John Robert Colombo

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

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.

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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 rock singers. The main problem with the record is that there is 'so little for the mind.' Things go on and on. I am reminded of the first coal-burning trains: all they could carry was their own coal, no freight at all. The recording grows tiresome after eight minutes, which is as much as Nichol gives us.

The set of sixteen leaflets of concrete poetry is called 'Letters Home.' These reminded me less of epistles than they did a 'press book' which is handed out to reporters at any event that is at all organized. A press book 'fills you in' from all points of view simultaneously…. With 'Letters Home,' the production values come into their own and, perhaps, take over. I found especially striking the author's trade mark, the e.e. cummings-like use of his initials 'bp' cut out of silver paper…. Nichol finds and loses words by reproducing them piecemeal, horizontally, vertically, in circles, with coloured inks, without ink. Like most concrete poets, he rediscovers visual rhymes ('pane / rain / pain,' etc.) … Concrete poetry uses and abuses the typewriter and owes its successful reproduction to offset methods…. As experiments in finding new forms, they are always interesting, although the least talented typographic designer in Canada could bring in more variations, and more effective ones, than Nichol can; the arbitrary has become art. And as attempts to communicate or express, they are amusing, time-consuming curiosities, things to look at, which fail to support any single concern. (pp. 101-02)

The least successful part of the package is (and I think this is revealing) Journeying & the returns, the accompanying booklet of straight (that is, non-concrete) poetry…. Whereas the recording and leaflets showed Nichol as an explorer of new poetic modes and an experimenter in new areas of perception, the booklet shows Nichol to be a traditional-minded author of quizzical poems like those of his that appeared in Raymond Souster's anthology New Wave Canada…. In a phrase, Nichol is a poetic impressionist. 'Eyes open on colour,' he says in one poem and then goes on to develop his thesis without the colour sense of a Margaret Avison. In another poem, he sees a shadow 'of him?' or 'him?' and nicely brings epistemology to bear on ontology. Nichol has a theory of balance, too, which says that a movement in the present is matched with 'a movement / a way / back.' Instead of the probes for the ear and the eye in the other two sections, Nichol is back in book culture with a quill pen. He is totally contained, and the poems are set out in cycles, even numbered, with the 'tensions / reduced to / nuances.' No sod-turning here. (pp. 102-03)

Faced with the mountain of printed matter the average person passively reads, the purchaser of this package has to get involved with Nichol, at least to the extent of opening envelopes, putting records on turntables, turning gatefolds, etc. The package has the pleasant and inconsequential aura of a happening, and the unexpected is always in the next thing to be examined…. bp is an important (if modest) landmark in bringing the Canadian reader and writer into a closer, more creative collaboration. And for this I am grateful. (p. 104)

John Robert Colombo, "New Wave Nichol," in The Tamarack Review, No. 44, Summer, 1967, pp. 100-04.

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