Interview with Bruce Whiteman


Bruce Whiteman

by Rebeccah Ferbezar

Bruce Whiteman is a poet and writer living in Toronto. Among his books are the collections Intimate Letter (ECW, 2014), Tablature (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014), and The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books I-VI (ECW, 2006), as well as a translation of Tiberianus’ Pervigilium Veneris (Russell Maret, 2009). His literary criticism appears in Pleiades, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Hudson Review.

With Kathryn Nuernberger, Bruce co-edited Francis Jammes: On the Life & Work of a Modern Master, the fifth volume in The Unsung Master’s Series. Together, Whiteman and Nuernberger selected more than seventy pages of representative poetry and prose by Jammes, and they have brought together essays by poets and critics who admire his work.  

In Francis Jammes: On the Life and Work of Modern Master, you provided translations of his literary manifesto, selected elegies, and selections from Tristesses. Were you worried about losing the effect Jammes intended in the original poem?

Oh heavens, yes, that’s the translator’s essential challenge and main worry. Poetry always works in ways that are antithetical to translation, i.e. through not just semantic content but what I think of in general as music. Good poets remember every noise they make as they’re writing a poem, even if it is an extended work—every sibilant, every long “e”, every plosive like “k”, etc.—so that there may be sonic recollections in lines that are quite distantly separated. How on earth is a translator to do the same?

It would be a betrayal to the source text for a translator to alter the meaning of the poem, but at the musical level it’s almost always impossible to reproduce exactly the sounds of the original. (Louis Zukofsky famously tried it once, with Catullus, and the result, though irremediably strange, is compelling, if uneven.) So one tries in various ways to create a parallel music, not a music that corresponds exactly to the (in this case) French words but one that works poetically in English. French poetry works very differently from English poetry, so a translator is faced with writing a poem that sounds like a poem written in English, with someone else’s propositions, or memories, or images, or narrative. The result is inevitably a centaur, and that centaur needs legs!

Jammes in his early period was interested in direct observation (that’s why the Imagists found him congenial) and in the communality of the human heart. So his meaning, apart from regionalisms, is rarely a problem for the translator. But reproducing some version of how he expresses those simplicities is the refractory bit, the bit that keeps one up at night. My French is very good, but I am not a native speaker. So, doubtless there are subtleties that I have missed in my versions. But I feel confident that I did not commit any atrocities like one translator of Jammes, who mistook “soi sage” (“behave well,” or “be good,” as you might say to a child) as having something to do with the herb!

In your introduction, you mention that your journey to discovering Jammes began because of your interest in music. When you read Jammes’s poetry, what composer or compositions do you associate his poetry with, in addition to Lili Boulanger who famously set his poems to music. 

Well, as I say in my introductory note, Lili Boulanger and Darius Milhaud are the two composers who devoted a song cycle to Jammes’ poems. Boulanger was extraordinary, and her death in her mid-20s was a great loss to modern French music, to music in general. French music in the fin de siècle lost three composers at a young age: Boulanger, Ernest Chausson, and Guillaume Lekeu. Those losses were awful. Chausson wrote a fair amount of music before his death at 44 in a bicycle accident; but he was highly self-critical, so his catalogue goes only to Op. 37. The other two left only a very small amount of music. Milhaud by contrast wrote, what?, a zillion compositions—he and Martinů were the Telemanns of the twentieth century—and while his Jammes cycle is quite fine, it is not as compelling as Boulanger’s.

But I also associate Jammes with Henri Duparc, despite the fact that the two came to know each other too late for there to be any Duparc settings of Jammes’s poems. Duparc was the fourth composer lost to French music in the late nineteenth century. He did not die young like the others, but rather gave up composing because of illness. (It is unclear whether that illness was somatic or psychosomatic.) Duparc is mainly remembered now for a series of songs he wrote in the 1870s and 1880s that belong with the songs of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel as among the greatest in the French repertoire. Jammes and Duparc found one another for reasons of, well, sympathie. Both reconverted to Catholicism as adults. Their letters were published in 1944 in a small book, and can be read in the originals in the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet in Paris. They are very touching letters. Two wounded men.

In your introduction, you mentioned your original distaste for Francis Jammes because of religious implications. However, you found more power in Jammes’s work when you reconnected with your own faith. Did the religious connection Jammes made in his poems stand out to you more than any other religious poets?

I’ve never really reconnected with “my own faith.” I was raised in Canada in the Anglican Church—the equivalent of Episcopalianism in the U.S.—but have not been part of the Christian confession since my early teenage years. I think that my parents were more social Christians than devout believers. I wasn’t even baptized until I was almost five. My ex-wife was a Catholic and her experiences in the Church did not help to moderate my view of Catholicism as a force for social conservatism and as a helpmeet to sexual repression. That is part of the reason why, in my twenties, when I first learned of Francis Jammes and of his rediscovery of the Church, I was able so easily to put him down as just another boring religious poet in a fundamentally anti-religious age, a sentimentalist who found succor for the emotional and erotic difficulties he experienced in adulthood by acceding to a childhood form of psychoprophylaxis: religion.

