Breathing Earth

The Polyphonic Lyric of Robert Bringhurst

by Leonor María Martínez Serrano (Author)
©2021 Monographs 242 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 9999999


Breathing Earth: The Polyphonic Lyric of Robert Bringhurst examines the innovative poems for multiple voices composed by the Canadian poet by drawing on the main insights of biosemiotics, ecophilosophy and material ecocriticism. In seeking to emulate the polyphonic texture of reality, Bringhurst’s ecopoetry directs readers’ attention to vibrant matter and to the entanglements of (non)human and (in)animate actants in a world that is a semiotic-material unity. In light of the current climate crisis, his polyphonic poems are a timely, wise reminder of the need to rethink the way humanity relates to the more-than-human world and to restore a deep ecological bond with breathing earth.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction Mimicking the Polyphonic Texture of Being
  • I The Peripatetic Humanist and the Vocation of Poetry
  • II Cartography of a Work in Progress
  • III An Archaeology of Human Knowledge
  • IV Lyric Philosophy, or Poetry as a Form of Knowing
  • V Polyphony and the Democracy of Inter-Being
  • VI A Discursive-Material Plexus Teeming with Life
  • VII Licking the Lips with a Forked Tongue
  • 1 Facing the Sky, Be Vast, Blue & Quiet
  • I A Poem in Search of Its Perfect Form
  • II Capturing Earth’s Polyphonic Poesy
  • III Water Music and Being
  • IV The Solid Form of Language
  • V Poetry, or a Whole out of Wholes
  • VI Breathing to the Rhythm of Being
  • 2 Toads and Deep, Geological Time
  • I A Piece of Wood, an Ancestral Toad
  • II The Silent, Inspiring Presence of a Toad
  • III A Lesson in Toad Anatomy
  • IV Life and Death
  • V The Ecology of Perception
  • VI A World Perfused with Signs
  • VII From the Depths of Precambrian Time
  • VIII Meaning Takes Precedence
  • IX Feet, Dreams, Rocks
  • X The Path through the Nonhuman
  • XI The Persistence of Poetry, the Destruction of the Biosphere
  • 3 Breathing through the Feet
  • I The Human Voice in a Garden of Colour
  • II Listening to the Heartbeat of the Earth
  • III The Lessons of Pagan Thinking
  • IV The Path of the Dao, or a Life in Accord with Nature
  • V The Stars on the Page, the Words in the Sky
  • 4 Just a Breath Away from Darkness
  • I A Plurilingual Polyphonic Palimpsest
  • II Ovid’s Myth on Callisto and Arcturus
  • III A Blind Cree Mythteller on Bear Woman
  • IV Lycaon Taking Revenge
  • V Blood Like Sap from a Poplar
  • VI Elements of a Vibrant Universe
  • Conclusion The Mind Is the World: Lyric and Ethics in the Age of the Anthropocene
  • I Poetry, Thinking, Singing
  • II An Embodied, Enworlded Mind
  • III Anthropocene Lyric and the Wild
  • IV Everywhere Being Is Dancing
  • Works Cited
  • Series index

←6 | 7→

Introduction Mimicking the Polyphonic Texture of Being

While we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. — Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), p. 156.

Metaphor is a species of understanding, a form of seeing-as: it has, we might say, flex. We see, simultaneously, similarities and dissimilarities. — Jan Zwicky, Wisdom & Metaphor (2008), L4.

I The Peripatetic Humanist and the Vocation of Poetry

About 2,500 years ago, a handful of resonant words was uttered in ancient Greece for the first time: πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει (Sophocles 340). In English they read thus: “Strangeness is frequent enough, but nothing / is ever as strange as a man is” (Bringhurst, Selected Poems 52). They are lifted from what is possibly the most important chorus (lines 332–375) in Antigone, a tragedy composed by Sophocles in the 5th century BCE, first performed in 442 or 441 BCE. The chorus in question is a seminal text, as it is one of the earliest and most probing meditations on human nature. Sophocles thinks deeply about reality and realises that man is the strangest thing on earth. The translation into English is by Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst, and the words quoted were part of a one-stanza poem entitled “Strophe from Sophocles,” included in Cadastre (1973) and later on expanded into a longer poem called “Of the Snaring of Birds,” which is the eleventh composition in the Presocratics sequence “The Old in Their Knowing.”1 It was dedicated to Martin Heidegger, a philosopher central to Bringhurst’s thinking and singing, who had produced a perceptive analysis of Sophocles’ chorus in his Introduction to Metaphysics, where he claimed that “man is to deinotaton, the strangest of the strange” (149).←7 | 8→

