Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol

by B.P. Nichol
ISBN: 0889224471

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A Review of: Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol
by Paul Dutton

A singular figure in Canadian letters, bpNichol (1944-1988) excelled in more areas of literary endeavour than the average author ever even considers. Internationally renowned for his visual poetry by the age of twenty-two, a Governor General's Award winner for poetry (jointly with Michael Ondaatje in 1970), before he was thirty, a pioneer of sound poetry in Canada, a major exponent of the long poem (his multi-volume The Martyrology remains in print and on courses), lyric poet, fictioneer, essayist, and children's author, he also created cross-genre poem-drawings and comics, wrote comic-book adaptations of his own and others' material (children's and sci-fi), as well as numerous children's television shows, to which he contributed song lyrics-something he had practice in from the two or three musicals he wrote.
Compilations of Nichol's work in two different areas are now out from Talonbooks. Meanwhile collects the bulk of his published critical writings, plus a handful of unpublished pieces and a number of interviews. bpNichol Comics, despite the inclusiveness suggested by its title, offers a strangely constricted selection of comics that Nichol drew and wrote-as distinct from the comic books for which he provided only the text.
The essays, reviews, and interviews in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol resonate with the passionate devotion, profound respect, and enduring humility with which Nichol approached language, as both reader and writer. At the early age of twenty-one he resolved to overcome what he termed "the arrogance of trying to impose myself on the language," realizing that "I was coming to the occasion of the poem to force myself on it rather than learning," and further, that "the language could speak for itself, had its own qualities separate from whatever the meaning I might wish to will into it." Legions of poets, young and old, could benefit from such an attitude.
In one of the essays here, Nichol stresses that he has, in his critical writings, "always tried to foreground the fact that I am a writer writing about other writers." As such, he provides commentary that is informed, insightful, and illuminating. Meanwhile is, among other things, a veritable handbook on how to read poetry, be it that of Gertrude Stein, James Reaney, Earle Birney, Margaret Avison, Al Purdy, Douglas Barbour, Frank Davey, Shaunt Basmajian, David McFadden, or Bill Bissett-to list those who come in for special attention in the book. Not the least of Nichol's subjects is his own creative writing, and some of the essays, plus most of the interviews relate to his poetry, poetic craft, and poetic process. In that light, it is a lamentable fact that so much of his work that he discusses-Still Water, Love: a Book of Remembrances, ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, and others- remains out of print. While unfamiliarity with them won't diminish the value or pleasure of reading Meanwhile, the richness of experiencing the works themselves is attainable by the public only through library holdings.
It's important to note that, while the focus of Nichol's writing on writers is sharp, it is not narrow. Central to his life and work was the concept of community, the relationship of the individual to the collectivity, the "me" and the "we", as he liked to put it. Meanwhile presents Nichol working, within a critical framework, on a central element that informed his creative work: the relationship of the individual to the vast social collectivity implied by and embodied in the English language and language in general. It is this that makes Meanwhile a book for the broader literary audience, and in fact, for all users of the language.
Editor Roy Miki, himself a Governor General's Award winning poet, as well as a professor and critic, has done a thorough and laudable job of pulling together these texts from disparate sources. His afterword refers readers to a further repository of Nichol's writing on writers, another Talonbooks collection, Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine (1992), which draws together the collaborative essays Nichol wrote with Steve McCaffery.

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