Share this

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Review of Frank Davey's Biography of bpNichol (2012), by Trevor Cunnington

 Subscribe in a reader

This biography, that connects the poet's life with his work, is a welcome addition to the corpus building around Nichol. It explores the relationship between Barrie Nichol - the living breathing human being, as excavated from conversations with friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances; from letters; and from archives – and bpNichol, the authorial persona created by Nichol to pull himself out of the dreamworld he inhabited, according to Davey.

It forwards the theory that Barrie's psycho-therapeutic work is a crucial tributary of his poetic work. While I am not qualified to evaluate this theory (I'm not versed enough in Nichol's poetry, having read only Zygal and some excerpts of the Toronto Research Group, bp's theoretical, albeit playful collaboration with Steve McCaffrey in a course I took with Christian Bรถk at the University of Guelph in 2002), I would still like to offer some reactions and thoughts.

My initial reaction to the book was “I think this is the first biography that has made me less interested in the person it's about than I was before I picked the book up.” However, I persevered, and I'm glad I did. Davey is an engaging writer, although his thoughts are sometimes muddled. For example, take this passage:

He [bp] told Bowering he was creating the whole narrative out of a series of images that would constitute a two-week period in the life of a family, a period in which, as one would expect, nothing is resolved. The reader enters and leaves the narrative in the middle, and 'hopefully' will experience a resolution through the leaving of it. The images will be all that the reader knows about it. That's why he's calling the novel 'idiomatic,' he told Bowering, because it's the normal 'family' story. The explanation, however, seemed to say as much about Barrie's understanding of family, or about what is usual in a family, as about the novel” (238).

Um, what? Seriously, what just happened here? Some of the clarity problem in this particular instance may have been inherited from Nichol himself, as he's the one being paraphrased, but if you're writing a biography, you better have enough of a grip on your subject to clarify some of the subject's more incoherent thoughts. Nothing is resolved, but the reader will hopefully experience a resolution? Is he talking about relating to the aimless structure of life portrayed by the in media res technique as itself some kind of resolution? Furthermore, idiomatic is a word used in linguistics to refer to expressions in language that are “more than the sum of their parts,” so to speak. Translating each of the parts of the expression literally will not produce the intended meaning of the expression. How does this relate to “normal family experience?” Idioms, I guess, are common expressions. So if you consider “normal” and “common” synonyms, this metaphor works. Ok, so with some very close reading, I could figure out that much. But what Davey means by the next sentence (beginning “The explanation, however. . . “) needs more elaboration as the logic is unclear.

Furthermore, Davey makes a big deal out of Nichol's intent from the 1960s onward to subvert the arrogance of many poets' preoccupation with precious (with that word's pejorative connotations culled from writing workshops) wisdom as the occasion for the writing of poetry. To express such wisdom, as an author with the mastery of experience, Nichol objected to stridently, apparently. However, in the sections detailing Nichol's work at Therafields, the experimental therapeutic community for which he served as vice-president, and Nichol's discussions of this work, he adopted the founder's discourse of mastery. Lea Hindley-Smith, the founder, “had been moved by Bergler's book to 'change her own destiny rather than blame others'” (82).This contradiction between his lived experience as a therapist, proclaiming mastery of experience and himself in a privileged position to help his clients do the same, and his avowed poetic intent to eschew such arrogant language, is a thorn in the side of Davey's poetry-therapy theory.

Furthermore, some of his poetry contains some of these golden nuggets he finds so repugnant and arrogant. Take, for example, these lines quoted by Davey, from “Book V” of The Martyrology Book 6 Books:

moving reservoirs of cells & genes

stretches out over the surface of the earth

more miles than any ancestor ever dreamed

. . .

tribal, restless, constant only in the moving on,

over the continents

thru what we call our history

tho it is more mystery than fact,

more verb than noun,

more image, finally, than story.

These lines are redolent of the “preconceived notion of wisdom” bp (and others such as Charles Olsen) rebelled against in poetry. While it is true that people certainly change their views as their experience changes them, it is Davey's job to elucidate this development in Nichol's poetry. Instead, Davey returns to this youthful rebellion several times, making it a central point or major departure for his poetic work. For a dedicated avant- gardist, the first stanza of this quote in particular has a harmonious sense of meter and rhyme (if partial, or slant). Most of it is insightful and “wise” as well. . . until the last line quoted. I find the frozen associations of the word “image” do an injustice to his previous line about history being more verb than noun. A photograph, after all, is an image extracted out of the flow of time. I suppose you could argue that this line is a subversion of the “preconceived wisdom” of the poem, but I think it weakens its internal coherence. I also think he missed an opportunity for a playful self-reflection of the line “tho it is more mystery than fact” as itself a fact, considering the always incomplete nature of archives. And by extension, this line and its implications allude to the challenge of writing a faithful biography, which by and large Davey has done.

