Elizabeth Brewster

Elizabeth BrewsterPhoto: Richard Marjan
Elizabeth Brewster
Photo: Richard Marjan

Elizabeth Winifred Brewster (born 26 August 1922) was a Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, and short-story writer from New Brunswick. 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. She died on 26 December 2012 at the age of ninety.

Born and raised in the small logging community of Chipman, New Brunswick, she lived and studied in a number of cities over her lifetime, earning four university degrees: a BA from the University of New Brunswick in 1946, an MA from Radcliffe College (Harvard University) in 1947, a BLS (Bachelors of Library Science) from the University of Toronto in 1952, and a PhD from the University of Indiana in 1962.

Brewster began writing poetry at the age of nine or ten, but it was not until she attended the University of New Brunswick in 1942 that she started to develop a unique voice and style. One of only a few modernist female poets to be published in Canadian magazines in the 1940s, she was actively involved in the formation of The Fiddlehead, Canada’s longest-running literary magazine. Her first collection of poetry, appropriately titled East Coast, was published in 1951 with Ryerson Press.

Brewster’s output was relatively slow throughout the fifties and sixties. During this period, she worked as a librarian at a number of libraries throughout Canada and the United States, including the New Brunswick Legislative Library, and took a brief break to teach English at the University of Victoria from 1960–1961. It was not until she began teaching at the University of Saskatchewan (which spanned from 1972 until her retirement in 1990) that her literary output began to increase. In the late seventies she began writing prose fiction, starting with two novels—The Sisters (1974) and Junction (1982)—and a book of short stories entitled It’s Easy to Fall on the Ice (1977). She continued writing both poetry and short stories, reaching her greatest productivity in the 1980s with nine books published 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.

During her long and prestigious career, Brewster embraced a variety of styles. Originally published in the era of second-generation Canadian modernism, her early poetry is clearly modernist. By eschewing the grandiose metaphors and erudite vocabulary popular in that era, however, her poems favour a colloquial voice that seems on the surface to be almost prosaic. Beneath her straightforward diction dwells 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” (Pacey 65); and the third, poems of religion or, more broadly, philosophy. Pacey does, 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, 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” (Gibbs 17). 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” (62). 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 (Pacey 63).

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 most recent 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.

Justin Joschko, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick

For more information on Elizabeth Brewster, please visit her entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Brewster, Elizabeth. Away From Home. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1995.

---. The Ballad of Princess Caraboo. Composed by Nancy Telfer. Oakville, ON: F. Harris Music, 1983.

---. Burning Bush. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 2000.

---. Collected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 2003.

---. Digging In. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1982.

---. East Coast. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1951.

---. Entertaining Angels. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1988.

---. Footnotes to the Book of Job. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1995.

---. Garden of Sculpture. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1998.

---. A House Full of Women. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1983.

---. In Search of Eros. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1974.

---. The Invention of Truth. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1991.

---. It's Easy to Fall On the Ice. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1977.

---. Jacob's Dream. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 2002.

---. Junction. Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press, 1982.

---. Lillooet. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1951.

---. Passage of Summer: Selected Poems. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1969.

---. Roads, And Other Poems. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957.

---. Selected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster 1944-1977. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1985.

---. Selected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster 1977-1984. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1985.

---. The Sisters. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1974.

---. Sometimes I Think of Moving. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1977.

---. Spring Again. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1990.

---. Sunrise North. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1974.

---. Visitations. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1987.

---. The Way Home. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1982.

---. Wheel of Change. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press, 1993.

---. “Where I Come From.” Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada. Eds. Anne Compton, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie, and Robin McGrath. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2002. 31.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

“Elizabeth Brewster.” The League of Canadian Poets. 29 Mar. 2009

Gibbs, Robert. “Next Time from a Different Country.” Canadian Literature 62 (1974): 17-32.

Ivanochko, Bob. “Brewster, Elizabeth.” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. U of Regina. 29 Mar. 2009

Pacey, Desmond. “The Poetry of Elizabeth Brewster.” Ariel 4 (1973): 58-69.

Pearce, John. “A Particular Image of the Self: Elizabeth Brewster.” Twelve Voices: Interviews With Canadian Poets. Ottawa, ON: Borealis Press, 1980. 7-23.

Precosky, Don. “Brewster’s Solid Accomplishments.” The Fiddlehead 160 (1989): 116-118.

Rose, Marilyn and Erica Kelly. “Elizabeth Brewster.” Canadian Women Poets. Brock U. 29 Mar. 2009

Wilson, Jean. “Brewster, Elizabeth Winifred.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 26 Aug. 2008. Historica Canada. 29 Mar. 2009