Bill Bissett Essay - Bissett, Bill (Poetry Criticism)

Bissett, Bill (Poetry Criticism)


Bill Bissett 1939–

Canadian poet and performance artist.

A prolific and innovative poet, Bissett has been a vital force in Canadian literature since the mid-1960s. In addition to penning numerous volumes of poetry, many of which he has illustrated and printed himself, he has performed his poetry for audiences internationally. Bissett is best known as a romantic, visionary poet whose disregard for rules of spelling, grammar, and syntax follows from his belief that institutions hamper human freedom and communal vitality.

Biographical Information

Bissett, who spells his name entirely in lowercase letters, was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He attended Dalhousie University for one year, then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. There he briefly attended the University of British Columbia and held a variety of jobs before his marriage and the birth of his daughter. In 1966, Bissett published his first volume of poetry, we sleep inside each other all, and soon afterward cofounded his own publishing house, the blewointmentpress. NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH (1971), his first work with a major small press, was edited by the esteemed Canadian author Margaret Atwood. In the late 1970s, Bissett received attention in the mainstream press when his poetry became the subject of a controversy regarding the merit of certain works produced with the assistance of the Canada Council, a government body that distributes funding for the arts. The Bissett anthology SELECTED POEMS: BEYOND EVEN FAITHFUL LEGENDS was published in 1980. Since that time he has continued publishing and performing his works at festivals in North America and Europe.

Major Works

Bissett first gained attention with his collections lebanon voices (1967) and awake in th red desert (1968); the latter was accompanied by a recording of Bissett reading his work. These and other early works drew praise for their incorporation of chant and rejection of conventions of grammar and spelling. NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH contains some of his most celebrated poems against authoritarianism, while 1972's pomes for yoshi comprises a volume-length narrative about a troubled relationship. MEDICINE my mouths on fire (1974) includes an audio recording and contains several of his

concrete or "sound-vizual" pieces. SELECTED POEMS, which Bissett edited and arranged, offers a sampling from the first decade of his career. Prominent among his literary subjects is the search for religious experience through sexual connection, communal life, and natural surroundings. Of Bissett's publications since 1980, Northern Birds in Color (1981), Seagull on Yonge Street (1983), and Canada Gees Mate for Life (1985) are among the most admired.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career, Bissett has earned praise for his romantic vision and stylistic experiments, though even his most ardent admirers admit that his output has been uneven. During the Canada Council scandal, Bissett was scorned by some as an illiterate hippie getting a free ride from national arts funding. Yet many literary commentators find Bissett's idiosyncratic, fiercely individual style a continuation of the English Romantic tradition of William Blake, William Wordsworth, and W. B. Yeats—an inspiring effort to imagine humanity unconstrained by convention and authority.

Principal Works


we sleep inside each other all 1966

fires in th tempul OR th jinx shp nd othr trips 1966

The Gossamer Bedpan 1967; revised edition, 1974

lebanon voices 1967

what poetiks 1967

where is miss florence riddle? 1967

awake in th red desert 1968


liberating skies 1969

lost angel mining company 1969

Sunday work (?) 1969

s th story i to 1970

tuff shit 1970

blew trewz 1971

dragonfly 1971

drifting into war 1971

IBM 1971



pomes for yoshi 1972


th first sufi line 1973

pass th food release th spirit book 1973

living with th vishyun 1974

MEDICINE my mouths on fire 1974

space travl 1974

what 1974

yu can eat it at the opening 1974

th fifth sun 1975

image being 1975

Stardust 1975

Venus 1975

an allusyun to macbeth 1976

plutonium missing 1976

th wind up tongue 1976

Sailor 1978

th first snow 1979


soul arrow 1980

Northern Birds in Color 1981

Seagull on Yonge Street 1983

Canada Gees Mate for Life 1985


The Last Photo Uv the Human Soul 1993


Douglas Barbour (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Young Poets and the Little Presses," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 50, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 112-16.

[Barbour is a Canadian author and educator. In the following excerpt, he favorably reviews OF TH LAND DIVINE SERVICE and lebanon voices.]

