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Bissett, Bill 1939–

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A Canadian, Bissett is known as the lower case poet, never capitalizing any words and spelling them exactly as they sound. Bissett aims to involve all the senses in his poems and he writes mainly about a search for harmony. Although many critics find his verse both interesting and technically proficient, others argue that his use of language is too radical to be artistic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Frank Davey

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What [Nobody Owns th Earth,] makes clearest is that Bill Bissett is specifically a religious poet. His vision is of a transcendent, static world, simple and hard in outline, paralleling our own complex and sordid one just beyond the usual limitations of human perception…. More Blakean than Emersonian, this other world can become visible to us during prayers, incantations, or dreams…. (p. 44)

At moments of extreme intensity—religious trances, sexual intercourse—the subject can enter completely into this elemental world of eternal condition. Thus early in Nobody Owns th Earth is a group of love poems…. The religious counterparts to these poems are the mantras, the prayers, the incantations—"Added Weight," "Prayers for th One Habitation," "Armageddon News," "Tempul Firing," and "Holy Day."… (pp. 44-5)

Because of the Platonic overtones of these overtly religious poems, their diction can appear limited and infantile. The dominant part of speech is the noun; most nouns are from a narrow elemental range—tree, fire, wind, water, sky, sun, moon, blood, wave, heart (in some books by Bissett such a list would account for 80% of the nouns). They are nearly always unmodified. But Bissett is not being childish; he is simply attempting to write of an unqualified, pure, archtypical, visionary world—a world distinguished from ours by its lack of pluralities, multiplicities, divergencies, by its consisting only of elemental substance. Bissett's idiosyncratic spellings are also simplifications, meant to indicate a consciousness more attuned to cosmic non-complexity than to earthly convention—and largely successful in doing this.

In the other part of his poetry, poetry probably more attractive to the average reader, we see the corollary to Bissett's mysticism. The poet who loves heaven lives in hell—a hell not only of materiality and plurality but of deceit, brutality, and exploitation, a hell where one of the first things the poet is moved to ask is "were yu normal today did yu screw society."… (pp. 44-5)

The two sides to Bissett's poetry cannot be fully understood in separation. One is the religious man's hope; the other his horror at what still surrounds him. They can also not be understood by this collection's title and dustjacket. The title Nobody Owns th Earth, centring on the ecological cliché, suggests a this-world one which is Bissett's particular achievement. Bissett's dustjacket sentimentality would have us believe his work is about ecology and social revolution. But his own vocabulary testifies that the new world he envisions lies far beyond our time-bound universe. Bissett is Blakean rather than Marxist, and, as he himself knows, requires Armageddon rather than revolution for his vision's fulfilment. (p. 45)

Frank Davey, "'Nobody Owns th Earth'," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. 52, Nos. 618 & 619, July-August, 1972, pp. 44-5.

Al Purdy

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Bissett is a poet-prophet, or at least believes he is. Legalized marijuana, universal love, and the undeniable fact that "nobody owns th earth", are three of Bissett's urgent requirements for Utopia or Heaven on Earth. And the very naiveté of his language and themes, the earnestness and complete personal belief he brings to poems—these make him oddly touching and, I think, worthwhile….

[There] is a core of integrity about poet-prophet-bissett one can't ignore. The reasons why one can't ignore him would be difficult to explain to (say) a panel of fifty middle-aged English profs never entirely weaned from Chaucer, Eliot and alcohol. In many ways, and in my own way, I agree with the things Bissett says in his poems and life. Universal love is the best contraceptive I can think of. It's also agreeable to me that nobody should own the earth, or even 65 per cent of Canadian industry. But Bissett isn't trying to convince me, just the world. (p. 87)

Al Purdy, "The Woman of Barrie," in Canadian Literature, No. 54, Autumn, 1972, pp. 86-90.∗

Stephen Scobie

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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 … 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 understatement…. 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. (p. 92)

Stephen Scobie, "A Dash for the Border," in Canadian Literature, No. 56, Spring, 1973, pp. 89-92.∗

Stephen Scobie

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[It might be argued that randomness and] 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….

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 effects…. Moreover, in some of his longer satirical poems—I'm thinking especially of "Th' Emergency Ward" and "Killer Whale"—the pretence of the poem's being an unadulterated recital of facts is surely just a pretence. These poems practice a kind of reticence, an ironic understatement, a refusal to comment which is in the end far more effective than any actual comment could have been (especially the rather frenzied political rhetoric that Bissett often indulges in). These poems, with their very studied naivety in accepting all the strange things that happen to him, show Bissett as a master of narrative and ironic tone.

