Eye kicks and allophanes: the art of literature according to George Bowering

December 12, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press

In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.

It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.

Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)

Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”

These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:

I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.

The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.

One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)

Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.

In defence of poesy 2011: Sina Queyras

April 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Sina Queyras is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Expressway. A longtime friend of TSR, she is the founder and editor-in-chief of the poetry website Lemon Hound.

***

Why should people read poetry?

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

– Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”

I have a weakness for Stevie Smith. She and Kenneth Patchen were early influences. Pleasurable. Very much alive and astute in their observations about the world and human interactions with it. “You know I don’t like those people / Who act as if a cherry / Was something they’d personally thought up” Patchen dryly concludes. The snap of thought, the Chagall-like images, the playful turns. These are poems that get inside you and never leave. Punchy and always at the ready, as Smith appears in “A Good Time Was Had By All”: “The English woman is so refined / she has no bosom and no behind.”

Smith and Patchen make up part of my poetry core. They are simple, though not simplistic touchstones. They reached off the page to a young me and said, this is possible – what you think, how you think, is possible. Even if there is nowhere in this classroom, or in this town, or in your life, where your thinking is reflected back to you in a way that you can at all recognize, these lines, this formation of thought, reflects you so beautifully that you can see a future where moments earlier there was stagnation and despair. Poetry is an escape hatch.

My father went to bed every night with a volume of French poetry by his bed. I have it now, tattered and torn, this volume that was for my father very much a door to his past, to his former tongue and land, to peace, and to sleep. I have carried Lisa Robertson around for years, and that was an education, a stimulator, a way to make myself move forward vigilantly toward a kind of thinking that shimmered before me, always out of reach. Before that it was Erin Mouré, Tim Lilburn, Dionne Brand, Christian Bök, Gertrude Stein, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Ondaatje, Mary Oliver, Rumi … and so on. When I read Dennis Lee’s Un, I cry. I can’t help it. My niece loves Robert Service. It gives her a way to march across her landscape, ballad style.

Whatever you want of poetry, it will offer you – soothing, escape hatch, appliance, machine. It is not about the poet: as Stevie Smith said, there is always another poet. It’s poetry that arrives, making its “strong communication” known, or pulling back the skin and letting a person feel the world, or arranging objects in such a way that thought, speech, images illuminate something profound or beautiful. A smart poet bears witness, lets the thunder move through her veins, notes the shade, the tenor, the time of departure, describes in detail the interior life of the bolt, its composition, trajectory, effect on her skin, where her mind went, and how, and with whom, writes this down, and passes this on.

If all is well in the world, poetry is another kind of thunderbolt.