Nelson Ball has … published two recent volumes by Bill Bissett, a true West Coast hippie poet, if such a being exists. Bissett breaks all the rules and does not care. When he fails, which is often, there is nothing to say. But his successes are always worth while, and often very powerful. Bissett has been experimenting for a long time in what he, and a number of other young poets call the "borderblur" area of literature. Of th [sic] Land Divine Service contains some results of one area of that experimentation: chants, meant to be heard, rather than read on the page. Nevertheless, Ball has performed a real service here to anyone interested in poem-chants who might not have the chance to hear Bissett perform. They are the equivalent to a score for a symphony, but even that is useful. Besides, the ideas these poems reveal and the religious attitudes they contain are very interesting. Lebanon Voices is a long poem in three parts dedicated to the moon-goddess in whatever contemporary form she deigns to assume for the poet. It is an intriguing poem, despite the many difficulties inherent in Bissett's style and approach.

bp Nichol (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Not in Time," in Brick: A Journal of Reviews, No. 23, Winter, 1985, pp. 5-18.

[Nichol is a Canadian poet. In the following excerpt from an essay that was written in 1971, he examines Bissett's attempt to evoke human breath in poetry, points out the influence of Gertrude Stein on his work, and discusses his resistance to conventional grammar and spelling.]

in the early sixties out of the creative writing programme at ubc the tish group emerged with their insistence upon a poetry whose visual notation on the page was linked to & inseparable from the poets breath how you see it on the page is as score for how it should be read here they have brought the poem back to the music of the human body its breathing & reunited it with music from which for so long it seemed to have strayed

at the same time out of the painters studios & homes in the 4th & yew area in Vancouver a different approach to the same concern was emerging in th work of most notably bill bissett but also lance farrell & martina clinton in order to appreciate what bissett has accomplished in the years since his emergence it is necessary to take this concern with breath in a poetry which is an extension of the body & put it into a very broad perspective

the modern composer norman dello joio has said "notation is a primitive guide to music. The unimaginative are slaves to it, others see behind it" & the composer david behrman "a perfect notation is not one which documents exactly. If it were, today's technology would finally have provided the ideal notation—a tape recording or film of a correct performance. Notation is lively when it calls for a temporal result that can only be hinted at by its spatial systems, requiring more than an automaton to bring it to life." & john cage commenting on a particular composers work in his Notations "He erased his own music but it remains visible, paler than what he later superimposed. Suggestion: the concert of his various decisions. In this case, greater carelessness would automatically produce a music of greater complexity." now i have put these three quotes here to give you an introduction into an entirely different way of looking at the same area of concern we have already been talking about namely a poetry of breath and some way to notate it on the page

when lance farrel martina nd i were disregarding the boxd margins back in the early 60's nd bein considerd hopeless by our friends nd fellow poets we didint know th word concrete or any kind of poetry we were writing into, that this is what we were expressing, that what we were experiencing was outside of the narrow margins so we carried that to where th poem was too nd it was tough and no one understood ovr th years thru blew ointment ganglia tlaloc marajuana papers labris approches etc we began to see all ovr th world that othrs were into it too get a poem from japan nd yu got to understand it cause it wasint basd on grammar or sentence type thot so yu were there too which is what you want to be there

we fear the darkness but its cummin nd always turns into light

writing what s now calld concrete sound borderblur poetry etc is why we enjoyd so much malnutrition etc for so many years so i feel a special fondness for it

(bissett—undated letter)

sort of groovy about this concrete thing 'cause sort of what i've been doing all along to little avail around here th others sum of them to see it, what it is, that distant fuzz, an then here it breaks of its own, guess there were others screaming loving telling of how they were seeing it all ovr the world, that we are not to be bound, nor is any audience, cum & go, free to as they wish in & out of th poem, fill it with what they will—spaces for them

(undated letter)

what has from the first distinguished much Canadian & american concrete [particularly the Vancouver toronto niagara Cleveland grouping (bissett, copithorne, levy, kryss, nichol, aylward, wagner, uu etc)] from the rest of the world movement has been a fascination with the primitive by this i mean a fascination with chant another way of looking at chant is as insistence the use of which term brings up the lady who is probably bissett's biggest influence & certainly his starting point gertrude stein stein always made that distinction that tho in the making of americans she said everyone had repeating in them all the time she was to say later that in her way of writing about it her writing was not so much repeating as insistent or rather since here is the important distinction & why she used the word insistence that rather everyone should realize that it was not repetition it was repeating & that of course behind repeating there is that something which is insisting itself all of bissett's published works to date are illuminated with this insisting of certain things over & over again certain concerns & within that insistence an evolution of content concern context & conception "gertrude stein went into what do i carry inside me so much of the time of her went over within myself working thru it ever since saw to yur letter" (undated letter)

