Getting High on Writing

  • George Bowering
    How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Mansfield Press
  • George Bowering
    Horizontal Surfaces. BookThug

George Bowering does not cease to surprise us. Horizontal Surfaces and How I Wrote Certain of My Books are meditations on language and writing—not a new focus in the lengthy and prolific career of the first Poet Laureate of Canada, a poet associated with TISH and the avant-garde. But Bowering’s obsessive return throughout the years to writing on writing is anything but redundant, and the witty, informal, and playful incursions in the “writing act” accomplished in these texts confirm a long-held suspicion in his readers: beware of readability—or, writing is not meant to gratify the reader’s fantasies.

Bowering’s poetic meditations weave together literature and criticism without indulging in abstract language or academic jargon. But the abundance of intertextual references, citations, self-citations, as well as information about Canadian and transnational communities of writing that infuse his work is a tour de force into a poetic world that defies the very notion of “readable” or “consumable” literature. Yes, the texts are easy reads, yet this easiness is highly deceptive and in line with the poet’s lifelong credo well expressed in Horizontal Surfaces: “In politics I am a socialist, but when it comes to art, I am a snob. Often I get into discussions about high art and low art regarding poetry, and I always come out on the side of poetry that aspires to difficult air, of poets who study the language and strive for the hard to reach.”

Not unlike his earlier Craft Slices and Errata, Horizontal Surfaces is structured by a constraint set on the writing. It comprises forty-eight short pieces on an alphabetical list of some of the most significant words in poetry. The list is far from objective, drawing from Bowering’s poetic world: Alphabet, Baseball, Line, Lyric, Muse, Open, Plot, Poetry, Verse, Voice. Yet the poems lose nothing of their relevance and freshness as they force us to plunge into language and resurface breathless. What is the meaning of “difficult” poetry? What is the difference between the line and a line and what effects does it produce? How is writing embodied through “footfall” and cadence? Should verse conclude or propose? The flippancy of the poet’s tone only renders more acute the engagement he is asking of his readers. Other words listed—Bible, God, Pilgrim—may at first sound surprising given Bowering’s iconoclastic nature, but less so if we think that the poet’s unflinching commitment to the power of poetry partakes of a special kind of “religious devotion.” What else could we expect from P. B. Shelley’s devotee?

As once noted by Smaro Kamboureli, it is difficult to pin down Bowering’s writing to a genre. This sequence, for lack of a better word, is neither a collection nor a series. In Horizontal Surfaces, we can only visualize the poet’s messy writing table with notes left over after the completion of the writing. What better way to organize this material than the non-referential and non-hierarchical alphabet?

The recently released How I Wrote Certain of My Books also blurs generic boundaries. Neither autobiography nor biotext, it purloins its title from Raymond Roussel’s 1935 anthology Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres, thus showing the poet’s fascination for the work of poetic surface and defamiliarization. These twenty-six pieces are titled after the most important of Bowering’s published and, in a few cases, unpublished works. Like Roussel’s, Bowering’s work is a meditation on the writing project of a lifetime. In musing on the compositional method of his work—the constraints and accidents set up to force the writing “away from representation and the description of what I think I see in front of me”—the text also revisits the cultural conditions that made it possible. Spanning from the sixties to the turn of the century, the book blends the poet’s reflections about the writing process with details about the construction of his texts (including so-far undetected references). Most importantly, it provides a topography of the alternative writing scene of which Bowering has long been part, a cultural history against the grain, and, implicitly, a reminder of the rich opportunities offered by a now-terminated federal cultural policy truly supportive of the arts. That this work, as well as that of many of Bowering’s close poet-friends, is no longer “marginal” and, in fact, represents an inalienable contribution to Canadian writing is beside the point. As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, this shift may define the avant-garde.

This review “Getting High on Writing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 150-51.

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