bpNichol, Drawing the Poetic Line

by Paul Dutton


This essay first appeared in St. Art: The Visual Poetry of bpNichol (Gil McElroy, ed., Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, 2000), the catalogue for a posthumous solo exhibition curated by Gil McElroy. A note at the end of the essay provides additional relevant information on matters occurring since the original publication.
                                                                                       —Paul Dutton, 2008

In a sense, to write is a visual act—to put letters on a page, to create lines with a pencil or a pen. There's a very definite visual moment. The page is a visual field and that's one of the elements of writing . . . The minute you start to look at what you write, there's a whole set of visual possibilities that opens up.

When Fluxus artist Dick Higgins wrote of "the ongoing human wish to combine the visual and the literary impulses," he might have pointed to no more exemplary a contemporaneous instance than the visual poetic output of bpNichol. Over the course of some twenty-five years or so, in and beyond the context of the conventional literary frameworks of stanzaic poetry, Nichol drew on and drew with the alphabet to forge a singular body of visual creations in a remarkable variety of writerly media (with a few instances of painterly collaboration). He employed a broad range of forms and styles dictated or suggested by those media, touched on themes and subjects that concerned or preoccupied him in his more conventionally literary endeavours, and ranged widely through a spectrum from the literarily visual to the purely pictorial.

This enterprise was grounded in a vision of literature as a function of the integrated sensory experience that language is, involving body and intellect, ear and eye. Nichol's artistic vision, conceived with clarity at the outset of his career and maintained and developed with unwavering consistency throughout it, informed not just his visual work but his equally significant and innovative achievements in sound poetry and in lyric and narrative poetry and prose.

A certain proportion of Nichol's visual work extends beyond any strictly linguistic context, veering exclusively into the category of picture—as in Door to Oz, for instance,. or all but one page of Movies. What's at issue, of course, is the breakdown of just such distinctions, and there is certainly drawn work within the stanzaic work, though rarely vice versa. Still, there is validity beyond mere convenience in placing the larger part of the visual work, including much that is clear-cut drawing, within the broad framework of visual poetry, a tradition that stretches back through Western languages for more than two millennia, constituting a body of literature neither generally known nor much acknowledged. Since Simmias of Rhodes in 325 BC, there has been a discontinuous but persistent strain of poems shaped to depict objects, individuals, or geometric designs. Only a scant handful of these have, begrudgingly, been granted admission to the canon of world literature, examples in English being George Herbert's seventeenth-century shaped lyrics and the passage in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland called "the mouse's tale" (appropriately, punningly shaped).

When Nichol began to exercise his own visual-literary sensibilities at the age of twenty in the mid 1960s, he knew of Carroll's piece, likely knew of Herbert's works and of Apollinaire's Caligrammes, and had encountered the typographic revels of the Dadaists. He did not know, however, of the long history and broad range of antecedents for such work—virtually nobody did (including Apollinaire, the Dadaists, and the Futurists, for that matter): it took the long-term, assiduous scholarship of Dick Higgins to string it all together in his 1987 book Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Higgins, before he began that research, was himself part of a mid-twentieth-century eruption of "the natural human impulse to combine one's visual and literary experiences" (Higgins' phrase)—he international concrete poetry movement of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Spawned independently of the larger historical stream, and expanding the techniques, forms, and esthetics of visual poetry, concrete poetry was so called because it treated letters, syllables, words, and sentences as concrete objects, with an existence separate from or in addition to their abstract signification of other things. Practitioners throughout Europe, the Americas, and Japan used typewriter and typesetting technology in highly individual, largely unconventional, vastly differentiated ways. The term expired (at least within the vocabulary of most practitioners) around the early '70s, but the sensibility and its expression continue within the broadly applied framework of visual poetry. One place where this occurs is within the context of mail art, that broad and undefined area comprising work created for or amenable to distribution through the mails, and which operates within an esthetic atmosphere of anarchic unorthodoxy congenial to visual poetry.

Around 1963-64 Nichol and fellow writers in Vancouver (bill bissett, Lance Farrell, Judith Copithorne) and Toronto (Earle Birney, David Aylward) were exploring visual poetry on their own terms, oblivious of the newly emerging concrete movement, with which they had such affinity. Word of it was soon to come, but before taking a look at that stage of things, let's consider some personal contexts for Nichol's visual-literary predilections.