in an unpublished essay titled "Joyce, Stein and the Single Vision" steve mccaffery has written

gertrude stein showed us that imagery is a matter of syntax james joyce showed us imagery is an event of mental association stein showed us that the image is of language and not showed us that the image is through language that is she did not think the image as beyond the word but that images are a part of imagery and that imagery is a relationship of words to other words she knew that grammatical subordination prevents the single vision she knew that such subordination trapped the word in function and evil relationship she saw that this could be wrong

bill bissett in a section of S The Story I To writes

& a little later

correct grammar subject verb object imperialism, th subject, king bullshit acts on victims screw that

lets go back for a moment to looking at what stein meant by insistence

If you think anything over and over and eventually in connection with it you are going to succeed or fail, succeeding and failing is repetition because you are always either succeeding or failing but any two moments of thinking it over is not repetition. Now you see that is where I differ from a great many people who say I repeat and they do not. They do not think their succeeding or failing is what makes repetition, in other words they do not think that what happens makes repetition but that it is the moment to moment emphasizing that makes repetition. Now I think the succeeding and failing is what makes the repetition not the moment to moment emphasizing that makes repetition…. There was the period of The Making of Americans portraiture, when by listening and talking I conceived at every moment the existence of some one, and I put down each moment that I had the existence of that one inside me until I had completely emptied myself of this that I had had as a portrait of that one. This as I say made what has been called repetition but, and you will see, each sentence is just the difference in emphasis that inevitably exists in the successive moment of my containing within me the existence of that other one achieved by talking and listening inside in me and inside in that one…. As I said it was if you like, it was like a cinema picture made up of succession and each moment having its own emphasis that is its own difference and so there was the moving and the existence of each moment as it was in time.

(gertrude stein Lectures in America)

lets pause for a moment to refind bearings shooting out a barrage of information to present the context in which bissetts work moves stein said that for her her work was not repetitive that she was following the successive shifts in emphasis from moment to moment the longer she contained a thing inside her mccaffery points out that imagery is a relationship of words to other words "words appear to be names for things that arent there" (bissett—undated letter) what bissett is saying then is that the rules that have governed language & hence the people who live within that language for the last 1000 years are no longer good enough

william carlos Williams stated once in an article on james Joyce

If to achieve truth we work with words purely, as a writer must, and all the words are dead or beautiful, how then shall we succeed any better than might a philosopher with dead abstractions? or their configurations? … There must be something new done with the words. Leave beauty out or, conceivably, one might begin again, one might break them up to let the staleness out of them.

bissett is expressing exactly the same concern when he says in a letter "what else can yu do with goddesses except (screw) make love to them i ask yew" & in "The Caruso Poem"

but here is where bissett veers off from stein stein was very concerned with keeping in control of what was happening

In the portraits that I did in that period of which I have just been speaking the later period considerably after the war the strictness of not letting remembering mix itself with looking and listening and talking … this strictness perhaps weakened a little weakened a little because and that in a way was an astonishment to me, I found that I was for a little while very much taken with the beauty of the sounds as they came from me as I made them. This is a thing that may be at any time a temptation…. The strict discipline that I had given myself, the absolute refusal of never using a word that was not an exact word … resulted … in an extraordinary melody of words and a melody of excitement in knowing that I had done this thing…. This melody for a little while after rather got the better of me … But as I say I did begin to think that I was rather drunk with what I had done. And I am always one to prefer being sober. I must be sober. It is so much more exciting to be sober, to be exact and concentrated and sober.

(gertrude stein Lectures in America)

bissett's position is made very clear in "The Caruso Poem" where he states

& then after a cautionary note to the reader

for bissett then that intoxication with sound is what he chose to follow stein made the conscious decision to veer away to return to the concerns which had informed the writing of The Making of Americans bissett plunges into the maelstrom & there is a fatalism involved as he has said the voice owns the man

so what we are seeing here is bissett's concern with sound for it is very important to understand this it is very important to understand that out of his concerns with sound grew his assessment of the page as a visual field in the sense that the optophonetic poets such as raoul hausmann have defined it

The optophonetic poem must create an absolute unity of noises, sounds, and typographical forms which, when printed on the page, give a strange, exceptional space and a complex concretized abstraction.

It is no longer a grouping of vowels and consonants semantically arranged according to the rules of syntax, but rather a polarity of complements from a new spiritual world.

