1920 A word for the wise

Story Lines: How Words Shape Our World
by J. Edward Chamberlin

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2023
$26.95  /  9781771623513

Reviewed by Gary Geddes


Stories not only keep us alive, but also help us make sense of the world and our place in it. From creation stories and cave drawings to the epic poems of Homer and the sophisticated narratives of Anthony Doerr, Toni Morrison, and Haruki Murakami, storytellers have helped us parse the challenges of daily living and the wonders and mysteries of an unfolding universe. No one I know takes such pleasure and care in understanding and articulating the strategies and power of storytelling as Ted Chamberlin in his various writings, but most refreshingly in Story Lines: How Words Shape Our World.

He speaks of coming to literature—that is, to storytelling—through folk songs, ballads and hymns, but especially survival songs such as “The Ballad of Springhill,” first made popular by Peggy Seeger, and Leadbelly’s “Irene, Goodnight.” And what surprises him still is how a sad or melancholy tune can provide comfort. As he tells us in chapter four “Resistance and Survival”: “How this happens, how a kind of joy comes out of a song or story of sorrows, is one of the mysteries of art and of life, as baffling as any of the mysteries of science. It is an amazing grace . . .”

J. Edward Chamberlin

Is this seeming contradiction really a mystery? It’s not just the subject matter of the story, whether set to music or written on the page, that makes us comfortable with painful or depressing material. Similar subject matter presented matter-of-factly, in graphic detail, by a journalist or reporter at the scene of an accident, or reporting from the frontlines of a battle, can disturb us dreadfully, without either the comfort or joy of a well-told and carefully modulated narrative. A good story is different from a factual report; and that difference—not the what but the how of the story—Chamberlin calls style: “Sometimes it’s not the song itself, but the singing. Just as sometimes it’s not the storyline, but the storytelling.”

This subtle distinction becomes more apparent when he focuses on John Keats’ famous poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” describing the poet’s strategy, his style, which involves not only the choice of words, but also the word-order (the syntax), the stress patterns, the careful unfolding and counterpointing of details, the way Keats shifts the focus of his dying lament from his own pain and tubercular despair to the biblical story of Ruth, widowed and rejected, who “stood in tears amid the alien corn.” And, finally, how, in facing his own inevitably early death, Keats takes comfort and delight in the song of the nightingale, inviting us to imagine how that same sound might have lightened Ruth’s spirit, and our own.

I love this book for its many shared stories, especially the story of the Gitxsan fishing standoff, when the women, elders and children stood between the fishermen, determined to take their rightful and hereditary catch, and the RCMP, who were trying to enforce a shutdown. At the last moment, as the police closed in, the children took from their bags small devices—slingshots probably—and sent a deluge of marshmallows into the air, causing the surprised Mounties to turn and run, which made the national news.

The Marshmallow War and Chamberlin’s main thesis of how words shape our world remind me of Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire’s observation in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that ten years of formal education are less likely to liberate the illiterate and oppressed than giving them the words that will help them name and understand their oppression. My colleague Terry Byrnes at Concordia used to emphasize the importance of words in storytelling by saying: “What comes next in a story [or poem] is more important than what happens next; and what comes next is always a word.” Joseph Conrad wisely said: “Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.” Chamberlin does not hesistate to talk about the importance of stories to our social and mental health; nor does he resist reminding us that stories are not always restricted to words on a page. Narratives are suggested in cave drawings, totem poles and, more importantly, dramatically present in the oral tradition of Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

“Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.” – Joseph Conrad

I was invited a few years ago to talk at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin to a group of individuals involved in a European sustainability organization. I shared the stage with a Portugeuse marine biologist who was part of the Blue Revolution for ocean protection. What I told them has everything to do with the words we use. I said: “I would not be honest here if I did not remind you that what we are doing is no longer sustainable. I need, and you need, a language that speaks truth to power, corporate and political power. I share this view with many scientists and commentators, including with my wife Ann Eriksson, Catherine Ingram, Greta Thunberg, and especially Jem Bendell, who suggests replacing ‘growth,’ ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’ with the four r-words, ‘resilience,’ ‘relinquishment,’ ‘restoration’ and ‘reconciliation,’ and facing head-on the prospect of environmental collapse and massive social readjustment. Denial, even half-truths, at this stage can only be lethal. Words that distort or downplay the importance of the climate crisis need to be dropped from our vocabularies.” My audience was not impressed. After the gathering not a single person came to speak to me.

I can’t end this brief review without mentioning Denise Levertov’s advice to writers, which I know Ted Chamberlin would embrace: “…it is the poet who has language in his care; the poet who more than others recognizes language as a form of life and a common resource to be cherished and served as we should serve and cherish earth and its waters, animal and vegetable life, and each other. The would-be poet who looks on language merely as something to be used, as the bad farmer or the rapacious industrialist looks on the soil or on rivers merely as things to be used, will not discover a deep poetry; he will only, according to the degree of his skill, construct a counterfeit . . . a  subpoetry . . . a reference, not an incarnation. And he will be contributing, even if not in any immediately apparent way, to the erosion of language, just as the irresponsible, irreverent farmer and industrialist erode the land and pollute the rivers.”

Those are strong words, shaping words. Take them to heart as you reach for Ted Chamberlin’s inspiring and embracing book about one of our most precious human resources and enduring practices, by a master storyteller.


Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation and anthologies and been the recipient of a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas region), the Lt.-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize from the government of Chile. His most recent books are The Oysters I Bring to Banquets, The Resumption of Play, Medicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care and The Ventriloquist: Poetic Narratives from the Womb of War. Editor’s note: Gary Geddes has also reviewed a book by William New for The British Columbia Review, and his books The Oysters I Bring to Banquets, Medicine Unbundled, and The Ventriloquist are reviewed by Doug Beardsley, Mary-Ellen Kelm and Art Joyce. He lives on Thetis Island.



The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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