Interview with a Poet: Reflections on the Work of Bruce Whiteman

ECW Press | A Canadian Indie Book Publisher | Publishing Curiously  Compelling Books Since 1974
The Invisible World is in Decline, Book IX is available through ECW Press, as well as through Amazon
9 (Melpomene) 

Lack of belief is the tragedy. It’s not that God’s ineffable face is gone. It’s out there somewhere like a star, like a childhood memory fated eventually to rise. It’s counting on the smaller things that come to be the hardest: poetry and its adagio truths, the tick-tock of love interminably out of reach and bound to fade away in any case, cocks and clocks and every squalid aspiration for eternity.

Bruce Whiteman, The Invisible World is in Decline, Book IX (p. 33). ECW Press. Kindle Edition. 

Bruce Whiteman lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where he is a full-time poet and book reviewer. Most recently he is the editor of Best Canadian Essays 2021 (Biblioasis). His selected essays and reviews will be published in 2022 by Biblioasis. Book IX, the conclusion to his long poem, The Invisible World Is in Decline, appears this April 2022 (ECW Press). His book reviews appear in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Canadian Notes & Queries, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire and elsewhere.


Published this year (2022) The Invisible World is in Decline, Book IX is the last of nine books in your long poem of the same name which you began in 1981.  Congratulations on the publication, and thank you for allowing me to interview you.  As a writer who focuses on the metaphysical, particularly cycles of time and how they are expressed in culture, I find your work compelling, as it represents a concerted effort of vision which you have managed to sustain over a considerable time period.  Poetry is difficult work, as the matters of life, love, loss, hope can be onerous points of focus which many prefer to avoid. The Invisible World is in Decline represents an oeuvre of continual, concentrated self-awareness that is remarkable, and I am grateful that you are willing to share some insights. 

In Opus Posthumous (1957) Wallace Stevens says:  “The poet is the priest of the invisible.” The poet’s invocation of words charges our perception of hidden reality with power not otherwise available; through poetry, we are allowed to commune with subtleties which lie in places normally unknown.  Poetry’s precise reflectivity provides impressions of the invisible world with a power that is akin to that of visual arts such as photography, painting or sculpture, but poetry goes beyond what those arts offer, as the power of language is specifically human.  Good poetry has a visceral impact that forever changes the reader. Through the work of a skilled poet such as yourself, we are allowed to view the shape of the ethers underpinning our world, and we come away with new knowledge in apprehending a perspective not normally seen.

To be a poet takes great strength, and speaks of a love of life that encompasses a willingness to not look away and hide from tenderness of this world, but rather revel in it, transcribing impressions for the benefit of all.  I hope my questions here are not too personal, or vague, but rather represent what others may find salient in considering your poetry.  Your work and insights are deeply valuable, and much appreciated. Thank you Bruce.


#1 Define “Invisible World”

The phrase “invisible world” brings many things to mind, and as a person who tends to look at things metaphysically, I was quite struck by this concept.  For me, this phrase refers to the subtle current of energies which underpin what we consider consensual reality.  What do you mean when you use the phrase “the invisible world”?  Are you specifically referring to the world of the aesthete, the artist and musician, a world little perceived by the majority of humanity, or is it perhaps a spiritual reference? 

BW:

There have been times over the last forty years when the title of my long poem has seemed a regrettable limitation. Perhaps I should have chosen something less specific, broader, more capacious, like The Cantos or The Divine Comedy. And almost necessarily the poem sometimes strays quite far from the central armature, perhaps most especially at those times when the personal irresistibly comes back into the work, through passion or trauma or whatever is the case.

No, the title is not aesthetic; yes, it’s more spiritual. If you look back over the history of thought since the Enlightenment, it’s pretty obvious that the invisible world is in decline. Call it God, or the world of the spiritual generally speaking, its centrality to our lives has eroded. We see this in Locke, in Hume, in Nietzsche among the philosophers. In poetry, Wordsworth’s The Prelude announces the future dominance of the personal that will continue to be at poetry’s heart through Whitman and on into Modernism. Some Modernist art will aspire to be impersonal—T.S. Eliot wanting to derogate private experience, etc.—but really almost all art in every genre is personal after Wordsworth, after Berlioz, after Blake and Turner, after Freud. So the world of the spirits, as opposed to the world of the spirit, comes to be left behind or at least to decline in relevance. I chose such an idea as the central theme of my long poem precisely so I could get away from lyricism, from the ego as the source of poetry. I freely admit that over nine books and forty years, I didn’t always succeed in keeping the ego out of the poem.