Barrie Philip Nichol, born 1944 in Vancouver, "always had," he once informed an interviewer, "a kind of, I suppose, idiosyncratic, very particular relationship to the idea of the alphabet, the idea of language." One aspect of this special relationship was his love of the letter "H," whose oft-proclaimed status as his favourite letter stemmed, he eventually concluded, from two childhood factors: he lived on a street in the H Section of a Winnipeg subdivision with street signs surmounted by the respective sectional alphabetic designations, so that letters were geographic locators for him, with H, where home was, holding understandably special significance; and he read Harvey Comics, which employed a large block-letter H as a logo. (More about Nichol and comics further on.)

Another dimension of Nichol's special relationship to the alphabet and language emerged in Toronto early in 1965, when the twenty-year-old poet, recently arrived from Vancouver, connected with printer Stan Bevington at Coach House Press and undertook an intensive informal apprenticeship in manual typesetting and letterpress printing. Nichol wrote in 1986 about the transformative effect that this had on his literary perception: "there's no doubt about it, the effect of setting my own texts, letter by letter, word by word, line by line, was to create in me a whole new awareness of all the components that go into any literature"—specifying then a variety of factors that mediate the experience of printed works, including "the difference in visual meaning between the differently shaped faces," different densities and colours of papers and inks, different shapes and bindings. Those elements were applied in his audacious 1967 publication, Journeying & the returns (also known as bp), a slipcased collection that comprised a book of lyric free verse, a record of sound poems, a flip-poem, and an envelope of visual poems.

Prior to Nichol's Coach House involvement (which was to last the rest of his life), he had begun working with visual arrangements of typewriter texts, creating verbal, syllabic, and lettristic patterns and textures. He had also got wind of the concrete movement through a couple of sources, one of them Vancouver poet George Bowering, who wasn't keen on employing the techniques himself, but offered correspondence contacts that Nichol in Toronto and bissett in Vancouver eagerly followed up on, establishing a connection with the British avant-garde poet, performer, and mimeo publisher Bob Cobbing (still at it in his eighties, but with the mimeo long since abandoned for a photocopier). A month prior to the appearance of Journeying & the returns / bp in 1967, Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum issued Nichol's Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, a collection of typewriter poems done between '64 and '66 that had nothing to do with confessions, fan dancers, or the Elizabethan era—but what a great title. The book came out in Canada six years later.

The period of the mid to late '60s was a busy and fertile one for Nichol. He started a mimeo press and magazine, Ganglia, with David Aylward in 1965. Nichol's poetry was appearing in small magazines and was included in an anthology of work by upcoming Canadian poets. He was gaining recognition in Canada for stanzaic lyrics, and abroad for concrete poems (the connection with Cobbing generated further connections). One development arising from the concrete movement was a degree of acceptance in art galleries—where, at least initially, it received a warmer reception than in literary contexts—and Nichol found himself exhibiting in England, France, and Spain. He was moving beyond the typewriter and the printing press to the greater plasticities available with Letraset, rubber stamps, and photocopies, the latter two of which he used (albeit rarely) in the creation of visually textured poem images (as opposed to poetic images, though they had their poetic qualities). He was also doing hand-drawn pieces that worked with the extended conventions of comic strips. In 1967 he started a new Ganglia Press monthly, grOnk, with a focus on international concrete and related poetries. And he found new uses for the resources at Coach House, which he employed for a variety of what might be termed poem sculptures: things like "The Birth of O"—around a dozen pages or more, each with a letterpress, blindstamped (i.e., printed without ink), die-cut "o" in a different typeface and size; and "A Little Pome for Yur Fingertips"—a straight poem printed letterpress and blindstamped, so that an illegible but tactile impression was left on the page. Such pieces as these latter two may have been in Nichol's mind when he announced in the cover copy for Journeying & the returns / bp his conviction that

if [the poet's] need is to touch you physically he creates a poem /object for you to touch and is not a sculptor for he is still moved by the language and sculpts with words ... I place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as are possible.

