George Bowering

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Ken Norris

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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                            from moments                            of strictest energy                            upwards

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...

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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.

Rocky Mountain Foot is a suite of lyrics that takes the province of Alberta as its place…. Bowering intersperses his poems with quotations from various indigenous texts…. Rocky Mountain Foot shares with some of the poems contained in The Gangs Of Kosmos a searching into of outward reality, of that which lies beyond the personal. The process of these poems is perceptive rather than proprioceptive; one sees the poet as being in the place and observing it rather than the place being ingested and the sense being made within the poet…. Rocky Mountain Foot is the fruition of Bowering's desire to express a social and political self; having achieved this, his later work returns to a certain introversion in which the poet confronts the possibilities of language as language rather than as a conveyor of message and meaning. Rocky Mountain Foot is, in many ways, Bowering's most polemical work. (pp. 92-3)

[Sitting In Mexico] is a suite of individual poems that work together to evoke the spirit of a place. At times the poems in Sitting In Mexico approach the tight weave of the serial poem; there is sometimes a strong inter-relationship between the individual lyrics. Sitting In Mexico is much less ambitious than Rocky Mountain Foot; however, in its simplicity, it occasionally succeeds more in evoking the atmosphere of Mexico than Rocky Mountain Foot does in evoking Alberta, despite the fact that the individual pieces in the latter book are, on the whole, much stronger…. The poems are often the embodiments of perceptions about the specific characteristics of Mexican life.

What is indicated by Bowering's attempts to work in a more extended form was his growing dissatisfaction with the simple form of the lyric. By the late sixties he had begun to seek a larger structure: that of the book. Rocky Mountain Foot and Sitting In Mexico point towards Bowering's concern with the book length poem or serial poem. His last two collections of lyrics, In the Flesh and The Concrete Island, have been compilations of remaining uncollected earlier work rather than a continued working within the lyric mode. (pp. 93-4)

Bowering's best and most interesting work has been written in the form of the serial poem, a form popularized among poets of the Pacific coast by American poet Jack Spicer. The guiding principle of the serial poem, as Spicer saw it, was the process of "dictation", a process in which the poet surrenders up his control over the poem. (p. 94)

[Bowering's first book-length poem, Baseball], is subtitled "a poem in the magic number 9", is written in nine sections, concerns itself with the nine innings of play, casts the 9 Muses in the role of today's line-up, and pays tribute to Bowering's favorite ballplayer of all time, Ted Williams, who wore the number 9 on his uniform. How much Bowering adheres to the principles of dictation in this poem is questionable…. [One] gets the feeling that the controlling intelligence behind this poem is still that of the poet. Yet, for the lover of baseball and poetry, that fact is insignificant. The poem is a successful invocation of the spirit of baseball and links baseball with poetry through the connection of the magic number 9 and by way of the gracefulness and ability required in both disciplines. (pp. 95-6)

[George, Vancouver] takes as its historical basis the exploration of Burrard Inlet and Georgia Strait in British Columbia by Captain George Vancouver. The historical focal point is Vancouver's charting of his explorations; another layer is added to the poem in that the poem itself deals with Bowering's "discovery" and inquiry into the reality of these historical facts…. At the heart of the poem and the historical incident exists "the relationship between fancy & the real"…. Through his tracing of Vancouver's discoveries Bowering himself begins to develop a stronger sense of the place in which he is in. When, towards the end of the poem, he writes

                 Let us say                  this is as far as I, George,                  have travelled.

he is speaking for himself as well as through the voice of Captain George Vancouver. The physical geography and the process of mind have both been "toucht, sighted/mapt to some extent,/the islands/noted."