Criticism aside, I found this book fascinating because of the connection it explores between Nichol's deep involvement with psychotherapy and his poetry. It was also edifying to learn about Nichol's peripatetic childhood, his hermetic “dreamworld,” and his relationships with other Canadian literary figures. I was familiar with his relationship with Steve McCaffrey, but his relations with other poets and writers such as Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, and bill bisset came as a surprise and a delight to me.

I was also surprised at how high-profile his sound poetry projects were, such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For a Nicholophile, to learn about how he felt like his creative input was constantly marginalized in that project is a must. The last chapter provides a useful summary of some of the main critical responses to Nichol's work: the “theological reception,” those that emphasize his “ideopoems” that merge comic strip art with conceptual visual poetry, and those that focus on The Martyrology as the keystone of his creative output. This summary is indispensible for those interested in a critical engagement with Nichol's work. Despite its shortcomings, Davey's biography was well worth the time.
Images from Zygal (1985), Coach House Press.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

An Ecclesiastical View on Visual Culture (if you will excuse the pun)

 Subscribe in a reader

So it's been a while since I posted anything. If any of you are disappointed, I apologize. Sometimes the lemonade that life throws you can't be turned into lemons. Anyhow: busy is busy.  Here's something I wrote in 2009 about the "new" academic field of Visual Culture. Trigger warning: academic language ahead.

The Insufficiency of Linguistics in the Age of the Machine

Visual Culture is a discipline that tries to put in a comprehensible framework images, which are visual data that have been interpreted, endured in memory, become represented, and have accrued significance in the processes of interpretation, remembrance, and representation. It is somewhat analogous to Saussure’s seminal work on linguistics, but rather than focus on language as language, it analogically expands analysis of the structure of the communicable into the field of images, and their manipulation through techniques and technologies of seeing and looking. As culture is a way of life, as well as shorthand for organized and intentional sensual experience in the form of various arts, Visual Culture’s object is how visual data inform the practice of culture. How do configurations of visual data cohere as signs through structures of meaning? What kind of strategies do encoders use to enframe interpretation and to what ends? What strategies do decoders use to interpret, with what motivations, and to produce what results?

On the other hand, an image is fully communicable in language. Ezra Pound’s poem “In the Station of the Metro” or William Carlos William’s poem “The Codhead” are proof positive of this. Furthermore, in literate society the visuality of language irrevocably changes its use, as scholars from Eisenstein, Havelock, and Ong to Innis and McLuhan have noted. In Visual Culture, then, the problem emerges of the insufficiency of linguistics to interrogate visual data and its tendency to collect significance like a magnet collects iron filings. This metaphor is apt both because a sign, a certain distillation of sensory – in this case visual – data, starts off as many disparate parts, but in the process of encoding or decoding it joins parts into a whole, a whole which is greater than simply the sum of its parts. The magnet is consciousness. The extrapolation of linguistic concepts into a wider field of sign production, observation, and interpretation, such as that accomplished by Barthes, is the essential act of Visual Culture, and it is predicated on the irreconcilable hybridity of human, machine, and perception.

Is Visual Culture new, emergent, or any of the other modifiers that reveal the coy imbrications of academia with the market (new and improved!)? Emphatically no. The political cartoonist extraordinaire of enlightenment England, Cruikshank, in the process of observing politics and culture through various degrees of mediation – which necessarily implies representation – must have employed some of the same strategies, or at least trod in similar cognitive footsteps, as contemporary cultural critics have in their analyses in order to draw his cartoons in the first place. One must interpret visual aspects of culture at large in order to consolidate visual data and subsequently encode such a complex but simple-seeming formulation as a cartoon.

For example, in this cartoon, Cruikshank depicts people from various classes working together to export orphans to the colonies. In the nineteenth century, children were not guaranteed the same rights as they are now. Corporal punishment was the norm, and orphaned children were a social problem that warranted, to some, an easily solution: ship them out to the far reaches of the empire. It was common practise also to ship unwedded and pregnant women to the colonies in the interests of "social hygiene." With a nod to Jonathan Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal," Cruikshank here lambastes the practise as dehumanizing. The top hat and erect stance of the man in the centre emblemizes "polite society," that of refined gentlemen. The other man's stance, slightly stooped, and his raggedy bowler testify that he belongs to the working classes. A woman, in the background, also pitches in. This cartoon shows the co-operation of different social groups, often in conflict in other arenas, all working together to rid their society of a group beneath them all -- unwanted children. The tension between the emblems of civilization and an obviously barbaric act -- shoveling children into a cart -- shows the active nature of Cruikshank's "reading" of his visual environment, and then redeploying its parts for persuasive purposes.

With regards to "newness," I usually side with the author of Ecclesiastes, who laments “there is nothing new under the sun.” To claim there is something new is at the same time to claim complete and total knowledge, an act of arrogance, and further, of ignorance of one's own ignorance. However, the pixilated milieu of contemporary existence, especially with regards to communication, has made it such that these liminally conscious processes should be brought into the foreground and conceptualized, following Marcuse’s notion that the image and its superabundance militates against conceptual thinking.