#2 Is poetry confessional or impersonal?

It seems it is the poet’s task to delineate ephemera, showing us what they have retrieved while in communion with energies that ultimately transcend the personal.  The poet transcribes delicate perceptions into a transpersonal form, allowing the sharing of material which is larger than the individual. How much of your poetry has served as personal testament as opposed to representing collective considerations, or vice versa?  I understand that you have converted to the Catholic faith, and you are surely aware of the importance of confession to the life of a practicing Catholic.  How, throughout your career, has poetry served in place of that formal sacrament, if at all?  

BW:

I converted in 2019, so the bulk of my poem was composed before I became a Catholic, at one of the worst moments in Church history, I might add! As far as confession goes, both in the Christian sense and the psychotherapeutic sense, when I began to write The Invisible World, I had reached a point as a poet when confession had become boring, and it was precisely to get away from the confessional mode that I turned to the prose poem and the long poem. I suppose, now that you ask, that poetry WAS a kind of sacrament when I was young and writing lyric poetry, poems about feelings largely, the sorts of things one talks to a priest or a psychoanalyst about. The seven deadly sins writ large or secularized. With my long poem I wanted out of therapy, and into a kind of language that engages larger issues that are not at heart personal. Book IV is about light, for example. Inevitably, and even against my better judgement, personal feeling got back into the poem, especially at moments in my life when I was devastated by something–a love affair gone bad, the death of a parent, etc. I even allowed the “lined” poem back in twice, once at the end of Book VII and again in Book IX, where one whole section consists of poems—translations in fact—of conventionally structured poems. So I guess the short answer to your question is, inevitably, both.


#3 Does decline imply a fall from grace, or is it a matter of cyclical change?   

To consider that the invisible world is in decline is sad, and also somewhat alarming.  The question that comes to mind is this: why is it in decline? Is saying the invisible world is in decline a statement of hopelessness, or cynicism?  Or is it a clear-minded, objective assessment?  Does this concept of decline encompass the idea of falling from grace? Do you believe that decline is inevitable, a condition of mortality, or is there a turning point which can be found somewhere?   Is decline a permanent state, or do you believe it is a cyclical affair? 

BW:

That’s a hard question to be definitive about. The metanarrative of continual human progress is not easy to argue for, when you take a cold hard look at the planet today. The climate crisis feels like just the latest demonstration that somehow we humans have wasted our opportunity as a species through egotism. Of course, when you think about progress in concrete ways, it’s hard not to agree with the statements that we should be glad not to be forced to have dental work done in the 18th century, or that the elimination of smallpox is a wonderful thing. But spiritual progress? Not really. A geographer named Carl Sauer once pointed out that the first time humans did something really bad to the Earth was during the Renaissance, when humanism came to the fore; and in that sense, it has been downhill ever since, as far as our relationship with nature is concerned. And maybe our relationship with God too. But it’s complicated, and I’m not sure that the idea of a fall from grace is historically accurate. Emotionally, though, it kind of feels apt. It’s hard to imagine that we will ever return to the sort of integrated world view of earlier periods in human history. But hope is a very human emotion, so who knows?


#4 Are poets psychopomps?   