(Hausmann—"The Optophonetic Dawn")

this involvement with sound has been the basic one for the majority of the Canadian "concrete" poets…. bissett has never been concerned with a literal transmission of sense he is concerned with ecstasy

we are not only images
cumming together, within
this permission we suspend
doubt, are flesh, are
material, are meat filld
of air, of blood, fire, of
what matters is our waters
meet, again, we found time

(bissett—"The Sun Does Not Move")

he is concerned with getting across the instant of experience in whatever way necessary convinced that the only way to actually communicate with someone is to place them into your perceptual system

in especially th worst of th jail pomes th rhetorik spills ovr into undead for altho sum of ths pomes arent ordinarily worth publishing or writing and ium no critic seems like most convincing way to demonstrate that for me at least life th living of it its tensions energy needed to write in lively way, where only sittin' is waitin' for meal call or bissett bag nd baggage transfer to nother wing, th pomes tend to be downbeat a bit sorry bout that nd not in themselves very eventful: iron bars may be do not a prison make but wud yu believe this cardboard replica, tho with all life removd so were all distractions, nd such good opportunity for meditating is met: what is never ends: this is well, and perhaps also well it is for th element of choice to be

(bisett—introduction to Sunday Work (?))

the use of chant of insistence in the form of repeating phrases over and over again with the change being that of emphasis or intonation shows his roots in & debt to stein at the same time his losing of himself in the ecstasy that accompanies the chant experience his losing of himself in sound his giving himself up into that mystery is where he steps away from stein into the unknown into that region which is both primitive & uncharted tied in us as it is to deeper racial memory and the awareness of the universe as one organic entity within which sound is the key that sets the mechanism that balances things in motion this involvement with chant has been the central experience for all Canadian poets working in this area even in the pure non-linear morpheme & submorpheme pieces you will find in all Canadian work an...

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Margaret Atwood (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Jail-Breaks and Re-Creations," in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Anansi Toronto, 1972, pp. 233-47.

[Atwood is an acclaimed Canadian-born writer. In the following excerpt, she outlines Bissett's political vision as articulated in NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH.]

The amazing thing about [Nobody Owns th Earth] is that it juxtaposes visions of Edenic happiness and peace with angry political poems like "Th Canadian" and "Love of Life, th 49th Parallel," the latter being probably the most all-inclusive poem on American takeover to appear so far. And yet it isn't, finally, amazing: anger and the desire for change depend on the assumption that change...

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Stephen Scobie (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "A Dash for the Border," in Canadian Literature, No. 56, Spring, 1973, pp. 89-92.

[Scobie is a Scottish-born Canadian poet, author, and educator. In the following review of drifting into war, he discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Bissett's poetic method.]

In Bill Bissett, we continue to find a tremendous energy of form, directed almost against itself. Bissett reaches to the edges of language and destroys it, yet keeps returning. The visual forms on the page (and how curious to see the determined untidiness of Bissett's gestetnered productions faithfully reproduced in the normally immaculate Talon format) always tend towards the destruction of any...

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Stephen Scobie (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Bissett's Best," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 60, Spring, 1974, pp. 120-22.

[In the following review of pomes for yoshi, Scobie argues that, despite appearances, Bissett's work is the result of careful stylistic control.]

In her selection of Bill Bissett's poetry for the volume Nobody Owns Th Earth, Margaret Atwood provided Bissett with what many of his readers had long felt he needed: a good editor. While Bissett has seldom published anything totally without interest, or without flashes of his own very individual brilliance, far too many of the books and pamphlets which pour out of the Blew Ointment Press have been random and haphazard...

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Frank Davey (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Bill Bissett," in From There to Here, Press Porcepic, 1974, pp. 49-54.

[Davey is a Canadian poet, author, and educator. In the following essay, he considers the mystical and political ideas informing Bissett's work.]

For the past fifteen years Vancouver has contained the largest and most cohesive left-wing artistic subculture in Canada. Throughout all of these years Bill Bissett has been one of its most outspoken and iconoclastic poets. Bissett's rejection of the conventional or "straight" world has been vigourous expressed not only in lifestyle but in ruthless alterations to conventional syntax and spelling. His contempt for orthodox society has caused him to...

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Mike Doyle (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Animate Imaginings," in Canadian Literature, No. 66, Autumn, 1975, pp. 94-7.

[In the following excerpt, Doyle discusses the connection between Bissett's formal approach and his poetic vision.]

