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

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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.

Memento Mori Miniature Art

I visited Art Gallery of Ontario yesterday and spent some time looking at a wonderful exhibit called “Meditation and the Medieval Mind.” I took many photos, and thought I would share some here for those who may be interested. Reflection on death through contemplation of what are known as “memento mori” has been an important source of religious, philosophical and spiritual art throughout European history. This exhibit looks mainly at miniature art, as well as some larger religious pieces, all reflective of the undeniable fact of mortality and our inevitable appointment with Death.

“Death Triumphant” carved lindenwood, Germany (Bavaria), 1670.
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
Coffin pendant and case, gold, hair, crystal and sharkskin, England, 1721
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
“Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil”, carved fruitwood, Southern Germany, 1742.
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
Left to right: Death, carved boxwood, late 16th to early 17th c Germany;
Death, ivory, early 17th century Germany;
Skull with crown of thorns, ivory, 18th century Germany
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
“The Dance of Death”, Circle of Leonhard Kern, ivory, mid 17th century, Germany
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
Skull Pomander, silver, 17th century.
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
“Allegory of Youth and Death,” ivory, early 17th century Germany (Augsburg or Munich)
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.
“Skeleton Arising from the Tomb at The Last Judgement” ivory and paint, 16th century Germany or France
Thompson Collection of European Art at Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Veronica Childe.

Astrology: Sun Sign Aries

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, oil on panel, 1490-1519. Private collection. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images) courtesy of Wikipedia. Da Vinci was an Aries, born 15 April 1452.

“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire.”

Robert Frost, Fire and Ice, 1923. Frost was an Aries, born 26 March 1874.

The Sun travels through the astrological sign of Aries from ~March 21st until ~April 21, and in the Northern Hemisphere, this corresponds with the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring. As such, traditional astrological texts focus on the factor of increased sunlight during this time, when the primordial power of the Earth awakens, and as light equalizes the world is nourished with the return of the Solar power, which quickens life from its deep slumber, shaking away the dust and inertia of the long, cold winter. In the Southern Hemisphere, though, this is the Autumnal Equinox, and that heady solar force is on the wane, its power directed down into the earth, the potency stored for later days. Sun in Aries is energy personified, Cardinal Fire at it’s most direct and combustible.  Aries prefers to initiate and move on to the next conquest, leaving the execution and finishing off to the Fixed and Mutable signs. Ruled by Mars, the God of War, Aries is direct, ambitious, courageous, enthusiastic, impatient, lusty, combative, incisive, confident and humorous. At its worst, Aries is violent, coarse, hasty, insensitive, brutal, demanding, and mercenary. Not known for subtlety, and ever-assuming agreement and obedience from those around them, Aries people love a good fight, and will go to great lengths to ensure that their efforts at obtaining one are successful. Sporting, independent and quick to assess and take advantage of a situation, Aries is the original fire brand.

Aries Tarot Correspondence – Major Arcana IV:
The Emperor (Rider Waite Smith Tarot)

People born under the sign of Aries are typically very active, and their high level of energy can express itself through any route – physical, mental, or emotional.  Aries people are typically known as bossy, busy-bodies, bombastic, pushy, direct, ruthless, insensitive, martial, impatient, and lacking in subtlety. These folks prefer to get to the heart of a matter as quickly as possible, regardless of any hurt feelings in those around them, and when you call them out for their insensitivity, they will be surprised, as they sincerely feel that they are doing you a favor in getting things done as quickly as possible. Likely to take the lead in any given situation, and usually convinced that they are correct in doing so, Aries have little patience and do not suffer fools gladly.  You will never be smart enough to really impress an Aries, and even if you are occasionally correct, you may be allowed to express your opinion, but usually only in the midst of an argument, in self-defense.  If you happen to be wrong, or wishy-washy, or otherwise prove yourself weak or somehow reproachable, prepare to be dispensed with so fast that your head will be spinning.   If you need to get something done and over with, if you want a firm opinion or someone to back you up in a fight, go to your Aries friend and your job is done.  If you need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to shop for bed linens and listen as you wax philosophical about the merits of Egyptian cotton versus Turkish weave, move on as quickly as possible and spare yourself the hurt feelings. Aries won’t feel snubbed – in fact, they probably just won’t notice or care at all. They are busy, you are in the way, so move on and see you later.

