George Stanley, West Broadway and George Bowering, Some End. New Star Books, 2018, ISBN 9781554201457. Price $18.
It’s wonderful to see two of Vancouver’s oldest poets triumphant, especially wonderful for someone who, like me, has expended considerable critical capital on them both over many years; I’ve been able to watch my portfolios rise steadily in value. And now, more dividends, a book that puts the two poets back-to-back and shows them riffing off one another like a couple of lively octogenarians (which is what they both are) at Blenz.
They belong together because of their age, because they are friends and because they have written a lot of poems about Vancouver which is the setting and sometime subject of this book. They also belong together because they are equally great poets, and can talk inspired shop.
“Equally great?” I find myself looking over my shoulder when I make that so blatantly qualitative assertion. Bowering, in quantitative terms — number of awards, prestige of publishers, presence in anthologies, number of books by, number of books and articles about, rate of publication — is a much greater poet than Stanley. Five times as many books of poetry. Big publishers. Two Governor General’s awards and the Order of Canada. Spreads in the big teaching anthologies. By these measures, Stanley is almost invisible.
Normally this consideration wouldn’t matter much in a book review, the purpose of which is to elucidate the stylistic, structural and thematic attainments of the poets in question. It would add only the spice of gossip (always good, in my opinion). The fact is, though, that Bowering and Stanley are engaged here in a conversation about poetics. An examination of their respective situations and how they arrived in them provides good background for an understanding of what they are going on about.
In the course of exploring the reasons for Stanley’s invisibility, Stanley’s old friend Sharon Thesen, the editor of his North of California Street, Selected Poems 1975-1999 (2014), and his even older friend Stan Persky, his most loyal reviewer, detail that background. Thesen first:
Though Stanley’s work is well known in BC, where the print runs of his books sell out and his readings are packed, as well as in the States, it has received little critical attention in Canada where the canonical status one would expect of a poet of his caliber has not been forthcoming . . . . Stanley’s perceived ‘Americanness’ may yet remain an obstacle to his full acceptance into the Canadian canon. . . . Another obstacle to Stanley’s being recognized as a major national poet was the impact on his career of living and teaching in the hinterland. The move to Terrace coincided with the final stages of the transfer of poetic activity (conversation, dissidence, attractions) from bars, pubs, cafes and bookstores to the university seminar room where poet-professors such as Robert Kroetsch and Frank Davey were teaching contemporary poetry and poetics . . . . Stanley’s moving north could have been an untimely career move in an era in which a poet’s strategic career moves, especially in relation to academic, began to matter.
Stan Persky, in a review on this site of Vancouver: A Poem (2008) speculates on why so consummate a poetry book was reviewed nowhere, with the exception of a few favorable short notices and another review (by — ahem — me), also favorable, also on this site. Persky attributes Stanley’s invisibility to the general decline of “book culture” and the retreat of poetry from public view. Basically what he’s saying is that, in the rising tide of illiteracy, poetry has drowned, so it is ludicrous to detail how relatively skilled various poets are at treading water.
But Persky has also explained that Stanley has been, for some time, out of fashion. Sometime in the mid 1990’s, Stanley came up with “Aboutism” as a way of mocking, semi-seriously, the latest poetic trend. Persky explains:
Aboutism is reactive in that it rejects a lot of the outcomes, if not the intent, of the late 20th century literary movement known as language poetry . . . . But what was wrong with a lot of the poems by the Language Poets is that you couldn’t make head or tail of what they were saying . . . . Language poetry wanted to get rid of the authorial voice, to produce a kind of “view from nowhere,” on the grounds that the “I” inevitably distorted the world . . . . (The Short Version, 2005)
Thesen also refers to Aboutism — as an indicator of Stanley’s isolation from the seminar room:
Since his move back to Vancouver in 1993 to take a job at Capilano College (later University), Stanley has more than half seriously promulgated the poetics of ‘Aboutism’, his rebuttal to the excesses of the ‘language-centered’ excesses [sic] of the poetic avant garde . . . .
Aboutism is ontological, assuming there is a knowable (i.e. organized) world outside the mind. By writing as an Aboutist, Stanley wants to reverse that “transfer of poetic activity” mentioned by Thesen, to take poetry away from the seminar room, away from theory, back to reality, to the world, to the streets, to what he calls, in a poem of that name in Gentle Northern Summer (1995), “the set:”
Remembering how it felt
working on the Grape
in ’72 . . . .
