Arts define hearts and minds, not Ivory Towers

Illustration by Scott Woods

For David Bentley, an English class is a meeting ground of sorts – a crossroad where people, disciplines, the past, present and future all meet. That’s what makes literature enticing to him. Magical, even.

“The way poetry and literature work in our lives fascinates me. It sometimes seems remote; it’s sometimes characterized as existing in the Ivory Tower. But it doesn’t live there; it’s very much part of our lives, in Canada as much as anywhere else,” said Bentley, the Carl F. Klinck Professor of Canadian Literature.

In April, Bentley became only the fifth Killam Prize winner at Western, and the most recent winner since Economics professor John Whalley won in 2012. Other Western winners include Engineering professors Alan Davenport (1993) and Maurice Bergiougnou (1999) and Robarts Research Institute founder Henry Barnett (1988).

In academia and beyond, Bentley is credited with broadening and enriching the understanding and awareness of Canadian literature and culture across Canada, and around the world. A nationally acclaimed teacher and leading scholar of Canadian literature and culture, he founded, and is continuing editor of, Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, Canadian Poetry Press and Canadian Poetry: An Electronic Resource.

On Nov. 25, Bentley will deliver the second address in the President’s Lecture Series, Simile, Metaphor, and the Making and Perception of Canada.

English and Writing Studies professor David Bentley is the recipient of the distinguished Killam Prize, presented by the Canadian Council of the Arts, in recognition of his outstanding career achievements.

Adela Talbot // Western NewsEnglish and Writing Studies professor David Bentley is the recipient of the distinguished Killam Prize, presented by the Canadian Council of the Arts, in recognition of his outstanding career achievements.

His ideas on the power of the arts, more broadly, and on poetry, more specifically, are both historical and contemporary in nature.

“With the recent election, people are thinking about Canada, and thinking about where Canada has been, where it’s going and where it should go. I’m hoping the lecture will feed into that type of reflection about the country. And it will go back into the distant past to do that. And with any luck, it will be of contemporary interest,” Bentley laughed.

After all, stepping into the past to learn something about both the present and future is part of studying literature, he noted.

“In my first-year English course, we cover the spectrum of literature from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, right up to the contemporary and the beyond, in some sense, because one of the books we study is Brave New World. Students are getting an insight into the way the world was, the way it is, and the way it could be, for better or for worse,” Bentley explained.

But there’s much more to it than that. Immersing oneself in a text and meeting characters in different times and circumstances elicitc a transcendent aspect of a book or poem, bringing out the timelessness and universality of certain sentiments. Reading difficult works of literature ultimately makes the reader more empathetic, Bentley stressed.

“One reason for being drawn specifically to poetry is poetry happens when people, who are sensitive to language, just pause to reflect on their lives, on their region, the person they love, their town, and they put that into words. Other people’s reflections are always going to be interesting because they tell us about a different place, or a different time, or a different person,” he said.

“And every time you come back to a great work of literature, you see something different because you yourself are in a different place. It has changed because you have changed.”

Any great literary work draws its context from a variety of subjects, Bentley continued. Theology, history, medicine, economics, psychology, law, politics and the sciences, all of which play roles in the texts an English student will encounter on a course syllabus. Literature and poetry really are for everybody, he noted.

“I think everybody has the capacity to appreciate the arts – I have colleagues in medicine and sociology who either write poetry for themselves, or they sometimes show it to other people. Or, at the end of the day, they read poetry and literature. A fellow I just met at King’s (University College) in Sociology told me he reads poetry in the evening because he needs an antidote to dry writing. Poetry for him is a kind of a pick-me-up for the spirit,” Bentley added.

“I’m not qualified to say whether arts graduates eventually make more money. What I do know is that taking an English course, or an arts course generally, really does help to prepare students to make a positive difference in their communities, in their families, in the groups to which they belong and at a wider level, in the social and political world as well. It does that by making them thoughtful, and helping them to be articulate, and by fostering or strengthening their capacity for empathy.”

Western’s President’s Lecture Series showcases personalities of national and international prominence from the realms of academia, politics, civil service, business and the arts as a means to engaging the campus and broader community in meaningful public discourse on a wide range of important topics. It was established and hosted by President Amit Chakma earlier this year. In February, Stephen Poloz, PhD’82 (Economics), Governor of the Bank of Canada, delivered the inaugural address.

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PRESIDENT’S LECTURE SERIES: English and Writing Studies professor David Bentley will deliver the second address in the President’s Lecture Series next week. His talk, Simile, Metaphor, and the Making and Perception of Canada, is scheduled for 2 p.m., Nov. 25, in the Paul Davenport Theatre. The talk will be followed by a post-lecture conversation moderated by Paul Kennedy, host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. A public reception in the atrium of Talbot College will follow the lecture.