Nichol certainly was finding a wealth of exits and entrances from and to the poem, even if he wasn't making enough copies for the masses to stream through—not that the masses ever gave indication of wanting to. Ganglia, being a litmag, was printed in small enough quantities, but the more unorthodox items were mostly done in runs of less than fifty, often less than twenty. The following quote from Nichol's statement accompanying his contribution to Emmett Williams' 1967 An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, contains a note of resignation that typifies Nichol's attitude at the time. This excerpt also offers insight into his artistic intention with these specific visuals, a series called "Eyes," consisting of six succinct clusters of Letraset characters in abstract configurations (yes, yes—abstract concrete; maybe one of the reasons why we stopped using the term). Here's what he wrote.

tight imagistic things, intended for what they teach the eye on one looking tho some tend to be pleasing if looked at a few times . . . not meant as pictures but as syllabic and sub-syllabic messages for who care to listen.

Well, he did write "who care" as opposed to "who cares," so he was expecting more than one listener. Or maybe not: as he recalled in 1986, "Not a lot of people were interested in what I was interested in. There was a feeling I was just crazy, and the feeling I was pursuing an absolute dead end assailed me in those days." Things started looking up when David W. Harris (later to be David UU, pronounced "double u") arrived in Toronto from Collingwood, Ontario, for a brief sojourn, and, more significantly, a couple of years or so later, when Steve McCaffery came from England for good. "That made a huge difference in my life," Nichol attested in 1986. "Here was someone who was concerned with the same issues, and covered the same ground from his own angle for his own reasons." By 1970, there was enough interest for Nichol to find a mainstream small press (Oberon) to publish an anthology of Canadian concrete poetry by thirty-one contributors—The Cosmic Chef.

That same year, Talonbooks, on the West Coast, put out Nichol's box of elegant visually oriented poem cards, Still Water, one of three publications for which he received the 1971 Governor General's Award. Oberon a year later published the Letraset suite, ABC: the Aleph Beth Book, for which "Eyes," from the Emmett Williams anthology, could be viewed as a study. The twenty-six iconic images in ABC, each effected with one letter of the alphabet, are models of formal precision, possessing the kind of economy, wit, and sophisticated graphic sensibility associated with organizations' logos. These, however, announce allegiance only to the letters of the alphabet, and resound here and there with echoes of twentieth-century fine art: Mondriaan's rectangles, for instance, in the "L" composition and to lesser degree in "I" and "H," and 's Nude Descending a Staircase in the overlapping "T"s. Nichol's work, incidentally, had by this time appeared in further group shows—in Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, and Bloomington, Indiana, as well as in Amsterdam's Stedjelik Museum, which in 1971 mounted a major concrete poetry exhibit that toured to Austria and Germany.

Nichol maintained an interest in and enthusiasm for both the fine arts and the popular arts, so when he wanted a title for an international poetry publication he chose grOnk, a word invented, and so spelt, by cartoonist Johnny Hart to convey a sense of the roar of a dinosaur in his comic strip, B.C. (where he drew the central "O" with more gigantically graphic drama than a typewriter could effect). Nichol's appropriation of this term bespoke his respect for the popular art form whose conventions he would extend with mischievous wit, humour both subtle and broad, and more than a little visual and linguistic profundity, fashioning a uniquely significant contribution to visual poetry and (I'll risk it) the visual arts.

Comics were a lifelong passion for Nichol, whose childhood fascination with the big, bold Harvey Comics "H" mushroomed, over the decades, into a collection that spanned the history of the form from the Sunday funnies of the early 1900s (we're talking originals here) to the spandex superheroes of the 1980s, from the Golden Age classics of the '30s and '40s to the underground radicals of the '60s.

It should be understood that Nichol didn't just read and collect comic books and comic strips, he studied and revered them, finding rich veins not just of humour but of esthetic thrills and of insight into the workings of the mind. He once wrote that Winsor McCay, an early twentieth-century Sunday comics genius and a pioneer of animation, exposed the unconscious of the upper and middle classes, and that Pogo creator Walt Kelly used a "post-Joycean base for language." On another occasion, he and Steve McCaffery, writing on literary theory as the Toronto Research Group (there were just the two of them, but Toronto Research Two lacks a certain ring and Toronto Research Couple could create the wrong impression), expounded on the complications of time sense and the implied grammatical and syntactic analogues of the comic-strip panel. That basic unit of comics art plays a prominent role in Nichol's hand-drawn visuals, which include comic strips, single panels (also called gag panels), and images presented with no panels enclosing them.