These considerations are very important when approaching Pomes for Yoshi…. In the first place, it is a book with a unified theme: in effect, it is one long sequence of poems in which every piece bears directly on the central [concern with the poet's love for a girl called Yoshi]. (p. 121)

In the love poems, Bissett tackles head on the oldest poetic theme in the world, and he succeeds in giving it a remarkable freshness by the very naivety, directness, and openness with which he treats it. In simple, colloquial language he speaks of how he misses her, and of how he accepts her need to be away from him for a while, even if she's with some other man. Love is not possession, Bissett says, and seldom has this ideal been realised more fully and more convincingly. The poems take the emotional warmth and idealistic romanticism of Bissett's earlier work and manage to focus them on a particular situation, a particular relationship.

The sub-theme, the housemoving, reaches its climax in a long poem at the end of the book…. [The] ostensible form is that of a purely factual narrative of an increasingly fantastic sequence of events. (Bissett appears to be the kind of person that the wildest things just naturally happen to.) But again, the tone is perfectly judged, and the absence of comment becomes a comment in itself. It also produces a hilarious kind of straight-faced humour.

None of this, I think, is accidental. It is a product of Bissett's life-style and aesthetic (the two are almost the same), an openness which seems naive but isn't, an innocence which has gone through experience and out the other side, a purity of outlook which brings freshness to the most outrageously clichéd situations and phrases. Nothing but this consistency of tone could account for the way in which Bissett is able to use such terrible clichés of counter-culture jargon as "Far out", "I can dig it", "Heavy", and "Got to get my shit together" with such complete honesty that the reader accepts them as being meaningful (accurate descriptions of a certain state of mind), amusing (in slyly self-mocking, understated asides), and even deeply moving (see especially the final page of the book).

Such sophisticated manipulations of language may be accidental, or unconscious, but I rather doubt it. Pomes for Yoshi strikes me as a very carefully crafted book, as well as a deeply personal one. (pp. 121-22)

Stephen Scobie, "Bissett's Best," in Canadian Literature, No. 60, Spring, 1974, pp. 120-22.

Len Early

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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 linear writing are repressive, Rush proclaims its defiance by remaining determinedly incoherent. The verbal chaos is extreme; only occasionally are there passages of striking intellectual or lyrical interest. Almost all the important points in bissett's aesthetic view which are diffused, obscured and repeated elsewhere in the book, are tellingly concentrated in one poem, "Poetry dusint have to be," which presents some of his most persistent themes. He declares that poetry should be free from any prescriptions of subject; indeed, like the most elementary child's play, it can do "nothing well." Nevertheless, as the bulk of this manifesto demonstrates, poetry can very well be about political and social issues of the utmost consequence—and much of bissett's own work is. The idea that there is a close connection between rules of language and political oppression (one of bissett's central convictions) occurs in the third part of the poem, and in the fourth he touches on another of his main themes: life in a primitive, natural terrain…. "Poetry dusint have to be" is typical in form of those of bissett's poems which develop as predominantly discursive works, as distinguished from the visceral chants and visual designs at which he also excels. While he eschews conventional grammar and punctuation in such poems, they give an impression of copious vitality, of perceptions rendered articulate through the rhythms of phrase, line and section—or as bissett would have it, through the rhythms of breathing. (pp. 4-5)

While the history of twentieth-century poetry is in large part an account of the revolt against nineteenth-century stanzas, rhythm and rhyme schemes, concrete poets in our time have carried the revolt further, in their suspicion of basic semantic conventions like grammar, spelling and linear printing, which they regard as repressive systems. bissett stresses the importance in his kind of poetry, of sound, especially of language as spoken, as opposed to language as it is taught in schools…. bissett's "revolutionary" spelling is conceived as a political act, intended to embody the values of phonetic simplification and vocal authenticity. "Correct" expression is in his view elitist, one more self-perpetuating device of the privileged classes, and one more restriction on the creative spirit. (pp. 5-6)

bissett praises the potential of poetry to stir our faculties and involve readers in something akin to the act of poetic creation…. This is not to say that bissett is unaware of the power of words to deceive and subjugate. His enthusiasm for language as delight, as freedom, as discovery, is equalled by his suspicion of language as an instrument of tyranny. As early as The Jinx Ship nd Othr Trips (1966), he is quite clear about the power of language to constrict and damage our lives. Fundamental to bissett's work is his conviction that because poetry issues from minds which are continually conditioned by their environment, any view of poetry must take account of the social, the political, indeed the physical milieu in which it emerges. (p. 6)

