Nichol, B(arrie) P(hillip)
Nichol, B(arrie) P(hillip) 1944–
Nichol, a Canadian poet, editor, and novelist, is considered an important experimental poet. Looking for ways to escape the "language trap," Nichol uses imagistic techniques to create visual poetry through type size and placement, citing E. E. Cummings as a major poetic influence. His signature, bpNichol, reflects his break from traditional style. Nichol has also experimented with "sound poems." He is a member of The Four Horsemen (a sound poem group), and was the co-founder of the Toronto Research Group. Nichol received the Governor General's Literary Award in 1971. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
John Robert Colombo
During the early sixties, it was obvious that throughout the entire English-speaking world poetry was lagging far behind the visual arts, and I see bp Nichol's publication [bp] as part of poetry's catching-up process. Nichol has freed poetry from melody and meaning and levitated it above the printed page. He has brought it nearer both music and painting by freeing it from what we used to think songs and pictures were. Although the poet … has no musical training, I found his plastic recording the most impressive of the three units that make up his poetic package.
The two sides of the record give us about eight minutes of 'sound poems,' and I know of no way to describe in words their audio effects (nor does the poet, judging by the makeshift musical score that accompanies the disc), but to me they sound like a recording I have of Aleister Crowley reciting his Enochian chants. Enochian was 'no known language,' so Crowley had a lot of fun improvising, and so does Nichol. It is de rigeur these days … for poets to specialize in sound rather than speech, melody rather than meaning, and distortions rather than drama. Nichol breaks up our conception of a poem into sounds and then discovers the syllables that make them up. I find his effects fascinating when he stumbles upon a word like 'freedom' in the midst of f's and d's, and his thin otherwise unexceptional voice is able to sustain rhythms that are as striking as those of...
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Journeying & The Returns, [B. P. Nichol's] first book of non-concrete poetry, contains five poems, each subdivided into six or seven sections. Each section is about one page in length and stands as a single thought further subdivided into commentaries on the acts performed as the thought takes place. The strength of these poems lies in the internal energy Mr. Nichol generates from sustaining a single direct statement for the shortest possible duration. The best of the poems is the fourth one, Beginning. And. End. (p. 278)
What I like about B. P. Nichol's poems is that he infuses the actions he writes about with whatever emotional crisis is taking place in his life, and that this combination produces the energy which is at the center of most of his work. (pp. 278-79)
Lewis Warsh, "Poetry Chronicle: 'Journeying & the Returns'," in Poetry (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXII, No. 4, July, 1968, pp. 278-79.
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[In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid] Nichol's jokes are, however, on potentially serious subjects. To work out all the thematic implications which his fifteen paragraphs barely suggest may seem like building mountains out of molehills; and, though I believe the foundations are there for such an enterprise, the elaboration should not obscure the fact that the most characteristic virtues of Nichol's book are its wit, its economy, and its refusal to take itself too seriously.
Nichol's title stands in a long tradition of books claiming to tell the "truth" about Billy…. The point about all these "true" and "authentic" biographies is that very few of them are. The historical facts about Billy have been buried under a vast accretion of legend. (p. 38)
Nichol's alterations and manipulations of historical fact are not due, as is the case with many previous writers of "true" and "authentic" histories, to ignorance or to the desire to "justify" Billy; rather, they fit in with the most recent developments of the legend of Billy the Kid, which move away from the simple pendulum of what Kent Ladd Steckmesser calls "The Satanic Billy" and "The Saintly Billy" towards much more complex uses of the total idea of Billy the Kid, fact and fiction, as a mythological character. (pp. 39-40)
[Consider] Nichol's title: "this" he assures us "is the true eventual story of billy the kid." The first page of...
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In an introduction to his book, ABC, the poet bp Nichol complains about "the artificial boundaries we have placed on the poem." It is his expressed desire to break down these boundaries, to make the poem live again, to free the poem in order to bring it closer to the reader…. The regenerative process begins with experiment; Nichol utilizes basic elements of language and alphabet—sound and shape—in an attempt to remake poetry from its roots.
