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Intellectual Poetics
by Ken Norris

OVER A 30-year writing career, George Bowering has published almost 50 books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. Some say that's just too many, and certainly there is a hit?or?miss pattern to Bowering's work. For every wonderful book like Kerrisdale Elegies there's a not?so?wonderful one like Seventy?One Poems for People. His two latest books are Imaginary Hand and Errata; I score them as a hit and a half?hit. Imaginary Hand is a collection of literary essays, the first in the Writer as Critic series edited by Smaro Kamboureli. It includes work from as far back as 1966, but most of it was written in the '80s. Only the third of the book's four sections ? devoted to an investigation of the poetry of Allan Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams ? is rooted in Bowering's Black Mountain apprenticeship. Because of its themes this work wasn't included in his earlier essay collections ?A Way With Words, The Mask in Place, and the fragmentary Craft Slices and so is collected here. It represents one area of aesthetic concern still essential to Bowering.

The first, second, and fourth sections are devoted to Canadian fiction, women's writing, and contemporary Canadian poetry respectively. 'Me essays included here are all written in Bowering's familiar voice, recognizable by almost equal measures of seriousness and flippancy. Bowering has never attempted to draw a line between his criticism and his creative work; this is a crucial element of his postmodern position. As Kamboureli notes in her "General Editor's Preface":

The Writer as Critic series invites readers to read criticism as literature. If the essay, as Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and jean?Francois Lyotard have argued, is an intellectual poem then surely a writer's artistic signature is inscribed in her/his critical work in ways that expand our understanding of both literature and criticism. This is particularly true of the criticism produced by many Canadian artists.

There are a number of wonderful "intellectual poems" in Imaginary Hand: two that are guaranteed to become anthology pieces in collections of Canadian ?criticism are "A Great Northward Darkness: The Attack on ?History in Recent Canadian Fiction," and "Language Women: Postanecdotal Writing in Canada." In the fiction essay Bowering provides insightful readings of Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, and the novels of Robert Kroetsch. The polemical thrust of the essay is an attack upon realism. Similarly, in the poetry essay, Bowering's discussion of the work of Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard, Sharon Thesen, and others argues against poetry that is content?oriented or rooted in anecdote.

Throughout the book Bowering persuasively argues the postmodern cause. He is very clear on the directions he thinks Canadian writing should be taking, and he is equally clear on which Canadian writers of earlier generations can be seen as significant. In "Margaret, a Vision" he writes:

But when it comes to making a canon, and wanting figure to look to as the founder of excellence and the first name in the, canon, the writers with, regard for precise language and delight tend to agree. In fiction they tend to agree on Sheila Watson, and in poetry they tend to agree on Margaret Avison.

With pronouncements such as these on almost every page, Imaginary Hand makes for provocative and compelling reading.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Errata. This book comprises 100 page?length observations or "corrections" pertaining to Canadian literature, and they exhibit Bowering at his quirkiest and crankiest. I'm all for his contention that we should replace autobiography with "biotext" ("Autobiography replaces the writer. Biotext is an extension of him"), that poets should read novels, and that there's nothing real about realism. The problem with this book is that it is all contention and opinion; the pieces are so brief that there's no room for

Bowering to substantiate his assertions. That is no doubt part of the intention behind the book, but the reader who disagrees with Bowering's line of thinking will wind up feeling antagonized and frustrated. Even the reader who agrees with him will find the book just too long. Read from cover to cover, Errata loses impact.

But perhaps the best way to read Errata is one entry a day. There is certainly food for thought here, and Bowering provides us with enough prescriptions to heal the most ailing literature. By the force of his presence,? he insists that the discourse of Canadian art and criticism must remain open. As Bowering notes in Errata 100: "What of a writer who delays closure? Maybe he should see a doctor. Maybe he is the doctor."


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