In the interest of "liberating" language from traditional poetic forms, bissett has explored its visual and aural qualities: the former is the route to concrete poetry, the latter leads to sound poetry…. I think that bissett's "am or," from Awake in th Red Desert (1968), is a paradigm of concrete. Semantically, "am" expresses the fundamental human condition of isolated subjectivity, and "or" raises the question of an alternative state: can one's loneliness be eased? Yes, in fact the solution to human isolation is love: "amor." And the culmination of love is reached at the end of the poem in the form of sexual communion popularly known as "sixty-nine." Visually, the stark columns of "ams" and "ors" may suggest the monotonous isolation of two individuals. The fact that these columns merge into the cluster of "69's" and the fact that in contrast to the columns, most of "69's" are linked, reinforces my "semantic" reading. The 69's are also a clue to another visual dimension of the poem. If one inverts the page, the phallic shape becomes instantly apparent, accounting for the notch at the top of the figure. Righting the page, we now perceive the figure as a female emblem as well. (The fact that the shape of the poem is male upside down and female rightside up, corresponds to the physical positions of the lovers as they engage in "sixty-nine.") This is at once a love poem and an erotic sketch, altogether a work of considerable cleverness and perhaps of some emotional value, as far as it touches our own sense of loneliness and our knowledge of our hope of love. (pp. 6, 8)

As does concrete, sound poetry moves from relatively familiar uses of language (recitation, song), to works devoid of conceptual meaning: wails, hums and chants in which the voice is used strictly as an instrument of sound, speaking only to our emotions, not at all to our intellect. The most satisfactory experience of bissett's sound poetry is, of course, a live performance by the man himself…. The repetition which characterizes bissett's chanting frequently acquires ritual and sacramental overtones; indeed, much of his sound poetry ultimately amounts to a religious use of language and is closely related to the sacred vision which surges through such volumes as Polar Bear Hunt (1972) and Th High Green Hill (1972). As it is chanted, the line undergoes a variety of spontaneous vocal modulations. Its printed version can illustrate another facet of bissett's sound poetry: the typewritten "notation" for the work renders a concrete poem of considerable visual beauty. Such "tapestries" of words approach another of bissett's art forms: designs created by the typewriter which have no cognitive meaning, and whose charms are purely visual.

Often the puzzling forms which bissett's work takes have the effect of slowing down our experience of the poetry. Perhaps this is one of the fundamental virtues of his technique: it forces us to assume a more leisurely pace, to enter into the spirit of play, of reverence, of creation itself; it resists the "expert" response of programmed analysis and cataloguing. Indeed a number of concrete poets have stated that a primary aim of their work is involvement of the reader in completing or contributing to the poem's meaning in much greater measure than conventional poetry demands…. Much of bissett's work is intriguing in this way and gratifies our efforts to appreciate it.

There are, however, numerous poems and passages throughout the spate of volumes by bissett, which for me lack any aesthetic merit. In poems such as "run tonight" from Pass th Food Release th Spirit Book (1973), I can find neither the exuberance nor the beauty which are outstanding qualities elsewhere in his work. I remarked that as a revolutionary writer, bissett seeks to shatter the conventional orders of language, and that some of his most vital work is a consequence of this enterprise. Poems like "run tonight," though, strike me as applications of his theories about language rather than explorations of the medium itself.

This self-conscious effect is reminiscent of Dada and surrealist art; indeed many of bissett's poems which baffle attempts to "read" them, echo the Dada interest…. While such work may have a purpose of sorts, it fails to realize the aesthetic possibilities of either concrete or "trad" poetry. It has neither formal nor intellectual appeal, and seems to me essentially the printed equivalent of noise. Too often one feels that bissett is merely giving the raspberry to an especially pedantic fifth-rate English teacher he may have encountered in grammar school. (pp. 10-12)

Alternatively, perhaps works such as "run tonight" can be regarded as raw material, the soupy verbal matrix from which moments of startling lyrical clarity emerge as we read through a bissett volume. By his own account, poetry is an abandonment of repressive rationality and ego distortions, an utterance of the "true" discoveries of untrammelled perception. He produces great wordfloods, evidently on the assumption that undirected consciousness will issue in something worthy of print. But it may also issue in the banal and the unintelligible, poems equally as bad as those "made up" by the excessively self-conscious poet. Voyagers through strange seas of thought and language risk shipwreck as they seek new worlds, and numerous of bissett's poems seem to me debris. Even so, the voyage is often worth the risk.