We were part of history
in our mental spotlight
drinking beer with trade unionists from the ‘30s
in that battered pub . . . .
Do you miss all that? Do you miss the dirty ‘70s
that sense there was a world of meaning
outside your mind. Tho skeptic Ed Dorn
said ‘the set,’ you could account
not just for the world but for nature itself . . . .
I shot up to Rupert for no reason . . .
then I missed the world,
the beery romance of politics,
(the whisky romance of poetry),
Bowering appeared on the set, wrote at least one article for the Georgia Straight, of which The Grape was an offshoot, was a part of what Thesen calls the café-bar-bookstore scene. But Bowering was also a fixture in the seminar room. By the time Stanley headed for Northwest Community College (Terrace, Rupert, Smithers) in 1976, feeling that just as San Francisco had come to an end “Vancouver was coming to an end too,” Bowering had been at SFU for four years and was a tenured professor.
Thesen might well have listed him with Frank Davey and Robert Kroetsch in her account of what was going on in the seminar rooms. All three were energetic practitioners of what they called deconstruction, and advocates of the deconstructionist ideologies poststructuralism and (sequentially) postmodernism and postcolonialism. Thesen has long been concerned about the effect on poetry of what she calls “the trickle-down of academic poststructuralism” (see Daphne Marlatt’s Capilano Review interview of Thesen —Spring 2008, and “Why Women Won’t Write: Literary Theory’s Dark Shadow,” Vancouver Review, Summer, 1991). What trickles down into poetry, in her opinion, is the hyper celebration of instability and experimentalism, the distrust of humor and irony, the insistence on freedom from referentiality, narrative and logic (from time, cause and effect, and comparison/contrast) — indeed, the fear of language itself as compromised — and the focus on identity politics.
Bowering was the most charming, and therefore the most influential, advocate of postmodernism. He has claimed the position of one of the founders of postmodernism in Canada, tracing the theory back to Tish, the poetry / poetics magazine founded by him and fellow students Davey and Fred Wah in September 1961. He has fought alongside Kroetsch for a postmodernist, deconstructive writing that discards the mock objectivity of realism . . . . (Craft Slices, 1985). He has proclaimed his solidarity with those,
. . . who question one authority without having the temerity to offer another . . . and . . . who are so much disposed against authority that they distrust any signs of it in themselves. They permit signifiers to slip. Irony cannot, therefore, get a grip. Authors are long gone (Left Hook, 2005).
He has also praised and defended what Thesen and Persky describe as what has been, from the mid-1990’s to now, the opposite of Aboutism — the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and the Canadian poets of the Kootenay School of Writing. KSW is, as Bowering has it, the successor to his own Tish school, and the language poet Jeff Derksen is “Frank Davey’s counterpart among the KSW poets:”
The Language poets and the KSW poets have no qualms about knowing European discourse theory, and have moved further than had their predecessors away from poetry as individual expression. . . . Language, said Bakhtin, as quoted by Derksen, is “ideologically saturated.” State capitalism, for instance, will tolerate and encourage homogenization, “verbal and ideological unification and centralization (Left Hook, 2005).
Who knew? State capitalism manipulates language, and the postmodernist poets, the language poets, valiantly resist the capitalist plot by, as Persky has it, getting rid of the authorial voice.
Fortunately for us, Bowering never acted on this belief. He reminds us of this at the very beginning of Some End. In the course of a humorous organ-recital about being put into a “popsicle coma” (in preparation, most likely, for open-heart surgery), he says:
the world speaks to me
in sentences. I can’t push words here and there
the way clay sculptor poets and furniture movers
do, the way Daphne and Fred can, this is not
literary criticism, this is an old poet
sitting naked in a chair almost remembering
what he has been doing all this time.
Of course this remark is literary criticism by way of the comparison of poets to clay sculptors and furniture movers. Bowering might as well have said that Fred Wah and Daphne Marlatt (Bowering’s favorite postmodernist poets) write poetry on their refrigerators with magnetic “Book Lover” poetry kits. It is also criticism by way of the claim that he has always been “doing” the sentence. Bowering was always suspected by his Tish colleagues of theoretical impurities because of the success of his poetry — because people could actually read and enjoy it.