Comic-strip and comic-book panels were restricted almost exclusively to a standard grid pattern until the mid '60s, when the anything-goes panel's lib of the underground comics movement hit. Nichol weighed in with a vengeance. He fashioned complex, layered lattice-works of variously sized frames in which characters got tangled up ("Scraptures, Eleventh Sequence") or lost (one of the Lonely Fred episodes). He arranged his frames in orderly squares on three lines, two of them diagonal and one horizontal, so that the same page presented three story lines simultaneously, all of them (lines and stories) intersecting at a central common incident and frame ("Rocky Mountain Highs" in the Lonely Fred series).

While painter Roy Lichtenstein moved into the comics frame to work at a kind of molecular level of technique, Nichol pushed out against the frame and other comic conventions to a more panoramic approach. The simply drawn, minimally detailed figures of the characters and scenes in Nichol's comics contrast with the sophisticated play occurring with the panels themselves, to which our attention is guided by the reduction in any possibly distracting elaboration of their contents. Also part of the play is the fluidity of the panels' contents in relation to the various illusory planes implied: a large oval eye, inherently blank, à la Little Orphan Annie (as are the eyes of—with rare exceptions—all the characters except animals and a guardian angel) is filled with a scene of hills, birds, and clouds (Grease Ball Comics, 1); an entire face becomes a panel itself, containing a landscape interrupted by the four blank ovals of the face's eyes, nose, and ambiguously gaping mouth ("Allegory #26"); scenes and characters are repeatedly found to be apportioned throughout a pattern of dissecting panels, as though existing not in the panels, but behind them—except that occasionally what's behind them is discontinuous, as are the letter fragments in Grease Ball Comics, 1, thus suggesting that they are in the panels after all. Of course, where they are, really, is on the page, a point Nichol never lost sight of, and one that I'll return to. But first, some comment on the implications of the panel play I've just described.

Nichol's notebooks (where, incidentally, preliminary sketches can be found for many pieces that have, in finished form, the feel of a casual toss-off) contain an unpublished comic strip, The True Tale of Tommy Turk, which includes one page that has sixteen panels layered in three blocks, each block of panels depicted on a respective plane in the foreground, mid ground, and background, and every one of the panels empty except for a caption at its top saying "Meanwhile." Nichol, who took delight in the idea of simultaneity in narrative, and who more than once used the "meanwhile" caption out of context in gag panels, here has depicted nineteen simultaneities at once. Simultaneity of time suggests simultaneity of memory and, consequently, simultaneously operating levels of consciousness, so it is not too much of a stretch, I think, to interpret Nichol's lattice-works of panels as figuratively suggesting the mind and levels of consciousness. This is, of course, in addition to the sensuous intent that everywhere maintains in Nichol's artistic output. (One must be careful about interpretations of work by someone like Nichol, who once, in attendance at a pedantic literary lecture, received a note from fellow poet Victor Coleman, saying "Exegesis saves," and responded promptly with the reciprocal editorial comment, "Analysis in Wonderland.")

Another dimension of Nichol's panel planes is indicated in "Fictive Funnies" ("Featuring," proclaims the subtitle, "Syntax Dodges"), where Milt the Morph, Nichol's ubiquitous circle-featured leading character, having bent over to pick something up ("Hey!! What's this Pun doing here?" he inquires in a speech balloon), trips a trap door at the bottom of one panel and falls through into the panel below, realizing in a thought balloon: "OH MY GOD!! I've fallen thru a hole in the narrative sequence into a different world!"

Different worlds: dream worlds, imagined worlds, worlds of memory, worlds of thought, they are all worlds of the mind, which, wherever that might be, is where thought occurs. And there is not much other than thought that transpires in Nichol's comics, with action and narrative sequence almost absent, and speech kept to a minimum. In all the comics he published—strips, gags, and the many drawings without panels (Allegories and The Aleph Unit series, and a raft of individual others)—there is only one instance of dialogue, which is between Lonely Fred and his guardian angel. Thought balloons are ubiquitous, and speech balloons rarely occur as anything other than a character thinking out loud.

All this takes place in landscapes where the only human artifacts are the occasional picket fence or castle-like house, a road now and then that dwindles to the horizon, and mysteriously occurring alphabetic characters, which may be depicted as sentient beings with their own thought balloons or, more typically, as monumental constructs on the land or in the air. "Individual letters," Nichol told an interviewer in 1984, "have always had a lot of emotion for me for some reason. And for years there have been things I have not been able to say in poems, so I've been doing drawings of landscapes with letters floating in them and people being pursued by letters and all sorts of things happening."