As Bringhurst suggests, “[w]‌hen you think intensely and beautifully, something happens. That something is called poetry. If you think that way and speak at the same time, poetry gets in your mouth. If people hear you, it gets in their ears” (“Poetry and Thinking” 143). In his chorus, Sophocles is speaking poetry – which nevertheless preexists Antigone, the chorus and its audience – and now, 25 centuries later, it gets in our ears. Sophocles’ words appear to encapsulate the central preoccupation of Bringhurst’s entire work, not because it is anthropocentric, but rather because it situates homo sapiens within the vitality of a breathing cosmos and interrogates how we as a species relate to the more-than-human world. Contrary to classicists’ interpretation of the Antigone chorus as a hymn of “praise to human ingenuity and accomplishment, encomiums to anthropological dominion” (McNeilly 57), Bringhurst’s translation uncovers an ecological dimension to the ancient text and becomes “a critique of the violence of anthropocentrism rather than praise of human technocracy” (McNeilly 58). Confronted with “the all-too-human potential to exert reduction and atrocious dominion over the world in the face of recalcitrant cultural and ontological differences” (McNeilly 54), Bringhurst’s emphasis is on “human estrangement not only from each other but, more significantly for him, from earth, the god or goddess whom we have too often taken for granted as a font of infinitely renewable resources” (McNeilly 58). Restoring the deep, ecological bond with a world of which we are inevitably participant on account of our very earthly constitution is central to Bringhurst’s work of a lifetime. Hence, he gently invites readers to breathe through their feet, which is to say to pay attention to “the patterned resonance” (Zwicky, Wisdom & Metaphor L7) implicit in the world.

An erudite man, a widely-travelled scholar and a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, Robert Bringhurst (b. 1946, Los Angeles) is a true Renaissance man, a humanist genuinely interested in all things human and nonhuman. However, unlike Renaissance humanists, Bringhurst does not conceive of human beings as the measure of all things. He embraces a non-anthropocentric (or biocentric) view of the world where there is enough room for both human and nonhuman beings, such is the largesse of his mind and his heart, as well as the breadth of his curiosity. That he is a humanist partly accounts for the fact that he is also a polymath and the author of a very prolific work as a poet, philosopher, linguist, translator, typographer, and cultural historian. His entire literary output comprises a wide range of poems, translations and essays in such diverse fields as the oral literatures and visual arts of the First Nations of North America; poetry and philosophy, language and meaning, ecological linguistics and translation theory; music, painting and art in general; and reading, writing, ←8 | 9→letterforms, script systems, typography and book design. It is no wonder that Bringhurst’s work has garnered innumerable honours. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada (as of 2013), a former Guggenheim Fellow, and the holder of two honorary doctorates.

On the Canadian scene, Bringhurst belongs among a group of poet-philosophers – Jan Zwicky, Don McKay, Dennis Lee, and Tim Lilburn – concerned with exploring a new form of poetry that is in love with philosophy and the more-than-human world. On a different level, Bringhurst is one of the last heirs to High Modernist poetry as represented by such authors as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, as well as a poet with clear Romantic affiliations, including the Transcendentalists R. W. Emerson and H. D. Thoreau. For all of them, poetry was a form of knowing and resonating with the world, and also an art form that demanded a deep sense of vocation for the pursuit of truth, beauty and integrity. On yet another level, Bringhurst belongs among the best representatives of world poetry, composed in very diverse human languages over time, and so he is part of a tradition that places Homer next to Herakleitos, Parmenides, Empedokles, Sophocles, Pindar, Saraha, Dogen, Hakuin, François Villon, Leopardi, Ghandl, Skaay, Valéry, Rilke, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda. This is universal poetry, one capable of going beyond spatio-temporal constraints to talk to readers from different cultures and thought-worlds. A place in tradition is not easily won, though. Bringhurst found his voice through hard intellectual labour, listening closely to the great minds of the past, from a wide range of cultures and languages, “by surrounding himself with sacred texts; by leaning on, and apprenticing himself to, the voices of other human beings from different times and places” (Dickinson, “Robert Bringhurst” 19).

In this respect, Bringhurst’s voracious appetite for ideas prompts him to invoke in his poems a wide spectrum of literary traditions and philosophical systems in an attempt to build a portable vademecum. Tradition is thus the living nutriment upon which his own work is based. “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest” (The Sacred Wood 125), claimed Eliot in words that Bringhurst surely embraces. Given his “abiding love for the archaic world” (Higgins, “Salvage” 65), the poet-thinker finds sustaining nourishment in the intellectual legacy left us by our ancestors, both Western and Eastern, regardless of whether they speak such classical languages as Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, Latin or Haida, or such modern languages as German, Italian, French or Spanish, for he is also a life-long, tireless student of human languages. In fact, “his poems have always measured themselves against, listened to, and spoken with or through the dead” (Higgins, “Salvage” 76), which accounts for the astonishing cultural syncretism we find in Bringhurst’s work ←9 | 10→from beginning to end. If reality is one, then human knowledge is one too, and there is no point in dividing it up into artificially-contrived compartments or disciplines. In Native American Oral Literatures and the Unity of the Humanities (1998), one of his seminal essays on the oral literatures of North America, Bringhurst speaks in fact of the unity of the humanities. In his view, learning is the true vocation of humankind, and so wonder and curiosity – the true mothers of art, philosophy and science – are the best possible answer in the face of the awe-inspiring intricacy and unbroken unity of the world. Guided by the simple faith that “everything is related to everything else – and that every one is related to every one else, and that every species is related to every other” (Bringhurst, “Poetry and Thinking” 157), sensuously immersed in the more-than-human world, Bringhurst listens to what-is and comes up with poems and essays that are his personal gift to his fellow human beings.

