Getting It Right and Getting It Wrong
with bpNichol

Reviews by Paul Dutton
The following book reviews first appeared in
Books in Canada, Vol. 32, No. 9, December, 2003.  

Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol
Edited by Roy Miki
496 pages, $34.95 Paperback
ISBN 0-88922-447-1

bpNichol Comics
Edited by Carl Peters
320 pages, $29.95 Paperback
ISBN 0-88922-448-X

A singular figure in Canadian letters, bpNichol (1944-1988) excelled in more areas of literary endeavour than the average author ever even considers. Internationally renowned for his visual poetry by the age of twenty-two, a Governor General's Award winner for poetry (jointly with Michael Ondaatje in 1970) before he was thirty, a pioneer of sound poetry in Canada, a major exponent of the long poem (his multi-volume The Martyrology remains in print and on courses), lyric poet, fictioneer, essayist, and children's author, he also created cross-genre poem-drawings and comics, and wrote comic-book adaptations of his own and others' material (children's and sci-fi), as well as numerous children's television shows, to which he contributed song lyrics—something he had practice in from the two or three musicals he wrote.

Compilations of Nichol's work in two different areas are now out from Talonbooks. Meanwhile collects the bulk of his published critical writings, plus a handful of unpublished pieces and a number of interviews. bpNichol Comics, despite the inclusiveness suggested by its title, offers a strangely constricted selection of comics that Nichol drew and wrote—as distinct from the comic books for which he provided only the text.

The essays, reviews, and interviews in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol resonate with the passionate devotion, profound respect, and enduring humility with which Nichol approached language, as both reader and writer. At the early age of twenty-one he resolved to overcome what he termed "the arrogance of trying to impose myself on the language," realizing that "I was coming to the occasion of the poem to force myself on it—rather than learning," and further, that "the language could speak for itself, had its own qualities separate from whatever the meaning I might wish to will into it." Legions of poets, young and old, could benefit from such an attitude.

In one of the essays here, Nichol stresses that he has, in his critical writings, "always tried to foreground the fact that I am a writer writing about other writers." As such, he provides commentary that is informed, insightful, and illuminating. Meanwhile is, among other things, a veritable handbook on how to read poetry, be it that of Gertrude Stein, James Reaney, Earle Birney, Margaret Avison, Al Purdy, Douglas Barbour, Frank Davey, Shaunt Basmajian, David McFadden, or bill bissett— to list those who come in for special attention in the book. Not the least of Nichol's subjects is his own creative writing, and some of the essays, plus most of the interviews, relate to his poetry, poetic craft, and poetic process. In that light, it is a lamentable fact that so much of his work that he discusses—Still Water, Love: a Book of Remembrances, ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, and others—remains out of print. While unfamiliarity with these books won't diminish the value or pleasure of reading Meanwhile, the richness of experiencing the works themselves is attainable by the public only through library holdings.

It's important to note that, while the focus of Nichol's writing on writers is sharp, it is not narrow. Central to his life and work was the concept of community, the relationship of the individual to the collectivity, the "me" and the "we," as he liked to put it, Meanwhile presents Nichol working, within a critical framework, on a central element that informed his creative work: the relationship of the individual to the vast social collectivity implied by and embodied in the English language, and language in general. It is this that makes Meanwhile a book for the broader literary audience, and in fact, for all users of the language.

Editor Roy Miki, himself a Governor General's Award winning poet, as well as a professor and critic, has done a thorough and laudable job of pulling together these texts from disparate sources. His afterword refers readers to a further repository of Nichol's writing on writers, another Talonbooks collection, Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine. (1992), which draws together the collaborative essays Nichol wrote with Steve McCaffery.

There has long been a need for a scholarly effort as assiduous as that which Miki has applied to Nichol's critical writing to be exerted on a volume of Nichol's poetic comics, both strips and single panels. It saddens me deeply to report that that need remains unchanged by bpNichol Comics, which could almost be subtitled a Book of Abandoned Projects. While some valuable material appears within its pages—e.g., the complete Lonely Fred strips, in their first general publication—there is far too much that will interest only the most fanatical Nicholite: juvenilia, preliminary sketches, planning notes, fragmentary doodling, and other such workbook material. Much of what's here is more fit for an appendix than for a canonical resource. This is particularly galling when so much of Nichol's most accomplished, original, genre-blending, mind-bending, and artistically mature work in this field remains unavailable, widely unknown, and far too little appreciated. To anyone with a serious interest in Nichol's comics, this book should inspire the sinking feeling of a missed opportunity. Those unfamiliar with Nichol's comics should be warned away from it as a selection that does not do justice to its subject.