The sorts of things happening are often enough doing so within the multi-dimensional letters. In The Aleph Unit, an "A," drawn three dimensionally on the first page, loses on the next the interior lines that create the illusion of depth, the remaining perimeter becoming an A-shaped panel for a scene with a pier jutting out into a body of water, at the end of which pier a man sits, thinking a blank "A" that has the precise two-dimensional shape of the one that frames the scene he's in. In "Allegory #14," a three-dimensional "H" is drawn lying on a landscape that bleeds into the body of the "H" so that lines drawn to create the illusion of three dimensions instead define transparent planes—except that behind the furthest lines of the "H" a mostly obscured Milt the Morph peeps out, so the planes those furthest lines define are not transparent ones but surfaces upon which the landscape appears, with a few little "v" birds depicted here and there.

And if you think that description's confusing, go look at the poem, the image, the—quite literally—poetic image. In the thirty-two poems of Allegories (and elsewhere in Nichol's visuals, but concentratedly in Allegories, published in their entirety only in Love: A Book of Remembrances) the play with perspective and with the intersections of ambiguous planes is worthy of Maurits Escher, albeit the draughtsmanship makes no pretension to Escher's precision and detail in pictorial verisimilitude. Nichol achieves similar results with a simpler line.

Lines, as it happens, are very much what Nichol's work is about. He possessed an abiding and profound appreciation of and fascination with lines of all types: poetic lines, prose lines, narrative lines, plot lines, typed lines and lines of type, voice lines, drawn lines, solid lines, broken lines, train lines, and all the fine lines of and in communication, especially lines of questioning, and lines of thought. His plot-line interests he confined to his reading, but the rest were grist for his creative mill and occur throughout his works of art.

In terms of Nichol's visuals, the only pieces that employ anything other than linework of varying density are collaborations: the Seripress colour screen prints done with Barbara Caruso, to which Nichol contributed line drawings; and the hilarious "Nary-a-Tiff" fumetti (pop-culture Latin melodrama comics-and-photos hybrid), a send-up of the form and of the Toronto Research Group itself, photographed by Marilyn Westlake, with Nichol and McCaffery acting the parts they wrote ("You always get a headache when I want to discuss philosophy!" bitches Nichol, at the start of a fight that sees McCaffery kill him with a letter-opener, immediately reflecting that "Hmmm. I should've thot of this years ago! In one stroke my Nichol collection has doubled in value!!").

Visual artist and poet Robert Fones, who has made his own contribution to the use of language in works of visual art, recalls Nichol speaking in the early '70s of an interest in the relationship between the line in poetry and the line in drawing. That interest found expression through what is almost a subgenre in Nichol's oeuvre, the verbal-landscape visual poem, where the lines of the poem announce the words for landscape objects (or state the landscape elements) at the point on the page where drawn lines would be placed in a pictorial depiction of those objects or elements. Greg Curnoe (another artist who worked with language in visual art) used a similar device in his paintings, where he sometimes incorporated verbal descriptions within painted depictions. While the two artists were familiar with each other's work, and Nichol once cited Curnoe in a commentary on his own work, the connection in this regard is parallel rather than derivative, with each artist making distinctive use of a related technique.

Nichol's Still Water contains several typeset instances of his working of the effect. One of these has the word "moon" towards the top left of the page, "owl" some distance down and to the right, and a little less further down, spaced widely apart on one line, the thrice-repeated word "tree," followed by "shadowy." In another poem, the word "tree" appears on three staggered lines above the phrase "the train leaves," with the word "leaves" repeated on three well-spaced lines. Nichol effected a still closer fusion of the drawn and the poetic line in "landscape: 1" in Zygal. Typeset across the middle of the page is a line that is transformed into a horizon by there being set right above it the words, with no spaces between them, "along the horizon grew an unbroken line of trees." Nichol returned frequently to depictions of horizons with lines or words in typeset or pen drawings. He worked an elegantly punning turn on this in a hand-drawn poem rendered in fabric by his wife, Ellie Nichol: about a third of the way up, a line is stitched, at whose left side occurs a large arc that, through the placement of the word "risin"' at the other end of the line, becomes the top portion of both an "O" and the orb of the sun, with the line now a horizon.

