Critical Paths: a meander through Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bp Nichol
[Another orphan piece, the following review was commissioned by Vallum but eventually turned down because it “stepped on” on Roy Miki’s editorial toes, however lightly, at least from a scholarly point of view. Devotees of Nichol, as I note in the review, may well take exception to my evaluation of his critical writings gathered in Meanwhile. Let me be clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Nichol’s wildly vast and varied corpus, he wrote my favourite episode of Fraggle Rock, and, when cloning technology has been perfected, I intend to subcontract a book that would study The Martryology as a key site of conflict between the so-called humanist and posthumanist tendencies in postmodern poetry!]
The more writing on poetry by poets one reads, the more likely one is, I think, to agree with Socrates, that they know not what they do. Regardless, poets review and assay each other’s work; many, especially in North America, earn their keep passing their craft on to apprentices; others teach literature or work in what one scholar has named “poetheory”. In Meanwhile, editor Roy Miki has collected and collated nearly five hundred pages of bp Nichol’s critical writings. Whatever the ultimate worth of Nichol’s criticism, Meanwhile as a book is a curiously incoherent volume to have issued from the hands of a professional scholar. Its content is arranged neither generically nor even according to Nichol’s own criteria, but chronologically, from 1966 to the poet’s untimely death at 44 in 1988. Whatever the virtues or vices of such a presentation, the editorial notes mysteriously reclassify this material as interviews, visual texts, and critical writing, per se, rendering the editorial apparatus needlessly, frustratingly labour-intensive. The interviews, likely like all interviews, will delight or frustrate according to how closely a reader’s curiosities match the interviewer’s. A more serious problem is that more than a quarter of the book’s nearly two-dozen “visual texts” appeared almost a decade before in Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s bp Nichol reader An H in the Heart. Given Nichol’s profligate creative output, one regrets the redundancy and wonders how the visual pieces were chosen: certainly not because Nichol refers to them in the rest of the book. At the very least, an index would have facilitated a more hypertextual reading experience. Nevertheless, overriding all these faults is that happy truth of every book that Socrates, again, relates to Phaedrus: readers make of a book what they will.
Fortuitously, Nichol himself suggests how one might get into and get something out of Meanwhile. In 1978, reflecting over six years’ collaboration with the Canadian journal of writing and theory Open Letter Nichol observes
But what has crept up on and surprised me is my own desire to articulate for myself a way of replying to other writing that honours my awareness of it. By this i mean […] an articulation of a particular (to this writer) understanding (and i’ll take that literally as standing under or subservient to the text) which may offer a way in for others if they choose to take it. That free choice option as opposed to critical dogma strikes me as crucial. (189 – 190)
Regardless of exactly how one might subject oneself to a text in the first place, the humble, civil generosity Nichol writes he aspires to here orients his critical approach. In any case, writing that honours will be honoured, but how? In the same editorial, Nichol goes on to distinguish two aspects in another’s work that call for a response: “My response to another writer’s work must deal not only with a response to the content of his or her words, but a response to their gestures as I see them writ large on the page with the form the pieces take” (190). A glance at the forms of gestures Meanwhile collects reveals an impressive array of critical genres: letters, statements, notes, reviews, critical introductions, appreciations, studies, readings, panegyrics, performances, and academic papers, among others. Notwithstanding this variety, each gesture’s ready familiarity frames the content, focussing attention on what is said. Nichol, again, guides our reading: the earliest piece in the book is a letter written 3 May 1966 to Open Letter editor Frank Davey castigating him for closing his eyes to the validity of visual poetry. In the process of pointing out the blind spots in Davey’s view, Nichol writes that in “any criticism there are always key statements around which the whole thing pivots” (16). A key pivot of Nichol’s critical writing is the notion of the open. Nichol desires to open up the poem by removing obstacles to understanding and appreciation by rendering such obstacles absent; alternatively, Nichol seeks to bring the poem’s materiality out into the open by revealing aspects normally overlooked, making them present.
