Voicing Constraint

  • George Bowering
    My Darling Nellie Grey. Talonbooks
Reviewed by Ian Rae

The prolific poet and novelist George Bowering is now in his seventies and one might expect him to slow the fast pace of publication he has maintained for half a century. Indeed, Canada’s inaugural Poet Laureate could rest on his retired laurels and let the critical tributes and surveys roll in, such as the volume 71+ for GB: An Anthology for George Bowering on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday and the 2010 special issue of Open Letter devoted to his work. However, Bowering continues to defy the restrictive quality of such retrospective appraisals by publishing several books a year and the 2010 poetry collection My Darling Nellie Grey is one of his most ambitious publications to date.
My Darling Nellie Grey arose from Bowering’s decision to write at least one poem for every day of 2006. Bowering also planned these poems as sequences, each with its own set of constraints—some formal (stanza lengths and recurring motifs), some thematic (homages to poets and painters), some slack (the “I Remember” device). Bowering’s interest in these compositional “baffles” can be traced back to his serial poems from the late 1960s and thus predates the more recent fascination with constraint-based writing in Canada. However, Bowering’s introduction also tries to align his baffles with the theoretical constraints of Oulipo and its acolytes. The comparison is awkward because Bowering’s idiomatic expression, even within formal constraints, does not resemble the hypothetical language of the Oulipo writers, who inhibit idiomatic expression through arbitrary constraints, such as omitting the letter “e.” Bowering hints at this discrepancy when he recalls his discovery in 1960 of Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947; trans. 1958) and notes that “[a]lthough my poetry at the time was doggedly faithful to the notion that writing verse was a record of speaking verse, I was exhilarated by this [Oulipean] texte.” Bowering’s growing interest in a constraint-based poetics counteracts the insistence on orality and the open-endedness that Bowering learned from the Black Mountain poets; it also goes against the ludic postmodernism that Bowering professed in the 1970s. Yet the idea of a rule-governed aesthetic paired with the speaking voice accords with Bowering’s longstanding interest in Romanticism, which Peter Quartermain has argued is typical of the Tish writers in general. Coleridge, for example, says that the “spirit of poetry, like all other living powers, must of necessity circumscribe itself by rules, were it only to unite power with beauty. It must embody in order to reveal itself; but a living body is of necessity an organized one—and what is organization, but the connection of parts to a whole, so that each part is at once end and means!” There is certainly a lingering Romanticism in the combination of voice and constraint in My Darling Nellie Grey, but Bowering has spent much of his career resisting the impulse to unite power with beauty in a stable and unified manner. Hence, Bowering’s condemnation of the American war machine has never been as relentless as it is in “Fulgencio” from My Darling Nellie Grey.

Rather than trying to fit Bowering’s talents and contradictions into an Oulipian mold, I would argue that the interplay of voice and constraint in My Darling Nellie Grey highlights a fundamental tension in Bowering’s poetics. Bowering theorizes this tension as early as a 1962 essay he submitted for R.J. Baker’s English 439 class at UBC. This essay, “The Skeleton of Classical Prosody,” can be found in the national archives in Ottawa (1st Accession, Box 32, Folio 1). In this paper, Bowering argues that prosody up to the nineteenth century sought to apply universal laws of prosody to individual speech patterns. This critical project struggled with poems and passages that were celebrated as poetry even though they broke the rules of prosody. For Bowering, following Ezra Pound, this contradiction is a clue to the underlying fault of classical prosody: namely, the belief that poetry should arise from abstract principles, not from the particularities of individual speech patterns. Hence the modern poets viewed the irregularities of classical prosody as keys to the underlying force of poetry (in contrast to rote versification). From 1962 onward, the test of poetry for Bowering would be whether the poem sounded as if its music arose from the cadences of his speaking voice. Yet, having found his voice in his lyrics of the 1960s, Bowering immediately began devising abstract constraints to replace the old, canonical strictures. My Darling Nellie Grey is the longest and one of the best examples of this career-long project.

This review “Voicing Constraint” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 149-150.

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