Nichol's exploration of line reached a minimalist peak in his 1981 boxed set of loose sheets, Of Lines: Some Drawings, featuring thirteen textured pages, each an original drawing of a single silver line executed with crayon pencil in a bold diagonal stroke from lower left to upper right. The uniqueness of each is underlined (forgive me) by the titles at the bottoms of the pages, which make arch metaphysical distinctions: "Line #1" and "Drawing of Line #1"; or over-scrupulous authorial qualifications: "Line #4 (drawn while thinking of previous lines)" and "Line Drawn As A Response To An Inner Pressure To Draw Another Line While Resisting The Urge To Call It Line #5." The intent is not entirely ludic, though, for the device serves to remind the reader-viewer constantly of the physical and mental processes in the creation of the writing-drawing. Such direction of consciousness to the medium of expression, especially in relation to language, is a central concern in Nichol's artistic output, and in all three focal areas of it: the more conventionally categorical literary works, the visual poetry, and the sound poetry.

Having mentioned sound poetry, let brief acknowledgement be made (space allows for no more) of the sonic dimension of Nichol's visual work, which occurred either after the fact, with a sonic interpretation applied to a piece conceived as visual, or in advance, as when a visual piece would be created with performance in mind.

In the last few years of his life (he died in '88 of complications resulting from surgery) Nichol added two more media to his repertoire of drawing tools: the computer and water-soluble coloured pencil crayons, both of which he acquired in the early '80s, and which he used for making significant developments in his visual poetry technique.

With the computer Nichol could make type move, at least in a rudimentary way, and he applied this to a couple of his early typewriter poems, as well as to several newly written ones. The results can be seen in First Screenings, a posthumously issued floppy disc.

With the pencil crayons, Nichol discovered colour. Not that he hadn't known it was there, but he'd always used black felt-tipped pens for his visuals, which were primarily targetted for publication in literary contexts, where money is scarce enough in any case, let alone for multicolour printing. The pencil crayons Nichol chose could be used for a water-colour effect, creating a delicate wash aura around lines drawn on wetted water-colour paper. Nichol exploited this effect in both black and multicoloured pieces, which were done in limited quantities and sold or given as gifts.

One of these pieces, Parrot, is of special note. It echoes an effect that was almost a Nichol trademark in his comics landscapes, the curving v-shaped line of a distant bird in flight, which is assimilated in Parrot into the shape of each letter of the word "bird": the ascenders of the "b" and "d" readily accommodate the curved-wing line, and Nichol adapts the body of each to an outward curve with a reversing arc; within this symmetry, the "i" is a dotted, inverted curving "v" and the "r" is a curving "v" minimally modified on the right wing. The image is repeated in four vertical overlaps, all sixteen letters a different bright colour, the water-colour wash further accenting the suggestion of blurred movement. The powerful presence of the word overcomes the illusion of distance implicit in the v-based characters that constitute it, bringing the bird up close. You can almost hear the wings flapping.

Parrot is reminiscent of another video-aural conjuration that Nichol effected near the start of his career, in Journeying & the returns / bp. Using type rather than crayon, he drew a drumstick striking a beat, which he conveyed by fanning a blur of five overlapping impressions of the word "drum," with the "m" of the bottom one repeated extensively to suggest the sound envelope of the beat.

I stated earlier that Nichol, while sometimes deceiving the eye about whether subjects in his comics are in or behind the panels, never forgot that they are in fact on the page. It is to the surface of the page and the events on it, drawn with type or by hand, that Nichol constantly directs the viewer-reader's attention. The eye deceived is tricked into looking more closely, and looking more closely, is alert, attentive. A line in book four of his multivolume poem, The Martyrology, applies: "down at the surface where the depth is." In The Martyrology and other of his verse, Nichol retards the reader's progress by taking words apart in the course of the writing, the reading: "words fall apart / a shell / sure as hell's / ash ell / when i let the letters shift sur face / is just a place on which im ages drift."

This is not an empty gimmick, but a device that invites re-reading and reflection. Compositionally, it allows the language to lead the way in generating content by building associations. Esthetically, it repositions the reader in relation to the language. Philosophically, it springs from a deeply held conviction about language and existence, which Nichol expressed as follows in a 1987 essay:

We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip-mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant. And painting, sculpture, dance, photography, etc., all the so-called Fine Arts, suffer, because we look but we don't see. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc., becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register—political, social, ecological—don't.