The economy that determines which texts Nichol addresses is essentially hedonistic, i.e., he writes about what “honours” or excites him. Therefore, the traditional exegetical gestures of close reading and appreciation combine. Nichol’s detailed scrutiny of work by Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Dashiell Hammet, Kerouac, Proust, Birney, and especially Gertrude Stein (to whom three major pieces are devoted) exposes the workings of their writing down to the punctuation. A vivid example of this approach is Nichol’s lecture “When the Time Came” wherein he explicates the opening paragraphs of Stein’s Ida a sentence at a time, literally drawing the reader’s attention to the writing’s workings by means of arrows and underlinings. Nichol’s presentation juggles playfulness with willfulness, reading ‘Ida’ as ‘Id/e/a’ (why not, for example, as a feminization of Id?). This unruly leap shows Nichol’s practice is closer to that of Marshall McCluhan’s “probes” (which he explicitly praises in Meanwhile) than old New Critical explication de texte. The tour de force of these by turns lucid and ludic exegeses is Nichol’s page by page reading of Shant Basmajian’s 1978 Quote Unquote, which, along with his appreciation of Earl Birney’s Solemn Doodles and explanations of seven of his own visual poems, opens concrete or visual textuality, closed to more doctrinaire, less exploratory sensibilities. Nichol’s refined attention to poetry’s material possibilities concretizes the art — and, too, how he reads, how he replies to, other writing. Such exemplary considered and considerate reading grants Nichol’s praise for the work of Frank Davey, David McFadden, bill bisset, and Coach House Books a solid, persuasive sincerity.
This focussed attention to the letter is matched by an equally acute grasp of language as such. An early, brief manifesto “statement, november 1966”, begins
now that we have reached the point where people have finally come to see that language means communication and that communication does not just mean language, we have come up against the problem, the actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible from the self (language / communication) in order to form as many entrances as possible for the other
and ends “i place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as possible” (18). Nichol seeks to open channels of poetic communication outside of whatever the poem might intend to “say”. To open “as many exits and entrances as possible” Nichol manipulates the artistic material under hand: the appearance of the written language, the vocal sounds that underwrite speech, even the workings of the book. To communicate extra-linguistically Nichol opens the borders between poetry, painting, music, and sculpture. The poem, then, unfolded and spread out, reveals otherwise unseen sides, which become means of expression and reception. As a note from the same time says: “i come out of the poem in as many ways as possible to get back into the person in as many ways as possible. Concrete poetry, kinetic poetry, poem sculptures, poem / objects, ideopomes, journeys, postkon, sound poetry, traditional poems…” (23)
Nichol’s desire to communicate by every means possible comes not so much from a need to express — to say — something as to make something poet and reader or audience can hold in common. In a 1974 discussion with, among others, Pierre Coupey, Nichol remarks:
The whole reason I got into concrete […] was that I thought I was being too arrogant, that I was sitting down and I was writing and I was coming to the situation obsessed that I had something to say per se: a very didactic purpose as opposed to simply giving myself up to the process of writing. And as a result, I was not learning from the language. And the fact is, the language is there before me. I’m born into the language community. The language has a history of its own. I have things I can learn, if I sit down and let myself play with it — which is more or less the motivation behind getting into concrete, getting into sound. (154)
This interrogation of an art form and its material is in step with the avant-garde assault on inherited art, its tacit conventions, habits, reflexes, and other automatisms. In the same interview, Nichol agrees with Daphne Marlatt who, taking stream-of-consciousness as an example, observes that techniques once novel to the point of outrageous obscurity lose their paradoxical power to reveal by alienating, as they themselves become commonplace, clichéd, worn out: “by that time it’s become a habit of thought rather than a new perception” (154). To open our eyes and ears to all poetry is, Nichol refuses to write or speak, but paints and sings in language instead. For Nichol, “language is a tool” whose nature transcends our use: to reveal that nature, he must remove language’s utility, so what it is over and above its use to our blind will stands out stark naked. The entrances and exits into and out of the poem are the ways the poem’s opaque materiality comes out into the open. After all, you can open only a door that is closed.