“I think it is not the world’s task to entertain us, but ours to take an interest in the world” (“Poetry and Thinking” 158), Bringhurst maintains, and so his omnivorous intelligence renders the world into an inexhaustible place of wonder rich in complex fascinations for him and for his readers. His intensely penetrating mind has led him to think deeply about reality, to embrace a “distinctive, erudite, cross-cultural poetics” (Higgins, “Salvage” 62) and to produce an ambitious body of work over the last 50 years. Possibly the most fascinating paradox at the heart of his work resides in the fact that he is a consummate typographer, a lover of letterforms and books as true art objects, and yet he thinks of the poems that constitute his living repertory as being more the product of oral composition than of writing. In other words, his interest in the material, solid form of language does not prevent him from embracing a poetics of listening in which he claims the privileged position of speech over the written word. Books are only caches where poems – made of mouthfuls of live air – are temporarily stored for a while, in search of their perfect material incarnation. This, in turn, partly accounts for his own composition habits: his poems and essays form a work in progress of gigantic proportions that is revisited and refined over the years, as real writing involves a lot of revision.

From beginning to end, Bringhurst’s work of a lifetime testifies to a precious coherence, consistency and unity, since his “diverse vocations” are all “facets of a single project” (Wood and Dickinson, “Introduction” 5). The poems and essays spanning a long and wide-ranging career constitute an organic whole that displays a pattern of recurrent thematic concerns grown into full bloom over time. Because of his “concern with wholeness” (Wood and Dickinson, “Introduction” 5) and his awareness of the unity and interconnectedness of reality, Bringhurst is ultimately interested in essences, the immutable beneath the ←10 | 11→changeable, not in appearances. πάντα ῥεῖ, said sharp-minded Herakleitos about 2,500 years ago: everything is in a state of perpetual metamorphosis and only change remains the same. In his poems, Bringhurst is after the logos, the clarity and elemental truth beneath the cosmos embraced by the Presocratics and the Oriental Buddhist monk-scholars. From his ancestors he learnt the discipline of looking at what is to be seen and to find the miracle of expression in (non)human bodies and things. His metaphysics is physics incarnate. He pays attention to the sensory immediacy of what-is and clings to the facts only to transmute them into durable truths in the form of poems qua inexhaustible artefacts. Bringhurst’s poems demand that we listen, that we see and, above all, that we abandon ourselves to his search for a totality where time and space are unified into an undivided whole. His search after such a totality of time and space finds its verbal incarnation in language marked by crystal-clear transparency. As Jan Zwicky puts it, “[i]‌n lyric’s idea of the world, language would be light” (Lyric Philosophy L230). Clarity means claritas or sharpness of mind, love of conceptual and linguistic accuracy, and Bringhurst’s love of intellectual precision finds a natural counterpart in his love of a language that dreams of transparency. As a result, there is an inevitable sense of fluency, a sense of perceptual and epistemological accuracy in his thinking and singing. Hence, the words of his poems have the quality or texture of crystal. In this respect, an early piece entitled “Poem About Crystal” captures the best definition of his poems:

Look at it, stare
into the crystal because
it will tell you, not
the future, no, but
the quality of crystal,
clarity’s nature,
teach you the stricture
of uncut, utterly
uncluttered light. (Selected Poems 20)

Bringhurst’s poems are born of his encounter with the creatures populating the more-than-human world. “Sun, moon, mountains and rivers,” he says, “are the writing of being, the literature of what-is. Long before our species was born, the books had been written. The library was here before we were. We live in it” (“Poetry and Thinking” 143). He is indeed an avid outdoorsman and spends much time in the company of loons, moss and lichen, stones and clouds, trees and streams. Transcending the abyss separating the perceiving subject from the perceived world, he comes back from the woods with a handful of live poems firmly rooted in the vibrant matter of the universe. What is more, over the years he has ←11 | 12→developed a new and larger sense of what language is for and has learned to use it to make poems that embody statements of lasting value concerning the nature of reality. For him, language is not simply a vehicle for personal interaction or self-expression, but rather a sharpened tool of knowledge that allows us to grasp the essence of things. Yet the poet is well aware of the ultimate unknowability of the universe, which defies and eludes the penetrating gaze of speech. Though he makes words sing with clarity, he is not oblivious to the constraints of language to understand what-is for good.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Leonor María Martínez Serrano (Author)

Leonor María Martínez Serrano works as a Lecturer at the University of Córdoba (Spain). Her research interests include poetry, Ecocriticism, Canadian Literature and High Modernism. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia (Canada), the University of the West of Scotland (UK), Bialystok (Poland) and Oldenburg (Germany).


Title: Breathing Earth
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
244 pages