Long Poems, Serial Poems: On Writing Writing

  • George Bowering and Stephen Collis (Editor)
    Taking Measures: Selected Serial Poems. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)

In delving into this recently published collection, we have proof of what we already suspected of George Bowering’s work. Few poets have been able to produce such a vast poetic corpus. Few poets have interwoven so intimately writing and life. I first met Bowering many years ago through his voice—a reading that left me under a spell. But the image of him that comes to mind when reading his poetry is the body of the writer at his desk, writing, incessantly writing.

The volume, curated and introduced by Stephen Collis, is part of the Talonbooks Collected series of poetry, which includes some of the closest of Bowering’s fellow poets and friends—Phyllis Webb, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt, and Roy Miki. Not surprisingly, this volume can be only a narrow selection of his work—a Complete Poems publication would have required several volumes.

Every selection implies a choice of inclusion and exclusion. Here the form of the serial poem provides the formal logic of the assemblage. But then one has to ask oneself if such logic, which is suggested by the subtitle to the volume, is not a playful gesture: isn’t it true that to a larger or lesser degree all of Bowering’s poetry performs a seriality of sorts? Is seriality in the compositional process of the author or in the reading process of the audience? In his introduction, Collis is right in situating the seriality of Bowering’s poetry in the context of the procedural poetics that were the marker of much post-1960s poetry in Canada, from the TISH group to the language poetries of later decades. Marjorie Perloff, following Jacques Roubaud, describes the “constraint” of procedural poetics as “a generative device” rather than external form (25). In Bowering’s long poems, the constraint operates through the form of seriality as well as the chance occasion for constructing it: rather than external form, seriality is turned into “thematic property of the poem” (Perloff 25). In Genève, for example, the occasion is given by leafing through a pack of tarot cards and in Allophanes by the compositional frame of Robin Blaser’s classes, which Bowering was attending while writing, whereas in Autobiology the compositional device is provided by “things that have happened to me physically and had their effects mentally” (How I Wrote Certain of My Books 43-44).

Seriality also brings forth the presence of the many dialogic partners in Bowering’s poetry. The “serial poem” was Jack Spicer’s description of writing that would bring into the poem chance and non-chance, the known and the unknowable, as well as the procedure of “dictation” in order to dissolve the expressive mode of the poetic ego. To what extent Bowering actually follows Spicer’s “in joke” advice cannot be addressed in the short space of this review but there is no denying that rather than falling prey to an “anxiety of influence” the poet keeps conversing, wrestling, sometimes sparring with the models of his youth. The presence of Spicer is felt in many of these poems, especially up to Kerrisdale Elegies, alongside Spicer’s fellow poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan. But we also recognize the modality of Charles Olson’s projective verse, his composition by field, the poetic kinetics of breath and physiology, rhythm, and a new stance toward reality. Many poetic figures traverse Bowering’s poetry. Alongside the principal reading referents of what was later to be described as language poetry—the experimentations of Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, H. D. and Pound—Bowering includes and resituates into the present the “Other” experimentations: nineteenth-century Romantic English language poetry, P. B. Shelley and Blake; as well as the French, Baudelaire and Mallarmé; but also the many poetic voices of an increasing field of poetics from Canada. The dialogic quality of the long poem becomes evident not only in the response to other poetries and poetic figures, but also in the way in which various worlds and various poetic principles are hosted in co-existence without being mechanically absorbed into the consciousness of a dominant poetic voice. We find the incorporation of incompatible material alongside a plurality of what Bakhtin would call consciousness-centres, and while a musing (lyrical?) poetic voice is always detectable, it is not a voice of merging consciousness. The ego, here, is not master in his own house.

The poems are arranged chronologically, from 1967 until 2013, with each seriality punctuating a “time,” and a tempo, in Bowering’s writing. Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 opens the sequence and it is difficult not to recognize in this choice not only the trait of the poet’s personal mythologies (Bowering’s love for baseball) but an organizational mode of language as language-at-play-in-the-world and at the same time a cue to the author’s poetic friendship with Jack Spicer (the poem is dedicated to Spicer, and Spicer is mentioned in the poem). The great hits of postmodern poetics of the 1970s and 1980s are all included—Genève, Autobiology, At War with the US, Allophanes, and Kerrisdale Elegies—with the addition of three works from the 1980s rarely taken up by critics: Smoking Mirror, Irritable Reaching, and Delayed Mercy. The selection from the 1990s is more restricted, including Do Sink and Blonds on Bikes, whereas the new century is represented by His Life and Los Pájaros de Tenacatita.

Reading the poems in sequence produces an effect of estranging stupor, taking the individual series out of its own book-length containment and resituating it in a different thread of possibilities. The chain of significations multiplies and reveals previously uncovered traces. It rearranges the very idea of form. Different serialities are deployed but the procedure of working through constraints maintains a certain coherence and the book itself takes on the quality of a book-length poem—it is up to the reader to uncover further openings. Distinct features of Bowering’s poetry also concretize in a new light: the phenomenological quality of his poetry, the poetic eye’s movement toward objects and places, the intersection of geographies and histories, the body as, to quote Merleau-Ponty, “my-being-in-the-world” that thwarts the imaginary of the ego, but also the play of traces in the “work” of language, and writing as an act of translation.

The latter feature merits a separate comment. The translational quality of Bowering’s work takes up diverse dimensions. When directly following the chosen poet, Bowering calls his poems “imitations,” possibly “variations,” possibly in line with Duncan’s term “derivations.” They are gestures that always reveal his stance as a “faithful” reader. Some of these cases are more overt, such as Autobiology with Gertrude Stein and Kerrisdale Elegies with Rilke, but Bowering’s writerly engagement with the many poets that traversed his life, either as books or as live friends, is testified by the many traces they leave in his poetry. Many are Canadian poets, primarily of his generation or close by, so that as readers we are gifted with an archeology of writing in the mode, to cite Duncan again, of writing writing. But translation is also the translation of experience in the world without falling into the expressive, the exploration of the connection between language and the sensorial, language and the world through which we live and see, hear, touch.

Such a phenomenological and translational stance toward reality is woven into the fabric of the poetry formally, conceptually, and politically. The title of the collection, Taking Measures, cues William Carlos Williams’ line that “[a]ll verse is measure” and his work The Desert Music, suggesting the musical measures of tempo, measures of movement across space, as well as the movement of pen or typewriter in the compositional act. But they are also the measures that irrupt into the reality of life, as the line from At War with the US reminds us: “There comes a time / when we must / take measures.” The political is not a background in Bowering’s poetry. It is shown discursively in the perceptual disruption of normativity (as in the commodifying processes of the social world that Kerrisdale Elegies brings into visibility) or in the echo of dramatic events invading the intimacy of our lives (the Vietnam War and the War Measures Act in At War with the US).

This book is a must-read or reread. And for those who wonder what it offers anew from the vast corpus of individual publications that we have already encountered, and probably own, I suggest a reread of two poems: the moving nightly responses to the world of poetry of Delayed Mercy and, perhaps the most embodied of them all, the elegiac Do Sink.

Works Cited

Perloff, Marjorie. “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall.” Textual Practice, vol. 18, no. 1, 2004, pp. 23-45.

This review “Long Poems, Serial Poems: On Writing Writing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 3 Mar. 2021. Web.

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