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.
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.
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.
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.
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
OF TH LAND DIVINE SERVICE 1968
liberating skies 1969
lost angel mining company 1969
Sunday work (?) 1969
s th story i to 1970
tuff shit 1970
blew trewz 1971
drifting into war 1971
NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH 1971
TH ICE BAG 1972
pomes for yoshi 1972
RUSH/WHAT FUCKAN THEORY 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
yu can eat it at the opening 1974
th fifth sun...
(The entire section is 159 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 233 words.)
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,...
(The entire section is 5946 words.)
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 will be for the better, that it is in fact possible to achieve not only individual but social freedom. The title, Nobody Owns th Earth, predicts a world that will be not "international" but post-national, in which people will live on the earth with love both for it and for each other, and some of the individual poems give us glimpses of this world. The angry "political" poems, however, recognize the fact that we do not yet live in this world, and if we assume too soon that the millennium has arrived we will simply end up as victims again, owned by people who do not even admit the possibility of a non-"owned" Earth. These Bissett identifies as "th Americans." A lot of the energy in the poems comes from the frustration experienced by...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
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 form they set up, while in sound Bissett returns to the strict and revivifying form of the chant. One tends to think of Bissett as a romantic artist, with a strong innate capacity for self-destruction, but he is also (at what I think is his best) capable of the strong control of his chants, or of the almost classical under-statement of poems like "Killer Whale" and "Th Emergency Ward." Thus, for me the best things in Drifting Into War are the simple, controlled typestracts, produced by overtyping certain spaces within squares and rectangles of letters, which present clean, abstract visual designs. At other times, as in "A warm place to shit," Bissett proves that he is better than anybody else at parodying the worst of Bill Bissett....
(The entire section is 387 words.)
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 collections of whatever he had to hand, with the good poems inextricably mixed up among the bad.
Indeed, it might be argued that this randomness, this deliberate abdication of selectivity and control, are so central to Bissett's aesthetic and life-style that it would seem like a distortion of his vision for him to present a tightly edited, carefully chosen selection. Certainly Bissett is best when read at some length, but Atwood's selection goes some way towards proving that the better poems can be successfully separated from the mass.
Nor is it absolutely clear that Bissett at his best does depend on uncontrolled haphazardness. On the contrary, his chants depend on a very strict manipulation of rhythmical...
(The entire section is 891 words.)
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 be ejected from cross-Canada trains, evicted by countless landlords, beaten, harrassed by police, and arrested and sentenced to prison. His contempt for the orthodoxies of the printed word caused him for at least a decade to be regarded by the bourgeois world of literary criticism as little more than a wild man or a freak.
Bissett published more than fifteen books in the sixties, and so far in the seventies has published ten more. His first significant recognition outside of the underground literary world in which he works and lives, however, was the publication in 1972 by the House of Anansi Press of a selected Bissett, Nobody Owns th Earth. This was followed quickly by his inclusion in Eli Mandel's certifying...
(The entire section is 1046 words.)
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, here in many instances on the soul, "yr soul twind around th orange ths time".
Many of the "soul" pieces are shape poems, based on the single word, apparently exploring the soul's (physical?) dimensions. Others ("soul", and other) are based on a mantra-like line repetition, which is often also visual. Still others shape as a repeated line which gradually modulates into either an exploration of the meaning ("what does mean mean?") of that line, or takes a direction (or variety of directions) the frame-line opens the way to (such are "a forest in the shell and water" and "into the open lips of th sun"). Others again are discursive, though these too commonly offer arresting individual visual shapes. For obvious reasons...
(The entire section is 305 words.)
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 authority, literary and otherwise, he has mounted an attack on convention that at times appears nihilistic to the point of stunting his considerable artistry. Nevertheless, there is a vital consistency in his theories, forms and themes. The most idiosyncratic and the most ideological of his poems reflect a visionary writer whose achievement is already an impressive one.
