Elizabeth Brewster, Poet, Novelist, Short-Story Writer

Elizabeth Brewster

Elizabeth Brewster, Poet, Novelist, Short-Story Writer

Elizabeth Brewster (born 26 August 1922) was a poet, novelist, essayist, and short-story writer from Chipman. She published over two dozen books, the majority of which are collections of poetry, and received numerous awards for her work. Characterized by her plain-spoken, poignant style, Brewster’s writing has become an important part of Canada’s literary canon. 

Elizabeth Brewster UNB

Elizabeth Brewster lived and studied in various cities throughout her life and earned four university degrees. She received her BA from the University of New Brunswick in 1946, her MA from Radcliffe College (Harvard University) in 1947, her BLS (Bachelor of Library Science) from the University of Toronto in 1952, and her PhD from the University of Indiana in 1962.

Brewster started writing poetry at a young age and developed a unique voice and style during her studies at the University of New Brunswick. She was one of the few modernist female poets to be published in Canadian magazines during the 1940s and actively participated in the creation of “Fiddlehead,” Canada’s longest-running literary magazine. In 1951, she published her first collection of poetry, “East Coast,” with Ryerson Press.

It's Easy To Fall On Ice - Elizabeth Brewster

During the 1950s and 1960s, Brewster’s literary output was relatively slow, as she worked as a librarian at various libraries in Canada and the United States, including the New Brunswick Legislative Library. From 1960 to 1961, she taught English at the University of Victoria. However, her literary productivity increased when she started teaching at the University of Saskatchewan from 1972 until her retirement in 1990. In the late 1970s, she began writing prose fiction, including two novels, “The Sisters” (1974) and “Junction” (1982), and a book of short stories titled “It’s Easy to Fall on the Ice” (1977). She continued to write both poetry and short stories and reached her peak productivity in the 1980s, with nine books published in that decade.

It was at this point that Brewster’s writing began to garner mainstream critical acclaim. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick in 1982 and a Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1985. In 1996, her poetry collection “Footnotes to the Book of Job” was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award. In 2001 she was inducted into the Order of Canada.

Throughout her long and distinguished career, Elizabeth Brewster explored a range of styles. Her early poetry, which was published during the era of second-generation Canadian modernism, was clearly modernist. However, by eschewing grandiose metaphors and erudite vocabulary popular in that era, she favoured a colloquial voice that appears on the surface to be almost prosaic. Underneath her straightforward diction, however, lies great intelligence and a shrewd eye for powerful, if subdued, details.

Meditations on place and tradition are a common concern in her work, as can be seen in the iconic first lines of her poem “Where I Come From”: “People are made of places. They carry with them hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace or the cool eyes of sea gazers.” Correspondingly, a great many of her poems (particularly her earlier work) explore the subjects of memory and personal reflection, aligning her loosely with writers such as fellow New Brunswick poet Alden Nowlan. In an article on Brewster’s early writing, Desmond Pacey divided it into three main categories. The first he calls poems of memory; the second, poems of feeling, which are characterized by a “sense of loneliness, sadness, restlessness, or self-doubt”  and the third, poems of religion or, more broadly, philosophy. Pacey did, however, list examples that do not fit these constructs, and he readily admits that his is only a rough catalogue of Brewster’s writing that does not take into account some of the more tangential aspects of her long and productive career as a writer. One such example would be the presence of gothic elements in Brewster’s work. While typically understated, these elements do offer a different dimension to some poems than readers of her work might expect.

In her own view, Elizabeth Brewster claimed to favour “a language which is clear, straightforward, and with little adornment.” She admitted, “I do not normally allow myself a word which I should not use in plain prose, and I normally also use the sentence construction of plain prose”. Hence, her vocabulary is trim and conversational, her use of metaphors and similes restrained, and her use of allusion even more so. She was, in Desmond Pacey’s words, a “plain poet”. In spite of its slightly pejorative sound, this view is complimentary: the word “plain” is not meant to imply that her poetry is prosaic or ineloquent, but that it is merely indicative of the great restraint she utilizes as a writer. Brewster’s words are carefully chosen, and the “plainness” Pacey refers to results not from a lack of talent, but from a deliberate economy of language. This precision is apparent in her use of form and structure as well. Her early writing was in rhyming, metered verse—much of it rhyming quatrains—but even with her move to free verse in the late fifties, her lines remained just as tight and measured as if they were dictated by an established rhyme scheme or form. 

This restraint applies to her prose as well as her poetry. Both her fiction and her nonfiction possess the same understated vocabulary, subdued diction, and verbal economy typical of her poetic work. Metaphors are shed in favour of clear, concise, almost journalistic detail. Themes of loss and identity appear in her stories as in her poetry, but one motif that finds a particularly strong foothold in her fiction is family. The relationship between relatives, both within the immediate family and across generations, comes up often in Brewster’s prose, where the narrative structure and dialogue inherent to the genre allow her to develop her characters through small but key details.

Over the years, Brewster’s tight lines and conversational tone loosened slightly. In her poetry collection, “Jacob’s Dream” (2002)—winner of the 2003 Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry, there are hints of metaphysical imagery and comparatively heightened diction. Lines such as “Eyes planted in the mind? No inward mists? Light flooding the irradiated brain?” seem positively radical when compared to the understated, conversational tone for which she became known. Nonetheless, these flourishes are only small adaptations to her overall style, and the solid, conversational foundation of her writing remains consistent throughout her oeuvre. 

Elizabeth Brewster passed away at the age of 90 in 2012 and is buried in the Agues Israel Cemetery in Saskatoon. 

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