Stanley on his side goes deeper into the matter of the sentence and (as he has it) the poetic line, by way of a comic allegory. In “Writing Old Age” he points out the problem with trying to evade the sentence. He does this by identifying his impending demise as a problem that makes it hard for him to write poetry. His own death is a “thought” that absorbs all his other thoughts, but his audience doesn’t want sentences expressing these sorts of obsessive and depressing thoughts. He is tempted to avoid sentences in order to produce “a pure line” free of thought — like a language poet. But how can his hand in the act of writing function apart from his brain, which can think only in sentences?
Writing and Old Age are roommates, inside Stanley’s brain. He is Writing Old Age. Old age wants a thought; Writing wants a line and can’t get one because Old Age keeps interfering:
I lift my pen to begin the next sentence.
The next sentence: I never think of old age. I don’t care about old age.
Wait! I don’t mean you, Old Age. I’ve written poems about you, whole books. But I can’t live with thoughts like the ones you’re describing, thoughts wrapped around other thoughts. Sheesh! Give it a rest!
What do you care about then, Writing?
I care about, I wait for, a true line
A true line, to hear it in language, bypassing thinking . . . .
Yet you’ve been writing, writing sentences.
But the sentences are about thoughts . . .
I’m hoping for a true line, and a thought comes and lays itself out alongside a few random words I’ve written — like a dead body.
People are crying out for sentences! But not for sentences about thoughts.
In the next poem, “Remonstrance on Behalf of Thoughts,” the poet steps back and questions and corrects his two halves. First, Old Age:
Old Age says he’s bedogged (sorry!) by one particular thought, that of his coming demise (the opposite of mise en scene) so, his leaving the scene
(Or, as Ed Dorn called it, the set.)
And he can’t refer to himself (‘do a selfie’) without thinking (of) it.
Speaking as a thought, myself (and as a member of NAT, the National Association of Thoughts, I think I have a little more freedom than that . . . .
Then there’s Writing (as I’ve said, I’m not sure if this is a separate being or a hand puppet of Old Age). . . .
By-passing thinking? Not by a long shot. Are you some kind of language machine, attached to a hand?
So Stanley stages a reconciliation (it’s recorded by a video-cam behind Writing’s head, which was put there to catch thoughts working under the table). Writing, who turns out to be a young male, is in the shower, singing.
Now from an adjacent bedroom there enters an old man, wearing just glasses (and, oddly enough, a Vancouver Canadians baseball cap. He approaches the table and climbs up onto it, then lies down prone over an open writing book and some pencils and pens, and apparently goes to sleep.
Look, Writing, as you emerge from the washroom, that’s no thought, that’s no dead body, it’s Old Age, stretched out on your half-finished page.
A thought (rank and file)
Back at his end of the book Bowering, after repudiating the compositional practices of “Daphne and Fred,” talks about poets with whom he does now identify or with whom he has come to identify more closely. These poets “knew something.” First comes F. R. Scott. When the Tish poets first started to cultivate their avant-garden (Bowering’s joke), the project was to separate the modern (formalistic, order-seeking) poets from the postmodern, who refuse to “reduce experience into simple artistic pattern” (Davey’s paradigm in From There to Here, 1970). There were obvious problems with this theory, because the most famous of modernist poets, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, weren’t formulistic and didn’t favour simple patterns. There were other problems with those Canadian poets who seemed less formulistic but were still conventional — who seemed never to have advanced as far as modernism and therefore could not be “post” what they never were. As Bowering had it initially, Scott was one of these pre-modern poets:
Scott and Smith were largely satirists, and satire is not a main device of Modernism; it is a device of those who tried to deny modernism — people like Evelyn Waugh and Arnold Bennett. Scott and Smith applied to unsullied nature for constancy and refuge and the contemporary — as did British poets like Houseman and the Georgians. (Craft Slices)
Now he sees something more meaningful than denial and retreat in Scott, and the comparison to Houseman is off:
I know him now, though he stood stiff, his / posture learned during a previous ka-ching! / of centuries, back when bookshelves looked / less like boards . . . . Born in 1899, lived with / one eye, bit a cigarette holder, knew more about time / than you’ll ever know.”
A sense of time is what being in a popsicle coma dissolves, Bowering says:
refrigerated and put to sleep, dropping out of time
you have to save your humour and guard it, a precious
trove to bring out as needed.
Wit, something for which Scott was famous, is about timing. It is an important brain function, one that Bowering is relieved to find returning now that he is out of the induced coma:
wit, I understand, is not ancient, nor does it abide with
children; wit is not convenient, it is nearly always
an unfamiliar visitor who plays with you
a second or two . . . .
