B(arrie) P(hillip) Nichol

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Eldon Garnet

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

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 book Monotones, the "monotonous" tone deliberately matches the title, as though Nichol, in the words of his mythical Saint And, "forsaw the imminent end of all speech."…

The one element which undoubtedly dominates Nichol's poetry is the question of the nature of poetic creation; it is present as a theme and sustained as a metaphor. He is always both questioning the poetic process and seeing it as a mirror of the life-process. His longest poem, the two-volume The Martyrology, can be read as an attempt to come to terms with poetic theory….

For Nichol, the saint is the word. He transcends physical reality and the machinery of transcendence is the form of expression. If The Martyrology is read without a reverence for the means of expression, it will appear flat….

Nichol is involved with the martyrology of language and its saints….

The poem becomes a journey into the "I," and into the language which expresses the breath of the poem and of the poet. The saint motif weakens when the biographical details of Nichol's personal feelings and life intervene; the objective and the subjective meet, clash and join in an uneasy tension….

In the end, the saint is merely the poet who "suffered the pain of silence," the alternative is to "let your sounds lead you out of that dead time." For Nichol, the poet

            must return again human voice & listen
            rip off the mask of words to free the sounds…

Eldon Garnet, "Killing the Poem to Make It New" (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 88, No. 3, March, 1973, p. 40.

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