Though much of bissett's art is innovative, much is also fairly traditional in form, once one looks past superficial novelties of spelling and grammar. His versatility and vision overflow the forms of concrete and often issue in poetry that is both fluent and cogent. Notwithstanding his misgivings about doctrines and his diatribes against the tyranny of rational meaning, much of his work is full of meaning, and much is "message" poetry of a distinctly didactic orientation. (p. 13)

These works can also demonstrate that poetry need not be formally radical to undertake inquiries or discoveries. In Pomes for Yoshi (1972), we observe the speaker assessing and reassessing his thoughts and behavior, measuring his feelings against his principles—doing, in short, what good poets have always done in exploring the paradoxes of sexual love. This book is so clearly the issue of an articulate consciousness seeking a realization of its experience in language. And this is the point at which bissett's "trad" poems intersect with his experimental writing. (p. 15)

I have used the term "realistic" in speaking of those poems by bissett which reflect, and reflect upon, his experience in a world which we recognize as the familiar context of our daily lives. Such realism, especially in its comic and satirical perspectives, is one way bissett controls, amplifies, and makes compelling the visionary intervals in his work. Here I would suggest that bissett has affinities with those writers over the past two centuries whose work is impelled by a dialectic of irony and lyricism. Writers such as Blake, Carlyle, Melville and—closer to bissett's own time and space—Leonard Cohen, have sustained the most profound lyrical visions through an equally powerful sense of the comic. Their work testifies to a peculiar feature of modern history: that glimpses of sublimity can be achieved only within a frame of irony. With these writers bissett shares, variously: a wish to exhort and inspire; an undertaking to express and interpret a whole epoch and culture; a distrust of reductive interpretation and a subversion of linear conventions; a taste for both epigrammatic brilliance and verbal luxuriance; and certainly not least, a delight in playing with language, an obsession with wordcoining, puns, jests, and a relish for sound and rhythm. (pp. 15-16)

bissett's criticism of social and political structures is as radical as his subversion of literary conventions. Indeed, he believes they are fundamentally related. As a social critic he is representative of the counter-culture, that conspicuous if nebulous rebellion which blossomed in the sixties against traditional North American mores and institutions. bissett locates the center of social corruption in the United States and identifies "Amerika" as the source and symbol of heartless, devouring modernism…. (p. 16)

The political affinities of the counter-culture are with socialism, in the priority it gives to collective values and anarchism, in its loathing of centralized government and bureaucracies…. The pervasive problems of "identity" in modern life are met by a renunciation of ego, an abandonment of the contingencies of our individual identities in favor of a sense of tribal relationship….

One token of solidarity among the widely dispersed counter-culture nomads and their fellow travellers has been a lingo of stock phrases upon which bissett draws heavily in his work. (p. 17)

Sophisticated spokesmen of the counter-culture frequently attack the idea of progress as one of the principal motives in the development of our civilization. Against the technician's view of time as linear, with a past to be studied and a future to be engineered, the counter-culture values moments of ecstasy achieved through drugs, music, sex and mysticism. And against the modernist view of nature as raw material to be exploited, the counter-culture perceives intrinsic value in natural things…. Bissett's poetry teems with references to biological functions and rhythms: vision, breath, heartbeat, blood circulation, excretion, copulation. Many of his poems present grim interludes of city-dwelling and images of desolation row. In others, seeking a liberation from the oppressions of history, he celebrates a paradisal relation of man with the natural world. His commitment to these values is not, however, without certain paradoxes: the general denunciation of order, but the systematic precision of some of his designs; the devaluation of ego, but the production of an enormous oeuvre under his name. (p. 18)

But the implications of bissett's poetics and politics are apt to divert our attention from the first things we notice about his books: the quirks of format and content, the visual whimsy, the ingenuous lyrical beauty, and the rhapsodic power. This last quality I consider the sign of his most important work, the visionary poetry in his longest volume, Th High Green Hill. Though it includes a few collages, wordgames and concrete experiments, this book is largely made up of brief visionary lyrics and long visionary meditations…. The irony and rage which we observed in bissett's political poems provide the minor theme of the book. "America" appears again as the exemplar of all that is destructive in the exaltation of egotism as a personal and political philosophy. But the major theme is a transformation of vision and a recovery of those blessings of joy, beauty and mystery, of which modern culture deprives us…. (p. 19)