In the ABC book, the technique is that of a child playing with the shape of the letters of the alphabet. On each page he repeats images of one letter, overlapping, twisting, and combining them until the original shape disappears and a new shape appears from the combinations….
Searching for the primitive roots of poetry, Nichol becomes involved in the minimal poem—a poem articulated in the briefest and least dramatic series of words possible. Minimal poetry, like minimal art—where a white line on a white canvas may constitute the painting—is deliberately low-keyed. A poem may be a single word appearing in small type in the middle of a white page, as it is in the poem "em ty." In the form of the one word graphically represented is contained the feeling which is the poem. The tone of minimal poetry, subdued and seldom changing, runs throughout much of Nichol's work. When he is not chanting, raising his voice in excitement, he works in a monotone. In the...
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bp Nichol's The Martyrology is a work of major dimensions. Nichol has found a way to make the many private and personal visions that go into his poetry available to his readers. He has, as a friend said, "created a personal mythology out of language itself"; a mythology that partakes of basic mythic geography yet remains singularly his own. Moreover, he has also clearly revealed the ways in which this mythology, the hagiography of saints about which the work turns, touches the various myths of our world, from the ancient myths of the heavens in almost every culture to the various popcult myths of our own time.
Before The Martyrology proper begins, there appears a short sequence titled "from: The Chronicles of Knarn," which has an intergalactic and futuristic setting. It is a kind of sf tale, setting up a specifically literary sf dimension for all that follows, effectively distancing the whole work by making all of it, including the facts of the author's life, fall within the 'fictional' parameters of The Chronicles. (p. 93)
[In "Scenes from the Lives of the Saints"] 'fiction' and 'fact' meet in a variety of ways, as the writer speaks of and to the saints, and begins to enter the poem himself. But all this is controlled by the original 'fiction' set up by The Chronicles: within its terms, everything is 'past history,' merely a writing out of some deep past, and thus it is all mere...
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In any discussion of experimental poetry in Canada, the central figure is bpNichol. (p. 213)
[Journeying & the Returns] in its very packaging provides a convenient schema of Nichol's concerns as a poet…. Journeying & the Returns came in a cardboard box, containing three distinct elements: a small printed book, a collection of postcards and other visual presentations, and a record.
The book consisted of a long "trad" poem-sequence actually called "Journeying & the Returns." ("Trad" may provisionally be defined as any poetry which continues to rely on syntax and semantic connection as its basic structural means of operation.) This is, in retrospect, far from the best of Nichol's "trad" poetry. The sequence is too diffuse, its central themes are never clearly articulated, and it relies too much on vaguely romantic images of the sea. The line-lengths are short and choppy, and though Nichol's very pronounced personal rhythms are often in evidence, he is not yet in full control of them. He had not yet found ways to objectify his experience, or controlling narrative images by which a long poem may be structured—that is to say, the things which "Journeying & the Returns" lacks are precisely the things which The Martyrology … provides.
The Martyrology is the culmination, so far, of Nichol's experiments in "trad" poetry. It is of course far too early for any...
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Nichol's attitude towards writing (apparent or implicit) [is] one of the keys to an understanding of his work.
Nichol's goal is to escape from the barriers of what Edward Sapir terms "a straight ideational language" in order to "return to the root elements of both the written and aural language." Sapir, Nichol's main source for this theory, also asserts that "ideation reigns supreme in language." In order to counteract this domination, Nichol thinks that "something new must be done with words." One such possibility is to "leave the beauty out" of words, and another is to "begin again by breaking words up to let the staleness out of them." Nichol explores both these areas in an attempt to break down the barriers which prevent poetry from achieving its full scope. (pp. 126-27)
Nichol's typographical poems range from the simple (in Still Water) to the complex (in bp). Still Water is composed of poems that require only a single glance to produce their full impression. The opening poem sets the playful tone: "two leaves touch / bad poems are written."… What saves Still Water from banality is its brilliant physical production. (p. 127)
[Among his ephemeral pieces of poetry is Final Concrete Testament. It] is a very thin, small piece of paper folded over once. The title appears on the outside and, like a greeting card, on the inside appears one word—"dead". (p. 128)...
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