments on Emily Wilson’s highly praised translations of Homer: “She admirably achieves her aspiration of keeping ‘a register that is recognizably speakable and readable, while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang.’ ”

Whiteman’s style can be faulted on rare but palpable occasions for redundancy (“in close proximity”), the use of oxymoron (“a modicum of overkill”), or over-extended jocularity (“Toward the end, his doctor’s name was Dr Wagner and his lawyer’s name was Mr Bach. One wonders if his dentist’s name was . . . Herr Brahms?”). Whiteman is also not immune to questionable generalizations, as when he concludes that Sappho’s voice, “even in the fragmentary form it takes in the surviving corpus, speaks irresistibly to readers.” His evidence: “...spirit...completely...(if?) I can...(as long as?) I shine back...(lovely?) face...caressed...” Such garbled text is something that at least this reader can easily resist. In fact, it makes me think of Marguerite Johnson’s blunt commentary (quoted by Whiteman): “For a poet whose extant work comprises few complete poems, several semi-complete poems and approximately two hundred fragments — some consisting of a single word — the fascination with Sappho is excessive.” But I do agree with Whiteman that the principal difficulty of bringing Sappho into English is “the centrality of her sexual passions,” which places her a world apart from “archaic Greek poetry by men, or indeed any Greek poetry by men, from Homer forward.”

Whiteman is thorough in his excursions in the realms of translation and biography, nitpicking his way through mounds of books in a manner that would be every dyed-in-the-wool academic’s wet dream. However, some of his essays yield underwhelming insights, while some of the better ones lack graphic conviction. Quoting Zola’s view of Flaubert as “a poet transformed into a naturalist, Homer turned into Cuvier,” he fails to convince a reader about the French novelist’s musical quality. And when Whiteman turns to Larkin, he is correct but rather pallid in contrast with M. L. Rosenthal’s blistering view of the same poet in the Times Literary Supplement. Further, he wastes ink on mediocre or poor books, such as Leonard Cohen’s The Flame, which William Logan demolished in a New York Times review more colourfully and far more bitingly, and Samuel Beckett’s Collected Poems. To give Whiteman his due, however, I compliment him for his insights into Walt Whitman’s relationship with Canada; his analysis of P. K. Page’s emotional coldness and reticence on autobiographical matters; his explication of Louis Dudek’s importance as a poet and critic; and his remarks on the historical pattern in Canadian poetry, beginning in the 1920s, where “every second decade has been a period of experimentation and iconoclasm, followed by a period of retrenchment and formal conservatism.”

Although I can find fault with certain things in Whiteman’s essays, I also have two dozen pages of tightly scrawled notes that attest to my lively engagement with the book, beginning with its first essay, “What’s Poetry?” In considering Jean Cocteau’s question “Does one know what’s poetry and what isn’t?,” Whiteman discourses on why Canadian readers don’t give “a pinch of prairie dog scat” for the form and why Americans are more interested in Civil War re-enactments than in poetry. “An American is a thousand times more likely to know who Jed Clampett was than Amy Clampitt.” I agree totally with his five reasons: First, a mediocre education system. Second, the rise of electronic media. Third, the “provincialism and anti-intellectualism of North American society.” Fourth, the ubiquity of MFA programs. And fifth, the poets themselves: “passing off almost anything as poetry, further alienating readers.” It certainly doesn’t help the cause when poets offer anomalous or mystifying utterances, such as Robert Kelly plumping for “lucid incomprehensibility” or Mark Strand asserting that “not writing is the best way to write.” Robert Creeley believed that a poet has a vision, meaning “nothing especially or necessarily spiritual, but rather a cogent and penetrative view of the world and his experience in it.” Jack Spicer thought that poets were “just mediums for messages from outer space,” Whiteman writes. But why keep fretting about a problem that will never go away, not unlike the age-old prediction of the death of the novel or the decline of print? Why focus on poetry? Because “myth itself, the ancestor of all fiction, was recorded in poetic form in the ancient Near East and the classical world alike.” Because, as Creeley pointed out, poetry’s “correspondences and determined intimacies of feeling” are what being human constitutes.

Whiteman and I share many thoughts on poetry, and I certainly side with him when it comes to the primacy of sound, music, and rhythm. What makes a poet a poet is the “strange ache” that D. H. Lawrence referenced in “The Work of Creation,” which Whiteman quotes before adding, “What makes a poet is that he has that ache; the ear is where the events of the world focus and become the poem.” These essays repeatedly propose the case for music and rhythm: “All language, including prose or everyday speech, has these qualities to varying degrees, but poetry is or should be built around them. . . . Music by contrast is the entirety of the sonic world of a poem.”

Ultimately, Whiteman is a humanist, an ever vigilant battler against barbarians of three sorts. First, the “internitwits” who want us to rely upon cyberspace. Second, a new corps of academic and library administrators, who, “having lost touch with the traditional strengths and raison d’être of research libraries, have become mesmerized by the bright light of technology.” And third, people like himself and me —“not because we share the blinkered world view of our less bookish colleagues, but because we have failed, miserably at times, to explain and to justify our role in the process of education and research.” To which I would add a fourth class: politicians, bureaucrats, and civic officers of all parties, when they put profit above arts and culture. Indeed, these are cultural barbarians who know the cost of many things but the value of very little.

Keith Garebian has just published his eleventh poetry collection, Three-Way Renegade, as well as a memoir, Pieces of Myself.