Next to appear in Bowering’s tributes to poets is Stanley himself, who Bowering, in “Letter to George Stanley,” describes as old friend, old connection / to the real, a poet who squares things with the world. But I’ll postpone consideration of the poem to Stanley until I flip over to Stanley’s side of the book, so I can deal with the entire conversation. Note though that Stanley’s function is to anchor Bowering to the real, the world, to the feeling that there is a world of meaning outside your mind.
After Stanley, Bowering writes about Peter Cully, comparing him to Orpheus who, because he lived in “a hard place,” used poetry to bring things into the light. Cully is viewed as a modernist / realist poet.
Next comes Purdy. Bowering and Purdy have had from the beginning a sort of love-hate relationship. From the start they admired one another’s poetry, Purdy was impressed by “Sunday Poem” in Tish 4 (January 1964), but also thought Bowering dissipated his talent in constant experimentation (his very fecundity and invention are against him — Fiddlehead, Fall 1964). That experimentation was usually based on some stupid (in Purdy’s opinion) theory that Purdy could well have rejected because he took it as a put-down of his own poetry — as for example Bowering’s theory that American poetry is an advance over British poetry, that you can’t continue to write lyrics past the age of 30, that postmodernist writing involves the reader more than realism does, that a poet who writes without theory is a nuisance, and on and on.
Bowering thought Purdy dissipated his talent by being a “hoser-poser,” creating a comic act featuring a caricature of himself. Bowering’s first extended work of literary criticism was a monograph (1970) on Purdy that seemed to be meant at least partly as a joke, in that it focused on Purdy’s early books wherein Purdy seemed to be trying to write like Bliss Carman, and concluded with Purdy’s universally acknowledged “breakthrough” book Poems for All the Annettes (1962), about which Bowering said little except that Purdy might finally be getting interesting. In 1973, in the book Curious, there’s a series of portraits of poets: Brian Fawcett, David McFadden, Marlatt, Louis Dudek etc. The poem “Al Purdy” expresses Bowering’s real objection to Purdy: his act is undignified in its play for a big audience of people who don’t speak your language:
What a terrible
thing to be lockt in the bathroom with the
chairman’s wife & they both read your
poetry or seen you on CBC television & you
are finally a strange body in their bathroom . . . .
They understand but we dont & you dont
In the early book-length prose-poem A Short, Sad Book (1977) Purdy is the burlesque figure Al, a purdy-good, post-ancient detective, tracing the mystery of Tom Thompson’s death and, thereby, the essence of the “Canadian.” In Craft Slices Purdy is said to be a kind of New Journalist of verse, using his personality as the operating principle of his poetry at the expense of his verse, the progress of which has never been entirely pleasing to me. In Left Hook Bowering does a study of the color purple (as in “purple prose”) in and applied to Purdy. The study is “inconclusive,” concluding that Purdy’s “central” poem is The Wine-Maker’s Beat-Étude (a flambuoyant, fantastical tour de force) in that it will turn a reader either onto Purdy or off him, forever.
Postcolonialists have been turned off. A selection of Purdy’s poems The More Easily Kept Illusions (2006), edited by poet-professor Rob Budde, admits that it excludes many poems that are considered Purdy’s best because of racist and sexist elements. Two of these poems are “The Cariboo Horses” and “Song of the Impermanent Husband,” the omission of the first was certified by Davey who said that its representation of Aboriginal women is as extreme and lamentable as any in our literature.
In Some End, Purdy’s awkwardness, in hiding his “classical” personality, is said to be “Canadian.” His mind is represented not by his “obstreperous” poems but by his “discontinuous house,” his famous A-frame in Ameliasburgh, Ontario. Unlike the house, Purdy’s poems were always elegant in their self-depreciation, their mock-epic reduction of heroic, romantic concepts to comedy. Bowering says that Purdy had “a classical mind in a shambling elk’s body,” that he “tried to appear lecherous in a sheepskin coat / that weighed a ton,” and that he looked strange “the time he wore a borrowed suit to receive a big award on camera.” The poem ends with a Purdyesque disclaimer:
The grave in which my pen pal is laid lies
at the bottom of a country road saying his name.
It’s a dandy place to lean against the stone book
and read a bunch of poems, except in winter.