Bill bissett's … mixture of chant-poems, visual concretes, and commitment poems, always offered with engaging energy, is very familiar. The shapes of the poems (in the mouth, in the eye) fix one's attention, the personal phonetics and typo-orthography and the absence of "careful libran". Again one notes the absence of venturesome syntax (a strong preference for the declarative sentence) but perceives it in a different universe, not of thought, but meditation,...

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Len Early (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Bill Bissett: Poetics, Politics & Vision," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 5, Fall, 1976, pp. 4-24.

[In the following essay, Early provides an overview of Bissett's work and emphasizes the political meaning of his idiosyncratic style.]

"Frivolity and ecstasy are the twin poles between which play moves."

—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

In some three dozen books of poetry published since 1966, bill bissett has often seemed intent on making a virtue of disorder. If the redundancy of much of his work is undeniable, so is its great variety. Challenging all manner of...

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Jack David (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Visual Poetry in Canada: Birney, Bissett, and bp," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1977, pp. 252-66.

[David is a Canadian editor and writer. In the following excerpt, he analyzes several of Bissett's concrete poems.]

For Bill Bissett, 1962 was the year that he first "allowed the words to act visually on the page." Most noticeable, initially, about Bissett's poetry is his peculiar orthography, described by Frank Davey as "idiosyncratic quasiphonetic spelling" which is part of his "attempt to write of an unqualified, elemental, and pure visionary world" as well as "a symbolic act of social rebellion." For example, Bissett spells "the" as "th",...

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Len Early (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: An introduction to SELECTED POEMS: BEYOND EVEN FAITHFUL LEGENDS, by Bill Bissett, Talonbooks, 1980, pp. 11-18.

[In the following excerpt, Early discusses Bissett's visionary politics and places his work in the context of contemporary Canadian poetry.]

Writing on bill bissett in 1980 is a rather different venture than responding to his books as they appeared ten or even five years ago. Bissett's poetry was so closely identified with the political/cultural convulsion of the 1960's that even its admirers were bound to wonder how many of its features would retain interest as the years passed. This selection should reassure them. In the first place, it will remind...

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Ann Mandel (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Free Subject," in Canadian Literature, No. 101, Summer, 1984, pp. 149-53.

[In the following excerpt, Mandel reviews Bissett's Northern Birds in Color and praises the vitality of his writing.]

[Bissett] is certainly Canada's poet of "the tribal dream." Northern Birds, his forty-seventh book of poetry, is a continuation of his constant prayer for the world to be a home for everyone, a vision to be realized by "th heeling vibraysyun uv th trust," a tribal caring of one for another. His poems articulate the grace of acknowledging and yielding to cycles of nature, rage against political and nuclear madness, wittily criticize the pope, dentists,...

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Karl Jirgens (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Bill Bissett," in Canadian Writers and Their Works, Vol. 8, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, ECW Press, 1992, pp. 17-109.

[In the following excerpt, Jirgens places Bissett's work in the tradition of English Romantic poetry.]

bissett can be thought of as a late Romantic maverick. In many ways, his writing seems anachronistic. On the one hand, it displays structural manipulations that are typical of the twentieth century. On the other hand, it embraces a timeless transcendental philosophy.

From a philosophical viewpoint, it could be argued that bissett is working in the tradition of Romantic writers such as Blake,...

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Don Precosky (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Self Selected/Selected Self: Bill Bissett's BEYOND EVEN FAITHFUL LEGENDS, " in Canadian Poetry, No. 34, Spring-Summer, 1994, pp. 57-78.

[In the following excerpt, Precosky discusses the significance of the order of poems in BEYOND EVEN FAITHFUL LEGENDS.]

When a poet selects and arranges his poetry for a retrospective collection we must pay special attention, because he is probably telling us something about the way in which he views his work. While the revisions performed on certain individual poems are an interesting subject of study and conjecture, bissett's ultimate act of revision in Beyond Even Faithful Legends lies in his selection and...

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Further Reading


Davey, Frank. Review of NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH. The Canadian Forum LII, Nos. 618-19 (July-August 1972): 44-5.

Asserts that this collection establishes Bissett as "specifically a religious poet," and notes Romantic, transcendentalist tendencies in certain poems.

Hopkins, Thomas. "Tempest in the West." Maclean's 91, No. 24 (23 October 1978): 66.

Covers the Canada Council scandal that thrust Bissett into the public eye.

McCaffery, Steve. "Bill Bissett: A Writing Outside Writing." Open Letter III (Fall 1978): 7-23.


(The entire section is 242 words.)