Work to be Done: Selected Essays and Reviews by Bruce Whiteman

Bruce Whiteman is a man of letters. That phrase, which now of course should evolve to “person of letters,” denotes figures as disparate as Hilaire Belloc, George Fetherling, and Barry Callaghan.  They engage literature all their lives in various ways, not only reading and writing poetry and prose but contributing essays, reviews, and (in Callaghan’s case) mentoring, editing and publishing others’ work. Belloc, incidentally, wrote one of the more amusing quatrains in the book biz:

When I am dead,
I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet,
but his books were read.”

Hilaire Belloc

So, what about Bruce?
For 50 years, he published reviews and essays, notably in The Hudson Review.  He worked for over 30 years as a rare book specialist and then librarian, and has also translated foreign literary works into English. His long poem The Invisible World Is in Decline is spread over several books; the final volume in 2022. Perhaps more important than these credentials, Whiteman is an erudite and very well-read lover of books in general, and literature in particular. He brings a finely honed critical perspective, a fine prose style of his own, and a sturdy sense of humour to the various essays and reviews collected here. 

Whiteman is an erudite and very well-read lover of books in general, and literature in particular.

The collection’s final essay, “Waiting for the Barbarians: Rare Books and the New University in Canada” laments the decreasing use of real rare and antique books, and their replacement by binary facsimiles. It struck a melancholy note for me, as I realized Whiteman and I, fellow late Boomers, began our reading in that long-ago world in which books were the chief repositories of knowledge. My parents, both well-educated, supplied their five kids not only with an extensive private library that included poetry, fiction, humour and Canadiana, but essential reference sources like the two-volume tiny-font Oxford English Dictionary (with accompanying magnifying glass) and the full Encyclopedia Britannica, plus yearbook updates. Over our lifetimes, the empire of print has been replaced by the digital … what? Diaspora? Deluge? Demons?

Work to be Done is divided into five sections: The Art of Poetry; Antiquity; Europe; CanLit; and The World of Books. The first essay, “What’s Poetry,” I’d recommend as a great refresher of what’s important, and valuable, in good poetry. In case you didn’t know, Whiteman notes that, “The average Canadian or American doesn’t give a pinch of prairie dog scat for poetry.” Whiteman shows his knowledge of Greek and Latin and the classics generally, but not in a ponderous, mansplaining way. His comments on translations of the classics and more modern works are particularly illuminating, as he often compares several translators’ efforts on the same passage from the original. His criticism seems generally fair and well grounded in the work, although I did notice one off-hand dismissive comment along the lines of “… and, God help us, Jane Austen …” Austen may well not be a favourite of Whiteman’s (nor of mine), but she’s hardly a minor or forgotten writer today. However, he does consider the work of women poets including Sappho, Ann Wilkinson, PK Page, and Phyllis Webb. 

We learn, as well as new words from the author’s extensive vocabulary, some fascinating bits of trivia. I didn’t know, for example, that the aforementioned Webb was so devastated by a single review of her work in Open Letter that she couldn’t write for a few years, or that WB Yeats, among the most musical of poets, was in fact tone-deaf. Or that Flaubert’s mother, obviously unimpressed by her son’s pursuit of the best style, told him that “his passion for sentences had dried up his heart.”

As a critic, Whiteman prefers the micro to the macro, focusing on individual passages and lines rather than sweeping systems like Northrop Frye’s. He does, however, observe an intriguing pattern in Canadian poetry in the essay “Whatever Happened to the Avant-Garde?”. He suggests that the 20th century brought booms in experimental (for the times) approaches in the even-numbered decades of the 20’s, 40’s, and 60’s, and a conservative retrenchment in style during the 30’s, 50’s and 70’s. This might be a good starting point for a PhD dissertation on CanLit. Anyone? Anyone?

Overall, and with the caveat that I’m responding to this collection, not to all the essays and reviews that didn’t make it in, Whiteman’s choices of authors tend to be somewhat conservative, aligned with the much-denounced “standard canon of Western literature.” He takes on, for example, Whitman and Pound, but not HD or Emily Dickinson, and, to my knowledge, no writers of colour, or from the post-colonial diaspora are discussed in detail here.

This book … should probably be at the bedside of any serious student of Western literature.

Of course, any essayist and reviewer is free to pick whoever gets the ink flowing, and Whiteman does have valuable and interesting things to say about the writers he approaches. 

This book, then, should probably be at the bedside of any serious student of Western literature. It reminded me of how much I need to renew my acquaintance with Sappho, Virgil, Homer et al.  Kudos to series editor John Metcalf for midwifing it, and Biblioasis for publishing it. Unfortunately, gatherings of literary essays and reviews usually generate sales figures well below even first poetry and short-fiction collections, but they are essential to the ongoing health of our culture and literature.

Bruce Whiteman is a Canadian poet, translator, reviewer, essayist, former rare books librarian, and university teacher.

Publisher: Biblioasis (April 9, 2024)
Paperback 5.5″ x 8.5″ | 320 pages
ISBN: 9781771966092

John Oughton first lived in Guelph, Ont. After sojourns in Iraq, Egypt, and Japan, he now resides in Toronto's Beaches area. He studied literature at York University and completed two non-credit summer sessions at Naropa U.'s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Col., where he was a research assistant to Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He has published close to 500 articles, reviews, blogs, interviews, and six poetry collections, the most recent being The Universe and All That (Ekstasis Editions). He has also written a mystery novel, Death by Triangulation; and Higher Teaching: A Handbook for New Postsecondary Faculty. John retired as a Professor of Learning and Teaching from Centennial College.   His current pursuits include guitar, photography, and kayaking.

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