Catholicism in France has a unique history, as you know, largely because of the Revolution and the 1905 legislation that reduced its social power and established finally a separation of church and state that is strikingly familiar to Americans. Catholic/Christian poetry in twentieth-century France is not a side-show, if one thinks of poets such as Claudel, Jammes, Péguy and others. It remains a minor genre, all the same, just as it does in English, Geoffrey Hill and David Jones and T.S. Eliot and others notwithstanding.

I am far less dismissive these days of poetry with a spiritual basis, despite the fact that, as the ritual of habemus Papam comes and goes and is repeated, nothing much seems to change in the Catholic determination, socially and sexually speaking, to keep things more or less as they have always been. As for Jammes, I continue to find his earlier poems, those he composed before rediscovering Catholicism, the most compelling.

Jammes was a Basque poet, the Basques are a distinct cultural group inside of a larger Spanish culture who have a separate language and culture that dates back thousands of years. Are there other small ethnic groups you would focus on so their culture is not forgotten? Jammescover

A hard question. Outsiders are a mixed blessing for such groups, aren’t they? And writers, maybe poets especially, tend by nature to sympathize with minorities when they are subjected to repression.

I lived for most of a decade in Montréal, and did translate a Québec poet (François Charron), with the help of a Québécois friend, Francis Farley-Chevrier. Francis was a young poet then–he published his first book when he was sixteen–and our practice was that he would draft a version hewing closely to the semantic content, and I would then try to effect a revision that worked as an English-language poem. A Charron book came out of that collaboration in 1995. We called it After Ten Thousand Years, Desire. It got no reviews and disappeared without a trace, but I think the translations were good. At that point in Charron’s career he had published many, many books and been nominated for Canada’s highest literary award (the Governor-General’s Award) three times. But none of his work was available then in English until our book appeared.

The situation of the francophone in Québec has evolved over the decades, but that they were long repressed by the English-Canadian majority is absolutely true. My aunt on my father’s side, who was born in Montréal and lived most of her life there, was proud of her unilingualism. Much has changed among the more recent generations, and bilingualism is now taken for granted, on both sides of St-Denis Street (the traditional geographical dividing line in Montréal). Where Québécois literature is concerned, translation is much more common now and the “two solitudes,” as novelist Hugh MacLennan once famously characterized the French and the English in Québec, at least in terms of writing, are far less separate than they once were.

All the same, the French culture of Québec was never really in danger of being “forgotten,” to revert to your question more specifically. As for other groups, I don’t know, really. French is the only language apart from Latin that I feel competent to work with, and of course it’s somewhat late to try to rescue late Antique culture! I am confessedly rather selfish when I root around in Latin poetry. I’m looking for soul mates or individual poems that speak to my own wounds and psychic confusions. So I translated and published the fourth-century poem Pervigilium Veneris by Tiberianus (The Vigil of Venus) and am working with Ovid’s exilic texts now in a series of poems I am calling “The Sad Mechanic Exercise.”

The collection opens with “Jammisme: A Literary Manifesto.” Do you have your own manifesto that you live by? 

The first time the word “manifesto” is recorded in English is in an early seventeenth-century translation of Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, where it is said that “They were so farre surprized with his Manifesto, that they would never suffer it to be published.” Well, mine neither! I am not the sort of poet who would publish a manifesto, ever. Jammes’s is rather charming, isn’t it? It seems almost deadly earnest at first, with his high-minded contention that laus Deo is the ultimate point of poetry—nothing else will suffice—and his castigation of Huysmans for inventing a character who is so far “out of nature,” to borrow Yeats’s phrase, that he would paste gemstones to a turtle’s shell for aesthetic pleasure. But he then goes on basically to say that everyone should found a school and everyone should write a manifesto and what fun if they do.

I have written about poetry, however, and perhaps what you mean is, do I have a personal take on poetry that guides my writing? And of course I do.

It has evolved over the years I have been writing, as everyone’s does. I grew impatient in my twenties with the personal lyric—its intense and relentless focus on the writing self—and began a long poem in prose as a way to enlarge my poetry’s scope. That long poem, which I called The Invisible World Is in Decline, has been published in parts since 1984. I’m working on Book VIII now. I gave up “lined” poetry out of a conviction that it required too many egotistical decisions, formally speaking. I wanted a poetry that had philosophical breadth, that allowed the world to speak, not just my “self.” But private experience kept getting into the poems anyway, and when I had a profoundly painful thing happen to me about five years ago, a friend suggested I try writing some conventionally lined poems to address the pain. The results being good, I kept on. So, in the last few months, I have published not only Book VII of my long poem (Intimate Letters), but a collection of lined poems I called Tablature. I imagine that I will go on working in both arenas. They allow me to do different things. The long poem is always curled up like a cat on my desk, and if it wakes up and wants attention, then I work on it. At other times, individual lyrics come to me, and so I address myself to them.

There’s no manifesto in all of this, as you can tell. Private compulsion does not comprise a very sound basis for a manifesto. It just comes down to work, the desire to have listened well to what gets spoken and to write it down.