Nichol's visuals—poems, images, drawings, or however one chooses to categorize them—render language visible with disarming and deceptive levity, with a love of words in all their aspects, an ear and eye attentive to sonic and visual ambiguities, a refined visual aesthetic, a well-honed sense of humour, sophisticated taste in typography, and an awareness of language as both model and shaper of the human mind in its intellectual and psychological operation.

The author wishes to thank Ellie Nichol for her generous contribution of time, space, assistance, and access to Nichol's publications and papers. Thanks also to Mark Askwith, Victor Coleman, Nicky Drumbolis, Robert Fones, Maria Gould, Karl Jirgens, and Charis Wahl for helpful consultations.

Author's Note to Light and Dust posting, 2008: Since the original publication of this essay, several subsequent events have occurred which bear mention. Bob Cobbing, who is referred to as "being still at it in his eighties," died in 2002. In 2004, Coach House Books, www.chbooks.com published a new edition of Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer. Omitted from this essay is any mention of bpNichol's pioneering 1984 sequence of kinetic digital poems, First Screening: Computer Poems. This work was published on the Web in 2007 at vispo.com/bp/, lovingly salvaged from technological oblivion by a group of Nichol devotees who are also, variously and/or simultaneously, poets, scholars, and technical proficients: Jim Andrews, Geof Huth, Lionel Kearns, Marko J. Niemi, and Dan Waber.


"In a sense . . ." (Nichol 1988, 23)
"the ongoing . . ." (Higgins 1989, 3)
"always had . . ." (Multineddu 1993, 34)
"there's no doubt . . ." (Nichol 1987, 21)
"the difference . . ." (Nichol 1987, n. 3, 25)
"the natural . . ." (Higgins, 17)
"if [the poet's] need . . ." (Nichol 1967, cover)
"tight imagistic . . ." (Nichol in Williams, unpaginated)
"Not a lot . . ." (Nichol 1986, unpublished)
"That made a huge . . ." (Ibid.)
He once wrote . . . (Nichol n.d., unpaginated)
"post-Joycean base . . ." (Ibid.)
On another occasion . . . (McCaffery and Nichol 1992, 118-130)
"Individual letters . . ." (Nichol 1984)
Robert Fones . . . recalls . . . (Interview with the author, March, 2000)
Nichol once cited Curnoe . . . (Nichol 1985, 88)
"words fall apart . . ." (Nichol 1982, unpaginated)
"We live in . . ." (Nichol 1987, 24)


Hancock, Geoff. 2000. "The Form of the Thing: an Interview with bpNichol on Ganglia and grOnk." Rampike, vol. 12, no. 1, 30 - 36. 2001
Higgins. 1987. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.
McCaffery, Steve and bpNichol. 1992. Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book Machine: The Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group, 1973 -,1982. Vancouver: Talonbooks.
Multineddu, Flavio. 1993. "An Interview with bpNichol in Torino, May 6 & 8, 1987." Open Letter, vol. 8, no. 7, 5 - 35.
Nichol, bp. n.d. Grease Ball One. Toronto: Nichol private papers.
——— 1967. Journeying & the returns (also know as bp). Toronto: Coach House Press.
——— 1974. Love: A Book of Remembrances. Vancouver: Talnobooks.
——— 1979. Door to Oz. Toronto: Seripress.
——— 1982. The Martyrology, Book 5. Toronto: Coach House Press.
——— 1984. "bp Nichol" in Canadian Literature series. TVOntario.
——— 1985. "The 'Pata of Letter Feet, or, The English Written Character as a Medium for Poetry." Open Letter, vol. 6, no. 1, 79 - 95.
——— 1987. "Primary Days: Housed with the Coach at the Press, 1965 to 1987." Provincial Essays, vol. 4, 19 - 25.
——— 1988. "bpNichol" (interview). Art Views, vol. 14, no. 1, 21 - 23.
——— 1996. First Screenings. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press.
——— 2000. Zygal: A Book of Mysteries and Translations (2nd. ed.). Toronto: Coach House Books. Full text on line at www.chbooks.com.
Williams, Emmett. An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. New York: Something Else Press, Inc.


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