While bissett's poetic is fairly obvious in many of his volumes, two are expressly addressed to questions of language and style: Rush / What Fuckan Theory (1971) and Words in th Fire (1972). The first of these is a book subverted by its own attitudes. As an assertion of bissett's idea that relationships such as hierarchy, cause-effect sequences, and...
(The entire section is 6786 words.)
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", "and" as "nd", and "some" as "sum". Bissett defends his way of spelling by observing that "as recently as 17th century," there was "no consistency in spelling rules." He wonders why poetry has "to be / lockd in th structure of 17th c. / bourgeousie stuffd / chair art forms." It is hard to know where to begin talking about Bissett's visual poetry; perhaps I should begin with a poem that uses only two typewritten letters, u and o. A first glance shows that this poem, "uo," has a black/white image created by the typing of the o over the u; a light-coloured bird is visible, wings outspread. Furthermore, the bird is encased within a square, like a cage. However, "uo" can be viewed from different angles with different...
(The entire section is 1219 words.)
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 us that his poetry had deeper sources than topical issues and literary fashion. In the second, it shows that his best work has always been charged with the energy and formal ingenuity of enduring art.
As a radical presence on the Canadian literary scene, bissett has been a controversial figure for some fifteen years. He emerged in the early 1960's in Vancouver as a pioneer in mixed-media, an innovator in concrete and sound poetry, a founder of blewointmentpress, and a frequent target of the local reaction against counterculture styles and values. He has been one of the most supportive of his own generation of Canadian writers and artists. He has also been subject to police harassment, and with fellow experimental poet, bp...
(The entire section is 2594 words.)
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, ecological destruction (he has a wonderful plan for cleaning up English Bay involving diving cows), and his own eccentric inconsistencies. Like a rare northern bird, his imagination ranges from vast constellations and cataclysmic visions to minute worlds in grains of sand where
Bissett's remarkable ability to keep his vision moving and fresh over the years comes largely from a linguistic energy which creates visible sound and aural shapes. We can see and hear him like the birds in his poems
Between the migratory poles of his winged vision, there's an essentially domestic area, a place of friendships and gentle humour. In my favourite poem in the book, "we live in a hundrid yeer old house," the house is both the...
(The entire section is 235 words.)
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, Shelley, and perhaps Yeats. Like his Romantic predecessors, bissett values individualism and original imagination. On one level, the distinctive variety of approaches in bissett's writing can be seen as an affirmation of his will as an individual.
David Perkins, in his English Romantic Writers, discusses the qualities of Romanticism and the contributions made by German critics Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel in 1798:
The "Romantic" refuses to recognize restraints in subject matter or form and so is free to represent the abnormal, grotesque, and monstrous and to mingle standpoints, genres, modes of expression (such as philosophy and poetry), and even the separate arts in a single work....
(The entire section is 2981 words.)
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 arrangement of the poems for the book. In this book, the poems are not arranged in order according to publication or composition date. And, in those rare instances when consecutive poems in the Selected are from the same book, they were not in the same order in the original. The new arrangement that bissett creates is based upon opposites. To put it in very simple terms, he alternates poems about good things with poems about bad things. One group of poems about things he values can be followed by poems about forces that threaten them. Pieces about social evils are followed by works that suggest solutions. The poems, especially the non-concrete ones, have been very carefully chosen and arranged by bissett in order to create a desired flow...
(The entire section is 4197 words.)
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.
Draws on the work of such theorists as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva in discussing Bissett's poetic style.
McCarthy, Dermot. "Shit from Musturd." Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 6 (Spring 1977): 86-9.
Negative appraisal of works by Bissett and "the blewointment coterie." According to McCarthy, "Reading bissett and his gang is like sitting down to a meal of Coke and corn-chips."
Precosky, Don. "Bill Bissett: Controversies and Definitions." Canadian Poetry, No. 27 (Fall/Winter 1990): 15-29.
Provides an overview of critical response to...
(The entire section is 242 words.)