In Book IX, you say:

“Part of a poet’s job is to journey to hell. Seeking dear ones gone into pitch. Wanting the smell of love, the touch of a moving body. Missing hoarfrost and starshine, glabrous light, polyphonic voices.” (p. 14)

And:

“Remembering the dead, our lot is to walk carefully forward. Not to fall headlong from hour to hour, from day to day, hurled like water from edge to edge, into the darkness that yawns beneath our steps. Like a man on a wire we don’t look back and can’t look down, but focus straight ahead.” (p.16)

Your use of the psychopomp as a recurring character is fascinating. For those not familiar, a psychopomp is a divine or semi-divine being who is able to traverse the borders between the land of the living and the land of the dead, travelling back and forth to the underworld usually to fulfill a specific task, relay information or retrieve something lost.  Very few have been allowed by the gods to travel to make this journey and return to tell the tale, and success usually involves not looking back at that which we wish to bring to the surface. In looking back, we express doubt, and we scorn a divine gift, yet it is such a temptation to do what we have been decreed not to do. As a poet, how do you relate to the figure of the psychopomp? Are poets psychopomps in their own way, and should they be?  What temptations does the poet entertain in traversing the invisible landscapes of the underworld?

BW:

I took the idea of the psychopomp from Jung, for whom it is much as you say—a kind of spiritual cicerone. Some of the great works of western literature describe the visit to the realm of the dead—The Odyssey in Book 11, The Aeneid in Book 6, and of course Dante’s Inferno, the first great book of The Divine Comedy. The Orpheus myth as told by Ovid and others falls into this narrative as well. All of the seekers return to the world or rise upwards, sadder but wiser. Dante has to leave his psychopomp behind, because he—the poet Virgil—is a pagan, and not qualified to enter Paradise. Orpheus of course loses Eurydice because, as you say, he lacks faith and looks back to ensure that she is following him–just exactly what he has been told not to do. As I say in a note to Book IX, the psychopomp in one way is the master of dreams. Several of my poems engage with something I literally heard in a dream and recorded–the statement, for example, “I have an immortality problem.” I was hesitant to use dream material this literally, but decided in the end that there is so much poetry in dreams that it was stupid or ungenerous to ignore it. Dreams often do feel like an expedition to Hell, and what we can learn there, and from them, seems worth registering. Are poets psychopomps in this sense? The ancients would have answered in the affirmative for sure, and I do too.


#5  What advice do you have for the young poet?

For one last question, I ask broadly – what do you have to say to the young poet?  What advice do you have?  What would you like to say to those who would follow in your path, taking up the life of a poet?

BW:

I would try to be positive, though the real-world rewards are few. I would say, read as much as possible, poetry and other literature too. You cannot write well if you do not have a rich reading experience among the poets who came before you. Poetry doesn’t begin with Mary Oliver or Leonard Cohen. Read Homer and everything or as much as possible of what comes after him. Read translations if you don’t have other languages, though knowing another language is a very good thing for a poet. And as a poet who emphasizes the musical elements of poetry, I would recommend knowing at least something about how music works. Read aloud a lot. Read and re-read the same poems to know them well. Hang out with other creative people—musicians, painters et al. They will provoke you but also be good readers of your work. Learn about where words come from, as this will enrich the ways in which you use them. Poetry isn’t much of a living, honestly, but it’s a rich way to engage with life.

Excerpt from “Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad” by Alice Oswald

Juan de la Corte 1590-1660, Achilles Confronting Hector Outside Troy

A short excerpt from Alice Oswald’s epic poem, Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad, published in 2011 by Faber and Faber Ltd., pages 68-71.

And Hector died like everyone else
He was in charge of the Trojans
But a spear found out the little patch of white
Between his collarbone and his throat
Just exactly where a man's soul sits
Waiting for the mouth to open
He always knew it would happen
He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running
All women loved him
His wife was Andromache
One day he looked at her quietly
He said I know what will happen
And an image stared at him of himself dead
And her in Argos weaving for some foreign woman
He blinked and went back to his work
Hector loved Andromache
But in the end he let her face slide from his mind
He came back to her sightless
Strengthless expressionless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than the leaves

Like chaff flying everywhere at threshing time
The winnowers waft their fans and the wind does its work
And a goddess is there picking the grain from its husk
While a fine white dust covers everything

In Anne Oswald’s own words: “This translation presents the whole poem as a kind of oral cemetery – in the aftermath of the Trojan War, an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing. I hope it doesn’t need too much context. I hope it will have its own coherence as a series of memories and similes laid side by side.: an antiphonal account of man in his world. ”