Aside from all the domineering, impetuous, high-level energy, Aries also has a tender side which they may or may not be aware of. Aries’ polarity point lies in the sign of Libra, and it is in the realm of relationships, give-and-take, acquiescing to the wishes or needs of others that Aries can find development. To help cultivate breadth of scope and depth of character, Aries would do well to consider the idea of “other” every once in a while by asking themselves – what do others feel, think, need or want? Having that scope of vision will help Aries achieve even greater accomplishments, for in cultivating a sense of balance Aries will find their executive capacities even further enhanced, and let’s be honest, what Aries out there doesn’t want to be the best that they can be?

  • Key Words: independent, courageous, confident, bold, enthusiastic, optimistic, active, impatient, selfish, boorish, blunt, lusty, humorous, pioneering, reckless
  • Rulership: Mars, the God of War
  • Modality: Cardinal Fire
  • Polarity: positive masculine
  • Gemstone: diamond, ruby, amethyst,
  • Metal: iron, all metals in general are ruled by Aries
  • Tarot: The Emperor
  • Color: Red, scarlet, hot orange, bright white.
  • Deities: Isis, Athena, Minerva Mars, Shiva
  • Flora: honeysuckle, peppermint, cayenne, onions, garlic, radish, hops, mustard, thistles, aloes, holly and other spiked plants
  • Fauna: ram, owl, sheep, lamb
  • Famous Aries personalities: Lady Gaga, Jessica Chastain, Alec Baldwin, Elton John, Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, Mariah Carey, Eddie Murphy, Marlon Brando, Robert Downey Jr., Rene Descartes, Seth Rogen, Emma Watson, Chance the Rapper, Kourtney Kardashian, Rooney Mara, Ewan McGregor, Cosimo de’ Medici, King Charlemagne, Kofi Annand, Colin Powell, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonardo Da Vinci, Max Ernst

Astrology: Vernal Equinox 03/20/2020

Vernal Equinox, 3:50 am March 20, 2020 GMT, Prime Meridian, Greenwich, London, England

The Spring Equinox of 2020 begins on a very somber note. This chart is serious – plain and simple. Capricorn on the Ascendant, with a stellium involving an unprecedented combination of Mars, Jupiter, Pluto and Saturn. Mars and Jupiter conjoin from the 12th, chart ruler Saturn grips Pluto from the 1st, with Pluto at 24º 40’ Capricorn exactly conjunct the Ascendant degree, 24º 33’ Capricorn, the dark meat of this sandwich. It doesn’t get any more serious than this. This is unusual, it is stark, it is powerful, and it is not going away any time fast.

The Moon is at 13º Aquarius. Mercury sits alone in Pisces, with a gentle sextile to Uranus in Taurus, inspired, forward-looking and humane. Chiron in Aries waits for the Sun to arrive, opening to a conjunction that can allow acknowledgement of the woundedness, and the healing required to address the pain that is being felt around the world as we pass through this Equinox period. Saturn and Pluto offer a stabilizing force, like a doctor who holds your hand as you go into surgery to finally have that growing tumor removed. It’s going to be painful, but there’s no turning back any longer.

