The Tree of Meaning:
By Robert Bringhurst
Gaspereau, 329 pages, $31.95
The Filled Pen:
By P. K. Page
Edited by Zailig Pollock
University of Toronto Press,
144 pages, $21.95
As Penelope Fitzgerald observed, "No two people see the external world in exactly the same way. To every separate person a thing is what he [or she]thinks it is -- in other words, not a thing, but a think."
Think, if you will, of the Japanese word sesshin, which, loosely translated, speaks to the art of touching the mind, spirit, heart and, with a little luck and a lot of skill, the nether reaches of a given reader's soul. Then, think The Tree of Meaning, poet, linguist and typographer Robert Bringhurst's thought-provoking collection of 13 lectures written over the past decade.
In his gentle and unassuming foreword to The Tree of Meaning, the neo-renaissance man now residing on the B.C. Gulf Island of Quadra, contextualizes both the scope and frames of reference for these talks: "For better or worse, this book was written to be spoken, largely in homage to poets and thinkers in cultures where writing didn't or doesn't exist."
Earlier in the same piece, Bringhurst confesses he possesses "no special aptitude for language, only a nagging suspicion there might be something it's trying to say," an astonishing revelation to be sure, given the polymath's body of work (including a dozen-plus volumes of poetry, a trio of respected translations from Haida and Greek to English, as well as several collections of prose exploring subjects as diverse as the elements of typographic prose, prosodies of meaning, literary forms and languages both wild and tamed).
Firmly rooted in the humanist tradition, with branches diverging among theories of art, eco-politics, philosophy, literature, astrophysics and the secularized divine alongside the quotidian sacred, The Tree of Meaning comprises an all-encompassing worldview where form, content, substance and style converge.
Entries such as The Polyhistorical Mind, The Audible Light in the Eyes, The Humanity of Speaking and Finding Home serve to articulate a synthetic approach to both intrinsic and extrinsic being in (and of) this world, a fact that may explain Bringhurst's abiding respect for the extant fragments of fifth-century BC poet-philosopher Parmenides of Elea. Thus, in one of the most durably luminous lectures included here, Poetry and Thinking, the California-born Canadian lays his love of language on the line:
"When 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. If you think that way and write at the same time, then poetry gets written. But poetry exists in any case. The question is only: are you going to take part, and if so, how?"
Considering the compressed beauty of the rhetorical weapons in Bringhurst's extensive arsenal, a fine place to begin might well be The Tree of Meaning, an exquisitely inclusive work worth its weight in the paper upon which it is inked.
The Filled Pen, poet-painter P. K. Page's current foray into non-fiction, contains a dozen-and-a-half reviews, ruminations, tributes and flights of fancy spanning 40 years of concentrated thinking about place, personality, painting and poetry. As respected critic and Simon Fraser professor emeritus of English Sandra Djwa astutely says, "When confronted with a book of essays, the usual question is: Why read this?" To her credit, she generously supplies readers with various reasons for so doing:
"For the sheer pleasure of it. The Filled Pen offers thoughtful reflections on the creative process and provides witty and sustaining reading about writing -- a distillation of a long, highly creative lifetime. P. K. Page's essays are intelligent, perceptive and engaged." Indeed. From A Sense of Angels, a lyrically poignant salute to the late A. M. Klein (wherein she elaborates upon the Montreal poet's "special meaning" for her), to The World of Maxwell Bates to Questions and Images, Page writes with precision and perfect timing.
Of the offerings collected in The Filled Pen, Falling in Love with Poetry (2005), destined to become a classic, will bring readers to their senses concerning the much-maligned genre's enduring value: "It was language I loved, not meaning. I liked poetry better when I wasn't sure what it meant. Eliot has said that the meaning of the poem is provided to keep the mind busy while the poem gets on with its work -- like the bone thrown to the dog by the robber so he can get on with his work. . . . Is beauty a reminder of something we once knew, with poetry one of its vehicles? Does it give us a brief vision of that 'rarely glimpsed bright face behind/ the apparency of things'? Here, I suppose, we ought to try the impossible task of defining poetry. No one definition will do. But I must admit to a liking for the words of Thomas Fuller, who said: 'Poetry is a dangerous honey. I advise thee only to taste it with the Tip of thy finger and not to live upon it. If thou do'st, it will disorder thy Head and give thee dangerous Vertigos.' "
Food for thought? Exactly. The brilliant, late-blooming novelist Penelope Fitzgerald ( The Golden Child, The Bookshop) might well agree; after all, she spent 50-odd hardscrabble years learning just how difficult it would be to come by luxuries such as honey, both literally and figuratively speaking, until poetic justice was served and she scooped up the Booker Prize for Offshore a mere two decades before her death at the turn of the last century.
Book III of Judith Fitzgerald's epic poem, the Adagios Quartet: Electra's Benison, has just been published. She is completing Leonard Cohen: Master of Song, slated to appear late this year.