THE VISUAL POETRY OF bpNICHOL; A BRIEF SKETCH
by Karl Young
Though bpNichol worked simultaneously in a number of modes, he first gained a wide audience through visual poetry published in magazines and anthologies with an international orientation in the second half of the 60's and in the early 70's. The entire entry for Canada in Mary Ellen Solt's 1968/1970 anthology reads: "Canada's leading concrete poet is B. P. Nichol, one of the editors of Gronk. From his text we learn that 'love' is also a beautiful word to look at". This sounds like a joke, somethingaNichol himself might have written as a parody, but in retrospect it does identify one of the most important characteristics of his visual poetry at that time: he was working within the concrete idiom of the day. The poem Solt refers to, later titled "Blues", is a good example. The poem implies that love evolves if you simultaneously go back to and repeate its sources and add something unique to them, not expecting completion, but leaving it implied. It suggests, lives on, and negates evil. Its axis is the letter e, exerting its transforming influence on another vowel while remaining otherwise unobtrusive in the single syllable "love;" but dominating the two syllable word "evol," creating a scream that tears the poem in half. This is presented clearly, cleanly, crisply, following the mode in vogue at the time, though even then transcending it.
Looking back over Nichol's opus, we can see poems like this one in a larger context. Nichol could declare poetry dead in interviews and essays, and in some instances such as Book II of The Martyrology, he could express despair over the impossibility of human communication. Although he may have written some of the best comic verse of the late 20th century, the themes of innocence he worked in could be truly Blakean, implying a Garden of Eden that must be enjoyed, but also must be lost. Those who now try to make him appear as an overgrown child, solely dedicated to fun-and-games, should spend some serious time with his fiction, which is for the most part extremely dark, and points up some of the despair and nihilism that find their way into some works in other genres. On a personal level, some of his kindness and generosity reflected a strong individual's response to a world that could be frightening, empty, and vicious, as well as a profound expression of acceptance and love of life. The sunny poems become much clearer in this context, and shine all the brighter for it.
As at least a part-time inhabitant of a new Eden, Nichol loved to start everything over from scratch, from the simplest, most common materials. Classic concrete gave him the opportunity to do that for a time, though in most of his mature visual poetry he made the transition from the rigidity of concrete to fluid, free-hand drawing, usually returning to type only in found or imitation-found poems, such as the newspaper headline poems in Art Facts.
The roman alphabet, the first symbol set a child learns in a formal setting, was Nichol's favorite and perhaps most important ground to build on. He did not take letters for granted, as passive vehicles for conveying words, but tried over and over to understand their individual nature and the interrelation of their geometrical construction. He did not approach letters as a typophile or connoisseur of calligraphy; instead he used them as elemental matter, almost without history. Throughoutbhis career he kept coming back to the alphabet in its standardized ABC sequence as a pattern on which to ring changes. This can be seen in visual poems like "H(an alphabet)" or heard in sound poems like "The Alphabet Game." He could use letter forms as patterns for all things. "Trans-Continental" registers what Nichol saw out the window of a train in terms of letter shapes. As his returns to the alphabet progressed, letters took on greater individuality and character, in a poetic environment where letters form and reform in isolation or in words in a dance that resembles chemical interaction working its way through the possiblities of a linguistic version of the periodic table. This progression could include letters morphing into each other as in "A Study in Context 2: S into H".
Some of this chemistry can be seen in "Emblems". And "Emblems" also represents another direction for Nichol, one that takes the conventions of comic books as referencecpoints in larger works. Comics are as basic to our culture as the ABC's, and Nichol at times thought of their visual conventions as the basis of a universal language. In this idiom Nichol could move into more spontaneous, fluid, and dynamic forms and consequently move into areas of understanding inaccessible to more restrained methodology. In the Toth series, Nichol worked with little more than comic book frameworks, without characters or texts other than abstract sounds. Works such as "He was Born in the Happy Ever After" take on the full range of comic conventions, but move them into new areas.
Although much of his fiction rings changes on basic stream-of-consciousness, Extreme Positions works through the spatial dispositions of visual poetry. In places, runs of many pages progress with only three or four words on each page. This sparse rendering could be modulated in such a way that it could convey at least as much narative drive as his traditionally lineated fiction.