The palpability of language increases acutely for Nichol with his introduction to poststructuralism in the early Seventies. At first, single terms and conceptual expressions, then a whole discourse inspired by the French Theory so parodied in North America comes to accent Nichol’s critical view, which eventually comes under the sway of the paranoid critical-theoretical doctrine of the Prison House of Language. Nichol invokes this hermeneutic of suspicion in 1975 when he asks “isn’t the operative premise that a man is shaped finally by the language he uses the categories his thinking gets trapped into whatever the level of language those categories operate on” and when he targets “bourgeois notions of language as commodity” (166 -167). In 1987, he explains it this way:
We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant. And painting, sculpture, dance, photography, etc. ALL the so-called Fine Arts, suffer, because we look but don’t see. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc. becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register — political, social, ecological — don’t. (429)
Habit and reflex spontaneously close the mind to what is or could be, in part veiling the machinations of the ideology that preys on our automatism. That we stop talking when we consider our words shows that speech flows over a bed of reflexes, thus implicating language, if not spontaneity as such, in an unconscious slavery. Ironically, then, a grave political urgency charges Nichol’s work, often ungenerously dismissed as merely amusingly playful.
In the foregoing, I’ve tried to follow Nichol’s example in his appreciation of the poetry of David McFadden: “in truth I’ve tried not to analyze […] but to deal with my responses […], what it is […] that keeps me excitedly rereading” (415). One constant response (particular to this writer) that Meanwhile excites is a melancholy over its belatedness and consequent superfluity. My reading was marked — and often marred — by my memory’s constant spontaneous glossing of nearly every passage with the antecedent, canonical expression of its ideas. Aristotle notes in his Rhetoric, for example, that the poet has to pierce the minds of a corrupted audience, and that it is through the devices of style that such an audience can be brought to hear. The “devices” referred to in Meanwhile — including concrete, sound, and performance poetry—are provisionally mapped in the first edition of Rothenberg’s 1968 gathering Technicians of the Sacred (as much a textbook as anthology, published by the University of California Press), which places avant-garde poetics within a global context whose orbit includes the Neolithic. The endless richness and plasticity of the poem’s materiality, and a fortiori that of the world, has not gone unnoticed by phenomenologists or unremarked, for example, by Blake: “If the doors of perception were to open the world would appear as it is Infinite.” Even the strongest pieces — the close readings and appreciations — are a sorry index of literary culture in Canada, often not transcending the level of the schoolboy exercises of an Auerbach or Curtius in Gymnasium or a George Steiner in the Lycée. Nichol’s literary theory as such is a pandemonium of howlers. One could go on: suffice to say, Meanwhile is not for the overfed.
I can hear derisive hoots and denunciations from a thousand anti-Oedipal Deleuzians rooted on their respective plateaus, that no repetition is ever of the same; at least since Rimbaud, some poets have known they are inescapably absolutely modern. Nichol concurs when, in a 1979 interview with Ken Norris, he quips concerning charges of unoriginality: “some reviewers have said, ‘Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921’; I look at it and say ‘Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921’” (238). Books can be read too early or too late, but, luckily, often books find readers ripe. If our ready reader were a young poet, he or she would benefit from the pieces touched on here: Nichol’s 1966 “statement”, his Open Letter editorial, his excurses on notating lyric and sound poetry and on the book as a unit of composition, his close readings and appreciations. Most pertinent for a young Canadian poet are Nichol’s introduction to The Last Blew Ointment Anthology Volume 2, his reminiscences and reflections of Coach House Press “Primary Days”, and his interview with Geoff Hancock. These all recount Nichol’s experiences in composing and culturing poetry in Canada, a story in which he played no minor part. Miki and Talonbooks have therefore performed a service for young poets and Canadian letters, contributing to the more main-stream, institutional publication of bp Nichol’s corpus, which has already issued his collaboration with Steve McCaffrey Rational Geomancy, Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s reader, and a selection of his drawings.
The publication of Nichol’s oeuvre is part of the process of his canonization, a process that is discovering Nichol’s work escapes a too-ready formulaic summation. Sharon Thesen reported in the penultimate number of Sulfur (44) on the battle over whether Nichol will be represented by his more approachable if more ambivalently humanistic and courageous long poem The Martyrology or his more challenging posthumanist avante-garde and as yet largely uncollected work. That Nichol’s corpus is capable of inciting just such pointed debate (albeit at a scholarly conference on his writing) between the two major sides of Canadian English-language poetry reveals not only a fault line in our poetic culture, but that, like a coin, Nichol’s work, when flipped, shows neither monarch nor beaver, but spins on edge and rolls between the sides competing to win the toss. As Charles Olson, an early influence, put it: the poem is a high energy construct, designed to get the charge from where the writer got it all the way over to the reader. Forgetting like a good Nietzschean for a moment the Theory I’ve read: who can, plug in & turn on.