If Bowering’s appraisal of Purdy’s poetry is still inconclusive even as his affection for the man is rock solid, Some End’s introductory organ recital owes much to Purdy’s technique:
When they warmed up my brain I insisted on
a cooler room, more fans. I could have asked for
a swan, lift it from stream or book. I
could have asked for the woman with the splendid
thighs, someone who was used to living in poems.
Nurses wore sweaters in my icy room, making
their ways among the machines and white things,
flowers of imagination, symbolist verses
delivered by friends.
This comic leap-frogging from reality into myth and back to reality is pure Purdy.
Next comes Margaret Avison, in a poem called “The Weight”. Bowering always considered her a postmodernist poet, a language poet, an emissary from Toronto bringing the news that there was at least one non-Georgian poet back east. Bowering and Davey disagreed about this. In the earliest cataloguing of Canadian poets as modern or postmodern (From There to Here — the book in which the term “postmodern” was used for the first time in Canada), Davey said of Avison, The affinities of this poetry are with the patterned, modernist work of A.J.M. Smith and Jay MacPherson. Bowering at the same time, in the Autumn 1972 issue of Canadian Literature, connected her instead to John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins:
If the poem would lead your heart to God, it must evaporate on the trail to his language. That is impossible, but it is the ideal that the most serious poet must try to make real. Success must be foregone from the outset, but success would be the reward and source of pride.
The poem to Avison ends with an anecdote about Avison, Bowering and Irving Layton together at a poetry event:
In Windsor she sat on the stage with Irving Layton and me; Irving thought she was light and amusing and a plain woman.
Imagine, if she’d been of a different mind, she could have scimitared his neck with a poem.
I would have fallen to my peaceful knees and offered up a prayer for her Blakean soul high there above the tower of books.
The title alludes to the weight of books above Avison, who worked in the basement of the University of Toronto library. She carried that weight happily but was also above it. The anecdote is suggestive in strange ways. The word “scimitared” suggests Islam (if she’d been of a different mind) and Layton was a belligerent Zionist. Layton’s impression that she is light, amusing and plain seems to offend Bowering, though “light” could suggest Blakean soul and “amusing” could mean that she is witty, someone you would laugh with rather than at. Bowering’s “peaceful knees” seem to be at odds with the vision of Avison whacking Layton’s head off.
At any rate, Bowering in his last days is reaffirming his faith in a poet who has always been a saint to him. She is not a language poet, but her use of words is innovative; she is a premodern with postmodern features. And she is not a postmodernist thematically in the sense that she didn’t present herself as a victim with the exclusive right to speak for victims, but as a criminal (in the sense that Eve and Adam were criminals) finding her personal, private way to forgiveness.
Finally there’s an elegy to Jamie Reid, a Tish poet but unusual in that he became an adherent to the Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist — AKA the Maoist faction of the far left that thought Enver Hoxha and the People’s Republic of Albania was the epitome of political virtue in the world prior to 1989. At his end of the book, Stanley mentions in the poem “Love,” Renee phoned to tell me Jamie had died” This event is one in a number of occasions of love. Bowering says, “Jamie Rimbaud ran away from us and joined the insurgents in the Paris Commune and national television.” One of the reasons for his running away was that his friends at Tish were preparing for careers as English professors, which meant to him that they would be inactive politically. To Bowering, Reid is Rimbaud (emotional volatility) “minus the sacred;” he took issue politically with friends like Bowering but always forgave: He slammed our door when he left us for good from time to time. He is now Outside our galaxy’s skin and in mine.
In West Broadway, Stanley’s half of the book, Stanley, like Bowering, celebrates the sentence as we have seen but also goes on to elaborate on what it is “about.” He doesn’t want it to be about the vague abstract thoughts that pursue him up and down West Broadway, thoughts tinged with dread like the thought of death. These thoughts are the retinue of Time,
the louche old King,
attended by his wretched retinue
of Thoughts, Memories, Shame, Remorse,
Apprehension, Premonition, Worry, Anxiety
(& let’s not forget To-do Lists).
There are three major inter-related allegories in West Broadway: the one about Writing and Old Age that I’ve examined, one about Time and the Poet, and one about the Muse and the Poet. Time is a ranch owner, the poet a steer:
Time wears a big hat, Life is his rancho
And me he drives like a panting, running steer.
The range boss leans from his saddle and taps me with his taser:
“Get along, dogie! Head down, slave! Live, loser!”