Mathematicsdformed the basis of other poems, often using not only simple math problems but also basic iconography as another kind of elementary and elemental starting place. However, most of Nichol's mathematical poems took on a more complex character in his satirical Probable Systems series, that moved them away from visual poetry as the series progressed. Pieces like Probable Systems 15 can be fun whether taken as part of the series or alone, as comic iconography or as a puzzle you actually work out.
Nichol's Translating Treanslating Apollinaire went back to a point of origin, and was intended as a life-long project. The basic proposition of the work was to subject a single poemeto every possible transformational process. Quite naturally, he chose his first published poem, "Translating Apollinaire," as the base for the work. Much of the series works out visual strategies specific to a typewriter's unit spacing in a number of ways. As visual poetry, the most interesting are those described in terms of three dimensional space. The fifth of the "Ten Views" sequence, for instance, charts the poem in terms of "walking west along the southern boundary looking north," while the last is a labyrinthine view beginning on the exterrior and walking in. The series also includes visual poems composed by other people and some done by Nichol in the style of others.
I doubt that a single visual poet born in Anglo-America in the 40s, 50s, and possibly 60s didn't make at least a casual foray into xerographical alterations of images. The earlier the machines, the more they distorted things. For Nichol this was another place of beginning, though one in which he moved far away from the simple replication, collage, and "bun warming" pranks of his contemporaries: for Nichol, surveying and documenting different kinds of xerographic alteration became a life-long discipline, a sort of serial investigation of everything from the nature of loss to the power of light. I seem to be one of the few friends of his who shared this kind of dedication, and we sometimes did such seemingly odd things as phone each other when one of us found a machine that did something we had discussed previously, and photocopied things for each other if we had no plans of getting together in the near future. Although we shared the same fanaticism, we did different things with copiers. I often took them as points of departure for other things,franging from book cover designs to poems, and even learned how to hand draw a couple patterns achieved by a certain machine after that machine disappeared.
The main, and only published, use of this work was Sharp Facts: Sellections from TTA 26. Nichol called his efforts "research," and though he usually used the term with a wink, in this case it had an odd accuracy. For this TTA set, he carefully listed the location and date of each copy he made and kept them in meticulously organized manila folders. Neat and careful as this was, it could also be considered a form of chance generated composition, usually a means of transforming text into graphics. Thus the base poem Translating Apollinaire could be streaked with rain or become a pointillist landscape, could take on the character of the rock face along a mountain road, or turn into a few words at the edges of a sphere of light. The only book of this sort of "research" to see print was Sharp Facts: Selections from TTA 26, which we printed together during two days in 1980. It is a book that cannot be reprinted, since a new printing would constitute a new generation. I presented samples on the web as a new generation, partly as a memorial, partly as a retrospective sketch.
This leads into the large number of deliberately ephemeral visual poems produced by Nichol. At present, there is a strong tendency to see The Martyrology as his major opus, which would make him seem more conventional: it makes it easier to write term papers and masters theses on him, to mythologize him as a standard poet to work into a curriculum, etc. But this goes against the grain of the kind of poet Nichol wasg-a seeker, not one who concluded things. The largest number of ephemera were simple sheets of paper or small books, usually made by photocopying, often impulsively, sometimes based on simple line drawings reminiscent of French Spatialism. "Two Birds" is a good example of the more casual approach to ephemera, while "Landscape # 3", a carefully silkscreen print, shows how much he could go in the opposite direction. Some were sent as greeting cards, or published in jwcurry's microbooks, but most just arrived as surprises in the mail, something like mail art, but not containing a stated or implied request to respond. Although I started a file of these, I abandoned the practice and instead put these poems in copies of Nichol's books. That way I forget where I put them, and each time I open one of the books some of the original surprise returns.
Perhaps Nichol's most extreme ephemeral poem, and extreme poem period, was the short booklet Cold Mountain. This booklet contained instructions for folding the book and burning it. In this case the real visual poem was something you could only see for a few minutes: the book burning in front of you. Paradoxically, perhaps, I doubt that many recipients actually burned their copies, and beyond that, a large part of the edition was destroyed by accident.
