The Natural History of Language and Literature
- Robert Bringhurst (Author)
The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Robert Bringhurst (Author)
Wild Language. Institute for Coastal Research (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rebecca Raglon
Toward the end of the The Tree of Meaning the poet Robert Bringhurst, meditating on a dead fawn he has encountered at the side of the road near his home, suggests that there is “nothing new and modern (or postmodern) in the claim that human beings are the fountain of meaning and value, and that the dead fawn is nothing unless it has meaning and value for us.” This collection of lectures, given in a variety of venues over a period of a dozen years, is a complex and scholarly attempt to refute this common, and, to Bringhurst, very selfish and self-serving assumption.
In several lectures, Bringhurst is at pains to establish the idea that all languages developed within particular ecosystems. Poetry is thus most profoundly viewed as an aspect of natural history. In articulating these ideas, he is clearly challenging the idea of a nature/culture divide. According to Bringhurst, nature itself is best understood as possessing culture. Animals and birds have language, knowledge exists in landscapes, and poetry is an expression of being. “Every human culture is really just an extension of the underlying culture known as nature,” Bringhurst writes in “Poetry and Thinking,” a lecture that ranges from Artistotle to Liu Xie, from Simone Weil to the Crow poet, Yellow Brow. As merely one part of this vast “culture of nature,” it should be clear that by itself human language doesn’t create the world. Rather, as Bringhurst suggests, at its best, human language and literature partake of the patterns that the world has created. Human culture, then, is simply the human part of a much larger culture variously known as wild nature, ecosystems, bioregions, or in Bringhurst’s writings, the world. “Poetry is,” he observes, “what I start to hear when I concede the world’s ability to manage and to understand itself. It is the language of the world: something humans overhear if they are willing to pay attention, and something that the world will teach us to speak, if we allow the world to do so.” Because the world is capable of managing itself, it possesses intrinsic meaning, and it is the work of the poet, the oral story-teller, the writer, to witness this fact.
Bringhurst goes more deeply into these ideas in the lecture “Wild Language,” which is published separately as an attractive chapbook. Any familiarity with wild nature reveals that humans do not create or manage natural systems. “The wild is the real, and the real is where we go for form and meaning,” Bringhurst writes. “Meaning doesn’t originate with us. When we are actually speaking, what we say has form and meaning, and those, at root are not man-made.” Rather, language has evolved and was fashioned from the heart of nature, and the sensitive poet is one who tries to live up to the standards expressed by the wild. At their best, Bringhurst believes that human civilizations begin to resemble the forests they have emerged from and “start to attain—and to sense and respond to—the forests’ supple and self-reinforcing order.” In this way, stories, poems, language, music are all aspects of the “the wild.”
Bringhurst works with a vast number of different references, both ancient and modern, to develop his poetics. He makes the point—which needs to be made over and over again—that North American literature does not begin with European contact; and many of his examples are drawn from First Nation texts and languages he has worked with over many years. He draws on his work as a historian of typography in the essay “The Voice in the Mirror” and uses his studies of linguists in “The Tree of Meaning and the Work of Ecological Linguistics.” His own poetry appears when he quotes from “Finch,” a poem which views the dignity of a bird at his feeder that has lost an eye and has a shattered beak. In all of these wide-ranging topics, however, Bringhurst returns again and again to the idea that human culture, language, and poetry are shaped by the world—the same world inhabited by a deer or a finch. As a corrective to the belief that humans “create” meaning, or that nature and culture are antagonistic, these books are essential reading.
- In the Elegaic Mode by Paul Milton
Books reviewed: Crossing the Salt Flats by Christopher Wiseman, Today I Belong To Agnes by Glen Sorestad, Telling Stories by David Helwig, and Weathers: Poems New and Selected by Douglas Lochhead
- Cross-cultural Exchanges by Roseanna L. Dufault
Books reviewed: Frida: Paint me as a Volcano/Frida: Un Volcan de Souffrance by Keith Garebian, Made in Auroville, India by Monique Patenaude, and Contes iraniens islamisés by Shodja Eddin Ziaïan
- Au pays de l'inexistence by Laurent Poliquin
Books reviewed: écran total by Laurent Chabin and Romans de la poésie by Yves Boisvert
- Four Ways to Make Poems by Nicholas Bradley
Books reviewed: Bardy Google by Frank Davey, That Other Beauty by Karen Enns, The Essential Margaret Avison by Margaret Avison, and The Glassblowers by George Sipos
- Unstable Boundaries by Jen Hill
Books reviewed: Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, & Social Imagination by Julie Cruikshank
MLA: Raglon, Rebecca. The Natural History of Language and Literature. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #196 (Spring 2008), Diasporic Women's Writing. (pg. 127 - 128)
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