B(arrie) P(hillip) Nichol

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Jack David

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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)

For Nichol the history of concrete poetry stretches back to Greek (400 B.C.) and, later, to Christian pattern poems (500 A.D.). His "Christian Cross #2" … recreates one of the basic visual shapes of the Greeks and Christians—the cross—but in a contemporary light. Only one word, "theory", is used, but the contrasting italics set out the interior words—"the", "or", and "y"…. Note also that the word "theory," which provides the building blocks for the cross pattern, semantically represents the foundation of the church. The ability to create such poetic compression must be viewed as one of Nichol's chief assets…. (pp. 128-29)

In Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, the typewriter and the mimeograph provide the tools that determine the appearance of the poems. (p. 129)

Nichol's typewriter poetry often suffers by his own evaluatory criteria—that is, it has extreme simplicity of shape or meaning or else relies too heavily on a trick. Many of the typewriter poems in Konfessions are at about the same level of density as those in Still Water…. As Nichol himself observes, "the pun is in danger of getting overused in concrete not enough poets realize the skill needed to handle it effectively." (pp. 129-30)

[Nichol] views the writing process as completely dependent on the writer's physical make-up at the moment of writing…. In The Martyrology (Book II) he noted that "i throw up these poems / out of the moment of the soul's searching / part of the process of gaining focus" (my emphasis). Focus and crystallization, then, are his goals; and each time he writes, his breath and musculature impose different results on the style of the poem. In other words, he regards poetry as being totally integrated with life…. (p. 131)

Besides typewriter poems, Nichol has widely experimented with typographical poems. In ABC: The Aleph Beth Book Nichol examines each letter of the alphabet and designs with them and around them…. These messages are "primarily concerned with getting below language to those things Sapir referred to as forming 'the actual life of language'" which includes the "unarticulated content of signs."

Interwoven with these alphabetic signs in ABC is a message declaring that "poetry is dead"...

(This entire section contains 1100 words.)

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and that to revivify it, the poet must break through the traditional barriers of language. This polemic is printed in full at the opening ofABC, then reprinted fragment by fragment on each of the twenty-six pages, and again, fully, on the final page. The exploration of the single letter, the book implies, is one possible way to recreate the life in poetry.

Nichol's most complex and well-crafted collection of typographical poems is contained in bp. (pp. 132-33)

Whereas in typographical poems the shape of the letters and the space on the page draw poetic attention, in sound poetry it is the sound of words and letters that is explored….

Nichol's attempt to relate the sound poem and its written text is representative of his larger struggle with poetic form in general. (p. 133)

The central theme of The Martyrology: Books I-II is language and the poetic process. Overall there is a double concern: to discuss poetry while at the same time to incorporate these poetical theories into the poem itself. It is Nichol writing about writing, "because the basic material of all literature IS language." (pp. 136-37)

Andy is Nichol's most satisfying long prose work as well as being one of the most original and exciting works written in Canada. It is a collage of five sections which intertwine and eventually coalesce….

As with any art form that uses collage or juxtaposition as its major stylistic device, in Andy the relationship at the interfaces of any two separate section is of much interest. (p. 138)

Whether or not (and I think not) Andy's persona wrote the whole book, the aspect of Andy most consistent with all of Nichol's works is the opposition to traditional language forms…. All the effort of the book is aimed at the "reversal of linear sequential thinking." We have seen how Nichol attacks this problem in concrete poetry by getting back to the roots of language; "now the problem i'm at this point is that now I want to get ideas in." How to do this? "I have to go on to whole new forms." (pp. 139-40)

If it is not blasphemy to categorize Nichol, I think three broad labels can be attached to him and his writings. First, he is an idealist in his belief that a "new humanism will one day touch the world to its core." He believes that love and evolution work jointly to bring on this new humanism. Second, Nichol is a traditionalist; "it is necessary if we are to continue fruitfully that we open our eyes and ears once more to that non-productive tradition." In other words, "traditional poetry is only one of the means by which to reach out and touch the other." Third, he is a radical writer, digging back to the auditory and visual roots to bring new life into the language. (p. 141)

Jack David, "Writing Writing: bp Nichol at 30," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), No. 3, Fall, 1975 (and reprinted in Brave New Wave, edited by Jack David, Black Moss Press, 1978, pp. 126-42).


Stephen Scobie