The world is changing, rapidly, in ways that we could not have imagined even one month ago. Our cities and nations are under lock-down. Businesses, travel, medical care, access to public resources, schools – are all locked away from our reach, as we are isolated for what we are to understand is our own protection. Structures, rules, regulations, the very foundation of our society is being renovated. All of this sort of makes me want to weep a bit, and likely many people are feeling this way, but no – there’s no time for that anymore, as this is not anything emotional we are dealing with. Our very bones are being broken and reset – for our own good, for the betterment of all. There’s nothing we can do but stand aside. The power behind this movement is like a locomotive – there is no standing in the way of the transformation that we are witnessing.  We must watch as this thing sweeps across our lands, taking the most vulnerable, frightening the staunch, weakening the already weary. We must bow our heads in supplication to the power of nature, for even in the midst of human misery, nature is stepping forward in expansion, lifting herself away from the muck and the dross that has been repressing her for so long now.  Even a few weeks of lessened human activity has made a tremendous difference to the plants, the animals, the very air we breath. Beyond the scope of my knowledge is the thought that this may perhaps even influence upcoming weather patterns.

Many speculations are afoot – this is a New World Order move for a lock-down of the planet’s population.  The disease that is sweeping the globe, officially known as SARS-CoV-2, and formerly known as COVID-19, was perhaps manufactured, a covert war effort, a stunning device of biological warfare. In an election year, in a world of shifting trade and economic partnerships, we find China chomping at the bit in its attempt to take down Donald Trump’s American empire. There, he is regarded as a “paper tiger”, a weak and foolish man, and the Chinese perceive that there has never been a better opportunity than his term of leadership this to spring into a controlling role in the world stage, and so they have with the development of their “New Silk Road”, a revisiting of ancient trade routes connecting Europe, Africa and Asia.

I am not a political scientist.  I am a planet whisperer. I see the energies of the planets, how they swirl and interact, and how they impact the fools we are, walking blindly on this good green Earth. And as such, I say that now is the time to stop, watch, humbly wait and most of all, pray. This is not a time of chaos – chaos has come and gone. This is a time of sequestering, of clamping down, of eradication, a controlled, energetic and massive implosion. The image of the intentional demolition of an old, dangerous and arcane structure, whose perpetuation would only mean prolonged disease and suffering for many comes to mind .  This world will be looking very different by the end of the year, and given how quickly events are moving, it is difficult at this time to know how different. Next week, on the 23rd, Saturn pops into Aquarius for a couple of months, by month’s end joined by Mars, who will be travelling with Saturn in a constrained attempt to keep situations under control, populations calm and directed. When Saturn’s retrograde back into Pisces occurs in July, Pluto will have fallen too far behind to be of any use in further joint collaboration, and the tension will be dispelled somewhat, with Saturn’s energies put into reconstruction on an organizational level. Imagine him walking through with his teams of cleaners, administrators, directors and pundits, ticking boxes here, circling in red there – ensuring that things are fixed and tidied before he finally departs for Aquarian zones. Shortly after the Autumnal Equinox, he will travel forward and leave the mess of the spring behind once and for all, Jupiter and Pluto remaining together to force through power moves of control, governmental priority and scrutiny of the trappings of privilege, the work of autumn and early winter before Jupiter also moves along into Aquarius, enhancing new structures and new governments.

We have to remember that despite how well organized, automated and convenient our societies may be, we are still at the mercy of Nature. Our bodies are of Nature, they are living flesh and blood and subject to forces that pale in comparison to the tiny yet gargantuan microprocessors which we trust with our most private thoughts and details. None of the technology, the conveniences, the cozy little boxes that we have created for ourselves mean anything in the face of Nature unleashed, and if it takes a pandemic, a fast, rushing disease to stop us in our tracks and remember this, then so be it. We will weather this, as we do all emergencies, tragedies and fatality – because that is what it means to be human. We fall, we stand, we fall again, and we continue with the strength of learning behind us, with the light of hope in front of us, the foundation of wonder at the majesty of Nature at our feet. Even two weeks ago, the idea that our cities and nations would be under a state of emergency was beyond reason.  Today, as we frantically shop for items that we know our families require for what we consider normal living, we are faced with the very real possibility that we may all need to adjust to a new normal, sooner rather than later.