Stanley’s Muse is described in “My Room,” which is after Baudelaire, and “Muse,” which is after Akhmatova. Sharon Thesen said in her interview with Daphne Marlatt, when I need help or inspiration to write I read, I don’t gaze at the sunset. Stanley seems similarly inclined; four of the poems in this book are after Akhmatova and one after Baudelaire. Akhmatova is quoted in the title (first) poem, which appeared earlier in After Desire (2013). In that book there are two “translated” poems. One is titled After Akhmatova, and dedicated to Sharon Thesen. “The Runaway Trolley Bus” is dedicated to Reid, and the original was written by Nikolai Gumilev, Akhmatova’s husband and executed by the Cheka in 1921.)
The muse as described by Akhmatova wears a veil and bears a flute: I say to her: ‘Did you dictate to Dante / pages of Hell?’ She answers, ‘It was I.’ She appears in Stanley’s room, against cascading white curtains, ensconced on a white divan. She is the Queen of my Dreams, in basic black (with pearls). She is like outer space, with stars; she surrounds him, in his room, with peace and mystery . . . eternity! The realm of eternal delight!
But she is at odds with the poet’s reality, or it’s at odds with her. Thesen describes this struggle in Stanley’s mind as the difficulty — in life and in poetry — of separating secularism from cosmology, and perception from presence. The peace of communion with the muse in Stanley’s room is disturbed. As with Coleridge in his cottage at Porlock, who has swallowed an “anodyne” (we know what that was) and drifted into the dream presented in “Kubla Khan,” reality (or Time) intrudes (though Coleridge doesn’t include the knock or his visitor in the poem itself but only in a preface). Stanley, like Scrooge, faces three ghosts:
THEN THERE’S A KNOCK AT THE DOOR!
A knock like a sock in the jaw.
A knock like a kick in the nuts.
The door opens. Three specters enter.
(1) An auditor from Revenue Canada — he wants to measure the floor area I’ve deducted for business purposes.
(2) The kid I bought a coffee last night at Blenz — he’s back to tell me the rest of the story of his life since he left Kelowna.
(3) The editor of Thrush (formerly Thrust) magazine: “I just happened to be in the ‘hood, can I pick up that poem — “My Room” — you promised me? Is it finished yet?
With these arrivals, the room becomes real again, turns into a dark place, dirty, stacked with books and manuscripts, reeking of smoke & coffee grounds, “the smell of one man alone.”
Old Age is afraid of leaving the scene. / Or, as Ed Dorn called it, the set. In some of these poems, Stanley appears in the set, drinking beer in pubs and listening to talk about bitumen, salmon and coal or, later, about tornadoes, potatoes, and philodendrons. In “To a Young Voter” he admits that, while he is in the set, his alter-ego Old Age intrudes, and he can’t take politics very seriously: I’m too preoccupied with my own mortality. / But I can go ‘meta’ — I can take your taking politics seriously. In fact, talking politics with the young makes him feel young:
I was talking to a guy who said
not enough people are
dying in Vancouver.
(I said, “I could help you out.”)
A lot of property needs to be
transferred. A million
people are coming (with skills),
we need them
to replenish the tax base. Pop.
density has to go
from 9 point something per acre
To 14 point something per acre.
At the pub I am 70 again.
Talking to the old is similarly invigorating; with Bowering it is focused on writing projects. “Letter to George Bowering” (in reply to ‘Letter to George Stanley’)” tells Bowering that he (Stanley) is in the middle / of an Akhmatova translation (imitation) / that I can’t get to stay put in 1944. Stanley also complains that my Paterson pastiche (the second one) / piles up its own delta as it trickles / haphazardly towards the precipice. The Paterson pastiche would be a poem about Vancouver (and / or Terrace) using William Carlos Williams’ motif of city = man. Vancouver: A Poem starts with Stanley describing how he is,
reading Paterson on the bus, back and forth . . . A man and a city
I am not a man & this is not my city.
Williams though as a guide. His universals as particulars, ideas in things. His rhythms. Every rhythmic, shaking (like a belly dancer) splashing (like the Falls) lines.
Stanley’s complaint to Bowering about his new poem is that his lines are not, evidently, flowing like the Passiac Falls, but are piling up behind sediment.
Bowering tells Stanley,
I’m stuck in a short novel about sexual
ownership and a small mountain with nobody
jumping from it. I don’t feel like a Greek hero . . . .