The expenditure of twenty-four pages on reproductions of unremarkable notebook plans for a comic-book adaptation of an unremarkable sci-fi story by one Walter M. Miller, while bpNichol's brilliant and sophisticated "Allegories" series remains out of print, is enough to make some of us gnash our teeth. There is not so much as a mention of "Fictive Funnies," a work of seasoned wit and layered play, nor of "Some Landscapes," a series distinguished by refined visual-linguistic sensibilities, which has had only one small private printing. But ten pages are squandered on Nichol's adolescent experiment Bob de Cat. Such absurd choices constitute a disservice to the artist and his audience, both committed and potential. In fact, it is likely to limit any expansion of his audience.

As well as omissions and pointless inclusions (of which there are, of course, many more than I've noted here), there is a commentary rife with solecisms, solipsisms, and unwarranted conclusions. A term that Nichol used once, and never elaborated on, "a new humanism," is tossed around by Peters as though it were a developed concept. The prepositional phrase "to and fro," appearing in an alternative title for another abandoned Nichol book, is unequivocally declared by Peters to be an invented Nichol character, To and Fro. Go figure.

But of all this book's flaws, the most egregious is the monumental blunder perpetrated in the last chapter, which bears the title "John Cannyside." This is the name of a fictitious character Nichol worked at developing, on and off, over the course of several years. In Peters' two-page introduction to this chapter (one to three pages of commentary precede each unit of the book) he writes extensively and conclusively about John Cannyside, with pronouncements on the character, and on Nichol's development of it, that are based in part on twenty-four pages reproduced from a 1971 Nichol notebook, which pages make up the substance of the chapter. The first reproduced page is headed "NOTEBOOK 2 for working on JOHN CANNYSIDE." The next page bears a drawing of Nichol's stock cartoon character Milt the Morph, who exclaims in a speech balloon, "OH MY GAWD!! It's the flip side of NOTEBOOK 2 for working on John Cannyside. Yes indeedy & this one's for working on THE LIVES & LOVES OF CAPTAIN GEORGE.(as told to bp Nichol!!" There follow eleven pages of Nichol's hand-written notes, drawn panel plans, and typed text, devoted expressly and exclusively to The Lives & Loves of Captain George, which title is twice repeated. One panel even includes a copyright notice, "© George Henderson & bp Nichol for their respective writings." All this makes it clear enough that these are notes for a book not about a fictitious character, John Cannyside (which name reappears nowhere in the body of the notes—unlike the name George, which recurs constantly), but about an actual person, George Henderson (who was, as it happens, the proprietor, until his death, of Memory Lane, a comics and nostalgia shop on Toronto's Markham street, from the 1960s to the '80s). The bulk of the typed text is clearly Nichol's meticulous transcription of Henderson's tape-recorded memoirs, replete with personal asides to Nichol, and featuring at one point an account of Henderson's work with Robert Fulford on a CBC-TV documentary. At a few early points in this blandly conversational tape transcript Nichol has interpolated passages in a literary style—apparent attempts (soon abandoned) to contextually elevate Henderson's material above its mundane essence. None of this deters Peters from persisting in his claim that this material relates to John Cannyside. Nor does he once so much as refer to Captain George, let alone offer a rationale for the pervasive presence of George's first-person accounts.

What a pity that so careful a reader as Nichol should himself be the victim of so blinkered a reading. It's bad enough that Peters erred so spectacularly, but for the publisher to have let it get by and into print is scandalously inexcusable.

The cover of bpNichol Comics reproduces a Nichol cartoon of his Milt the Morph character driving a car. If this book were itself a car, there would have to be a recall. And there should be, at the very least, an erratum notice inserted in all copies in stock.


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