The writing process that Bowering adopts in Genève is an interesting exercise in phenomenology. Using the 22 cards of the major arcana and the 16 court cards of the Geneva Tarot pack, Bowering shuffles the cards and turns them over one by one, registering his immediate reaction to the image with which he finds himself presented. The chance order of their appearance provides the overriding structure for this interesting serial poem. The poet's blindness to the poem's direction and his willful relenting of control again ties in with Spicer's conception of … ["dictation"]. (pp. 97-8)

What intrigues the reader more often than not in Genève is the process of poetic engagement rather than the poems themselves. Many of the poems, looked at individually, are quite weak. The strength of the serial poem and the interest that it generates is that the book, as a whole, is often greater than the sum of its parts. This is very much the case with Genève. (p. 99)

[The] approach that Bowering takes [in Autobiology] in the telling of his life is through reference to the physical self, this physiological mode providing a very real insight into the consciousness which, in essence, defines the writer and his writing…. (pp. 99-100)

The subject of Autobiology is very much the physical self and the process of action is the process of writing itself. Often the poet recollects and thinks with the poem as he is writing it; the writing process serves to illumine and express the state of liveliness of the individual. At the heart of this process of life and writing is the attempt on the part of the poet to crack the code of his own consciousness, which, in turn, becomes the method for composition…. The different chapters reverberate with certain key incidents to which the poet's mind gravitates and which become the touchstones of the poem, having obviously played a major part in the development of Bowering's consciousness and physical sense of self.

Written in a prose line similar to that of Autobiology, Curious is a collection of 48 "portraits" of poets, filtered through Bowering's consciousness…. These portraits of poets are proprioceptively made; they are expressed to the extent that Bowering has inwardly sensed these poets' existences…. Perhaps the most powerful piece in [Curious], "Charles Olson", is a telling account of an encounter with the leading theoretician of the Black Mountain school…. In that Bowering does not seek to make normal prose transitions, i.e. explanations of where the writing is now going, changing time or incidents, he enables the writing to move closer to the process of thought. In the piece the primary time frame is an occasion upon which Olson descended a flight of stairs and said hello. Around and through this Bowering weaves a series of other elements…. Bowering uses [the continuity of flowing thought and association] in an attempt to get to the immediacy of experience and impression, to simulate the actual workings of consciousness as it happens…. In Curious Bowering strives to bring consciousness and composition to the point where they are both happening at once. Although the poems in Curious are written in a prose line they are poetry in how they occur, how they connect. The logic of discursive prose is supplanted by a spontaneous poetic reaction which does not attempt to explain the process of thought but rather to embody it.

In At War With The U.S. Bowering returns to the use of a verse line. A serial poem consisting of 34 sections, At War With The U.S. is a poem that has, at its heart, the spirit of political and cultural protest…. Bowering, in the course of his writing and in conversation, has often noted that, when he was growing up, he always felt himself to be an American rather than a Canadian. The influence of the American Black Mountain poetic upon him is also to be noted. In attempting to get out from under the cultural domination of the U.S. it has been necessary for Bowering to declare his own personal war upon the States in an attempt to free himself from its influence:

                     At war with the U.S.                      I surrender                      I embrace you                      Now                      get off my back                      Stand                      in the light                      where I can see you

This poem marks a momentary return to a poetry of political concern which was much in evidence in Bowering's early work. Bowering's latest prose work, A Short Sad Book, bears a relation to At War With The U.S., in that it seeks to provide a cultural narrative for Canada.

Allophanes is a long extended serial poem which truly reads as if it has been "ghost-written" or "dictated". (pp. 101-05)

The poem is, in many ways, a maze of thought and philosophy. Neither the reader nor the poet is ever quite sure of what exactly is taking place. From where Bowering stands his reaction is that "If you don't understand the story you had better tell it"…. He is not in control of the poem…. Instead, the process of dictation is fully at work…. Allophanes does not present the reader with a "fullness", a sense of an ordered and resolved poem; instead the reader finds himself watching the subtle changes of color and appearances that take place within the cave of thought and perception that the poem frames.

Whether working within the mode of the lyric or the serial poem Bowering has tried to actively engage himself in his writing with the on-going processes of living and consciousness. His poetry is, at heart, processual, being kinetic rather than static; the poems capture a certain life energy within the bounds of a form that suits them well, rather than being works of artifice. (pp. 106-07)

Ken Norris, "The Poetry of George Bowering" (copyright © 1978, Ken Norris), in Brave New Wave, edited by Jack David, Black Moss Press, 1978, pp. 83-107.


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