Bowering, George 1935–
Bowering is a Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, biographer, essayist, and editor. His poetry shows the influence of the Black Mountain group and has gradually evolved from the short lyric form of his earlier Sticks & Stones to serial poems of book length such as Baseball or George, Vancouver. His A Short Sad Book is a satiric examination of one of his favorite subjects, the state of Canadian literature. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
A Short Sad Book (it is fairly short, but I don't find it sad—on the contrary) sets forth, in an atmosphere of fantasy and parody, some of Bowering's views; introduces various fictional or "real" characters; and tells a series of little fables that involve Tom Thomson, D. H. Lawrence, Al Purdy, and several others.
Bowering speaks directly to his readers and tells us, among other things, that from early youth he has had difficulty dealing with the idea of Canada—in adolescence, apparently, he yearned to be an American. Now, in his forties, he appears to be at home in Canada but not entirely at home with Canadian culture. At one point he tells us: "Canadian literature is a lot like a bank. It has Group of Seven paintings all over the wall and it is always lockt up at night."…
For Bowering, clearly, A Short Sad Book is a way of settling some scores, a collection of in-jokes and puns, a defence of the Black Mountain school of poetry that helped shape him, a series of gentle pokes at his friends—and something more: a comic meditation on the nature of Canadian literature as opposed to literature in Canada, mixed with an inquiry into some of the links between fiction and reality. Whatever he intended, he carries it off with a fine absurdist technique and a certain shy sense of style.
Robert Fulford, "Bowering, Me, and the Robertian Conspiracy," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Night), Vol. 93, No. 3, April, 1978, p. 14.
A survey of Bowering's writing becomes a study of the principles of language at work: the subtleties of cadence and rime, the use of the lyric or serial poem form, the associative way in which language sometimes unfolds, as well as Bowering's use of the poetic breath line and rambling prose line. (p. 83)
Bowering willingly acknowledges the poets of the American Black Mountain school as having been a primary influence upon his writing. (pp. 83-4)
Sticks & Stones, with a preface by Robert Creeley, indicates, as do his early poems in Tish [a newsletter of poetry and poetics], his immediate overriding concern with the process and practice of composition. The first poem in the collection, "Wattles", suggests metaphorically how composition begins:
sticks & stones
you begin to build
of strictest energy
The sticks and stones are words, the building blocks of language. Implied in the connection between words and sticks and stones is their sparse and solid object nature, the starkness and weight that they embody. From the very beginning Bowering's poetry is one of noun and verb (with a Creeleyesque emphasis also placed on prepositions and conjunctions) rather than of adjectives…. [The] action and kinetic energy of Bowering's poems rely upon the motion of verb rather than the enhancements and pyrotechnics of adjectives to propel them. In this manner his poetry avoids the overworked slushiness of traditional and academic verse.
Much of the poetry collected in Sticks & Stones is obviously the work of a young poet. The awkwardness that one finds at times, however, is not in the workings of the language but rather in Bowering's approach to his subject. The book contains an interesting mix of poems that fail to generate any sustained interest and several poems that are extremely strong pieces. The poem "Cadence" considers how the music of the poem is made while, at the same time, providing that very music…. As lyric poet Bowering also shows a considerable ability with the love poem; "I Ask Her", "Wrapped in Black", "Eyes That Open", and particularly "The Sunday Poem" all capture a lyrical tenderness…. The poems in Sticks & Stones show an intense awareness of craft. When a poem fails it is because the words fail to deliver enough meaning; the prosody of the poems is sound. (pp. 84-6)
Like Sticks & Stones, Points On The Grid is a mixture of poems that shows a technical competence but fails to click and poems of real accomplishment. "Radio Jazz" is one poem that fulfills its potential, recreating the music the poet hears over the air waves in the deft lines of the poem…. (pp. 86-7)
The poems in this collection again present the process of language as the focal point of Bowering's poetry. One is continually aware of the breath line and the need for the poem to be sounded, read aloud, rather than be kept flat upon the page. The poem on the page exists purely as a score, to suggest how the speaking voice should articulate it. In several poems, as in "For A", Bowering begins to adopt a Creeleyesque breath line, a foreshadowing of the minimal line he would use throughout most of the lyrics in The Man In Yellow Boots …, his finest collection of early lyrics. (p. 87)
In reading the poems contained in The Silver Wire one is impressed by how adept Bowering is at writing the short amatory lyric. Towards the beginning of the book there are a dozen or so love poems for his wife Angela, all of which share a precision and simplicity of imagery and manage to evoke a genuine sense of tenderness and wonder. They are real love poems, real celebrations…. (p. 88)
It is The Man In Yellow Boots that contains the finest work of Bowering's early lyric period…. [It] is a collection that engages itself with the realities of love, politics, and language. Of the political poems many fail to get off the ground; much of Bowering's overtly political writing has always been rather heavy-handed and clumsy. In love poems like "To Cleave" one is impressed by the clarity and verbal sharpness of the poem…. (p. 89)
Three longer poems stand out as the poems of real achievement in the collection. "For WCW" successfully utilizes [William Carlos Williams'] poetic forms to celebrate his poetic accomplishments and pay honor to [William Carlos Williams himself]…. The tangible concreteness of Williams' poetry is a quality that Bowering himself has developed in these early poems, and is a quality he continues to employ; Williams' dictum "No ideas but in things" is a basic poetic principle to which Bowering has always adhered. (pp. 89-90)
The lyrics contained in The Gangs Of Kosmos are the poems of a poet who is no longer a novice; these lyrics, and those contained in the suites Rocky Mountain Foot and Sitting in Mexico, represent the beginning of Bowering's mature work. This second lyrical period is marked by Bowering's absolute surefootedness. The occasional awkwardness of the early books is gone. The subjectivity of the lyric form ceases to be marred by personal misjudgements of taste that arose in Bowering's early efforts. The subjective voice of the individual is now overseered by the objectivity of an accomplished poet. There is a greater lyrical concentration in the poems, a greater effort being made to keep the melody of the poem in tune and non-digressive, and to keep the kinetics of emotion fixed and rooted in creating a single, unified impression. "The Boat", from The Gangs Of Kosmos, is a perfect lyric poem…. (pp. 91-2)
Among its short lyrics The Gangs Of Kosmos contains two longer pieces, "Windingo" and "Hamatsa", which are based upon Indian legend…. [The latter poem] tells of the origin of an elite group of human flesh eaters; in an affecting way Bowering relates this legend back onto the reality of the poet living in modern day Vancouver. The latter poem represents a strange interweaving of the primitive and mythic with the present in an attempt to establish or discover the spirit of place of the west coast. In this kind of poetic activity we see in Bowering's writing a movement out and away from personal concerns toward a greater concern with the specifics of the sacredness of Canadian geography.
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Vonnegut, Barth, Fowles look out: Here comes Bowering. The parody of realistic fiction or anti-novel (to use the familiar semi-literate label) is itself parodied in A Short Sad Book. George Bowering has descended from the Black Mountain to cock a snook at post-modern fiction, to have some fun with Canadian nationalism, Canadian history, Canadian literary personalities, and to raise some heavy philosophical issues…. A Short Sad Book does have a beginning and an ending, but like scenery and Canadian history, it is mostly middle, and—to put the cart before the horse in this review—a delightful middle. (pp. 84-5)
[There] is something for everyone in this book. The professor of...
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