The idea that the transformed vision involves a change in our relation to the natural world, indicates bissett's affinities with the great Romantic visionaries. Though the concern with vision exists throughout Th High Green Hill, the most explicit development of the theme occurs in a similar though much shorter volume, Polar Bear Hunt (1972). Here bissett insists that we need only cultivate "th eye uv th soul" to end the spiritual exile suffered through our habitual way of seeing the world. (We may recall Blake's distinction between imaginative and corporeal sight.) We suffer from our conviction that we see most clearly when we divorce ourselves "objectively" from the world around us. Objectivity is for bissett a life-denying stance, the hallmark of egotism and the rationale for destruction; he urges our participation as whole creatures in the glories of our world, whether through dreams, imagination, love or celebration…. He urges an opening up of our responses to the world we inhabit. Abandoning the ego, we become fit for revelation and enter into ecstasies.

Many of the poems in Th High Green Hill evoke these ecstasies. Their language and structures reflect the awareness of plenitude, beauty, and mystery which is their main theme. If the style often becomes opaque, it seems less a reflection of vagueness in the experience than of the inadequacy of language to describe it. (pp. 19-20)

Though the motif of pilgrimage in some of bissett's meditations, and his emphasis on achieving bliss through a kind of self-renunciation, suggest parallels with the great world religions, his work reflects more closely the values of primitive religion…. [Theodore Roszak's] comparison of shaman and artist [in The Making of a Counter Culture] bears upon the religious dimension of bissett's work; indeed, in performing his sound poetry, bissett often passes over completely from art to ritual. And the willingness with which he has suffered deprivation and persecution for the sake of living a life consistent with his vision, is not unlike the shaman's arduous discipline for the sake of cultivating his powers.

Many of bissett's drawings and paintings also reflect the primitive sympathies in his vision. Numerous designs in his volumes resemble the petroglyphs which continue to be discovered in the Canadian wilderness, remnants of the sacred arts of various Amerindian tribes. As though expressing the spiritual energy which (the Indians believed) pervades nature, bissett's favorite designs are peculiarly fluid, suggesting the shapes of flames, or sunbursts, or flowers, or wings, sometimes simultaneously. His drawings have a primordial quality: ample space, simple lines, a curious brilliance. Perhaps their most significant motif is the interpenetration of the human anatomy with elemental images of the world's body: waves, sun, mountains, hills, trees. (p. 22)

A final point I'd like to make about bissett is beautifully illustrated in a concrete poem near the end of Th High Green Hill. This "rattle poem" is a delightful visual pun: there is no need for me to comment on the appropriateness of its shape and "sound." But I think it's important to ask, who uses rattles? And of course the answer is, two sorts of people: babies and shamans. "I wanta rattul" could be merely a peremptory demand for the toy, but it can also mean, for the baby, "I want to play," and for the shaman, "I want to perform a ritual." Nor are these last two meanings very distinct from one another. As Johan Huizinga has suggested [in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture], ritual and play are intrinsically related, and express impulses which may also issue in poetry—especially lyric poetry, which comes "closest to supreme wisdom but also to inanity." Such an insight can illuminate the main features of bill bissett's art: its affinity to the primitive; its frequently enigmatic quality; its heavy use of repetition; its subversive intent; its exuberance, its capriciousness, its moments of astounding beauty and power. It may also give us some understanding of one of the most marvellous of his achievements: the demeanour of perfect seriousness and absolute delight, simultaneously. Perhaps this is one of the rich dimensions missing from our lives—at least, since we grew up. (p. 24)

Len Early, "bill bissett/Poetics, Politics & Vision," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), No. 5, Fall, 1976, pp. 4-24.

DERMOT McCARTHY

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Bissett's poetry and that of the blewointment coterie is meant to sound like street language, the language of the people in the street, albeit the severely limited vocabulary of a narrow-minded and elitist neighbourhood. Indeed, bissett's and the others' poetry sounds like the talk of people who would be the least interested in the written word—illeducated, arrested adolescents suffering from imaginative fatigue and an OD of imported, second-rate American plastic. What is so ironic about bissett's Anti-American rhetoric is that he is one of the most American poets that we have, in his obsessions and approaches to poetic technique, and with his warmed up left-overs of 60's American counter-culture. Reading bissett and his gang is like sitting down to a meal of Coke and corn-chips. (p. 88)

Dermot McCarthy, "Shit from Musturd," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), No. 6, Spring, 1977, pp. 86-9.∗

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Bissett, Bill (Poetry Criticism)

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