This relates to Nichol's "Pataphysical Hardware Store" project. The project not only included a catalogue, but also three dimensional visual poems. My favorites from the store were a set of two pencils, one with erasers at both ends, the other with lead at both ends. Some pieces from the Hardware Store got a bit esoteric. The store included small bags of plaster of Paris. Alfred Jarry, who coined the term "pataphysics," lived in a tiny appartment with a very low ceiling, and reportedly sometimes emerged from it with flecks of plaster in his hair -- both the poet and the plaster in his hair were in Paris. The Store included "thought balloons," balloons with texts on them that could be inflated and attatched to someone's head, making them something like organic cartoons, with plagiarized thoughts seeming to issue from their heads.
Nichol's three dimensional visual poetry also extended to pillows and other fiberwork produced in collaboration with his wife, Ellie.
Nichol felt a great deal of ambivalence as to whether the scores used in performances, both solo and as member of The Four Horsemen, should be considered visual poetry. His most important statement on this appeared in his introduction to The Prose Tattoo: Selected Scores of The Four Horsemen. My feeling on this is that many of the rectangular scores probably should be considered simply as scores, though it is interesting that this simple method of scoring took Bernard Heidsick's notation as something as elementary as the ABCs or the squares and balloons of comic strips. On the other hand, it's hard not to see scores such as those for "16 Part Suit" or "The Room (A Valentine) Winter's Day" as visual poetry. Perhaps the major reason for Nichol's ambivalence was his insistence on live performance, which in turn adds another dimension to his sense of both transience and the importance of seizing the moment in real instead of imaginary or theoretical time.
Nichol could tinker with just about anything in terms of visual poetry. He rang numerous variations on Basho's most famous haiku ("old pond/frog jumps in/water sound") - again, note that this is a form of returning to square one, the basic poem of a genre. His last variation, apparently never published, was simply a capital letter Q - the circle is the pond, and the tail is the frog's diving board. As far as I know, the last Basho poem he prepared for print (in Art Facts) was a poem found in a newspaper: "Frog Pond turns into gold mine."
The writing of his own name should be seen as a visual/process poem, in some ways recapitulating a number of developments in his life and work. Many maverick visual poets who came of age in the 60s followed e.e. cummings into lower case letters, often begun with initials. Their number includes d.a. levy, bill bissett, and D.R. Wagner - and if k.o. young hadn't looked too cute, you might have seen another by-line at the head of this essay. "B.P. Nichol" could be styled "bp Nichol," or "bpNICHOL," or "bPNichol," but finally resolved itself into "bpNichol." In this progression, you can see, first, the fascination with the way the letters b and p mirrored each other. It now seems only natural that he would see "Nichol" as variations on "bp," a set of changes worked on circles and lines, fluidity moving through a broken and slanted versions of the vertical line, two broken circles, one attached to a line, and ending - where else? - in a plain circle and a plain line, the basic elements used to make the whole string, including the initial letters, and the most basic lines in geometry.
The visual poetry scene in North America has changed considerably since 1970. Monstrous anthologies like those of Solt and Williams have not been published since then, the number of participants in the art has decreased, and a legitimate audience other than practitioners has all but disappeared, though a movement to gentrify the art has produced a lot of foppish junk, reminscent of concrete. But, at the same time, those who have continued the art have become more dedicated and have greatly expanded the medium, keeping it one of the most vital and inventive directions in contemporary poetry. Nichol not only continued to extend the art throughout his life, he also encouraged, inspired, and assisted others working in this mode.
In a memorial published shortly after Nichol's untimely death in September, 1988, I wrote "that probably more than any of his contemporaries he embodied the joyful spirit of invention, that elusive center of all the arts in this century." That wasn't just funerary rhetoric. During the first decade of his literary career, he showed more versatility than any other visual poet I know. This continued during his last fifteen years, but during this time he was moving toward a synthesis of genres, even though he was still starting-over-from-the-beginning when he began many of his projects. Nichol's perpetual search for a place from which to begin ultimately lead to some of the most original, most diverse, most flexible, and, in the end, most meaningful visual poetry of the century.
Copyright © 1989 and 1998 by Karl Young