Bowering is probably referring to his work on the novel No One, that appeared a few months after this book, maybe a year after he wrote this poem. The Greek hero is Ulysses, who tells the Cyclops that his name is “No One,” a silly but useful ploy that furthers the plot when the Cyclops is asked by Poseidon who blinded him. The hero of Bowering’s novel, who is living out the story of Ulysses, is much like Bowering himself (a poet-painter-professor from the Okanagan valley where the small mountain in the story is). The narrator of No One claims to be trying to get home to his Penelope, but seems to be having too much fun having witty conversations and sex with women at various academic conferences and writer-in-residence gigs to get there.
Bogged in his novel, Bowering’s waiting for the muse to help out, and imagines her as the girl in Stanley’s letter to him. As Stanley has it,
this big girl comes running, legs pounding,
across Broadway and — what? —
plops a big kiss on me . . . .
We got married of course. Like so many others
I became president of UBC.
The girl represents the imagination, as described by Hume as the sublime,
‘delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary,
and running, without control, into the most distant
parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects
which custom has rendered too familiar to it.’
Bowering puts himself in Stanley’s poem, interprets the girl as a muse who is going to help him out: I’m just standing here / on a sidewalk in Kitsilano, waiting for a kiss, / expecting a muse in a tiny skirt . . . . He’d run up to her, but can’t: I’ve just learned how to use a treadmill. But in the next poem he speculates on running up to her in Stanley’s poetry:
I want to take a few clever steps, and
slip into my friend’s best poem . . . .
I’m not looking for the impossible,
I only itch to mean something to his happy readers,
those readers who admire his deft hand, his
It’s good to see Bowering taking those clever steps and slipping back onto the set. While his poetry never succumbed to postmodernism, it was never helped by it. Postmodernism provided a theoretical platform to claim that mediocre poetry was actually experimental. It encouraged Bowering to indulge in the sin of publishing recklessly or writing occasional poems of fashion (Craft Slices). It prolonged the compulsive fidgeting with form and style that Purdy noticed and hoped Bowering would grow out of.
Bowering at his best was always and mostly a sort of Wordsworth, a poet of childhood and the past. His most popular poems were elegies and odes, “Desert Elm” to the memory of his father, “Summer Solstice” about the passing of his daughter’s childhood, “Autobiology” about his own childhood, and “Kerrisdale Elegies” (Purdy’s favorite) about mortality and art. Also like Wordsworth, Bowering was fond of claiming for his poetry a theoretical foundation, in Wordsworth’s case in the latest associationist psychology and the idea of a “language of the common man.” It took his more theoretical friend, Coleridge, to disabuse the public of the fact that Wordsworth was original in either of these particular ways.
The set is in effect the literary “last resort” of liberal humanism with its thematic focus — its faith in rationality. As Bowering puts it in this book, echoing Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,”
We oldsters want
what the young have, time and beauty,
but what about all those books . . . ?
Knowing something should have
something to do with writing poems, at least.
I always denied that, and where did it get me.”
It got him nowhere, because, again, while he denied the importance of thinking to poetry, his poetry is inspired thought. A lot of other professor-poets took the deconstruction of rationality seriously. At the university, liberal humanism was and is subjected to show trial by the academic left and driven out of poetry in the name of, as Davey described it in Canadian Literary Power (1994), various causes arrayed under the umbrella of postmodernism: postcolonialism, gay rights, Canadian regionalism, feminism, aboriginal rights, south Asian culture, poststructuralist theory.
Poets on the set, like Stanley, interrogated liberal humanism reasonably and without applying a gun to the back of its head. As Thesen shows in her account of Stanley’s activities in Terrace, thinking about issues, trust in common sense and a respect for human commonality was essential to his teaching and writing. Stanley took the set with him to Terrace:
Few poets have written with such clarity about conditions that are now ubiquitous. The fallen in this pure war [of virtuality — Paul Virilio], such as the homeless young people on Vancouver’s Granville Mall, have failed the imperative to “compete, compute, consume,” neoliberalism’s marching orders as alliterated by Stanley. Traditional preoccupations of war poetry — death, youth, desire, elegy, tenderness — haunt these poems. “Terrace Landscapes” temporalizes geography by bringing the Gulf War into Terrace’s colonized past, its resource-extracted present further colonized by what Virilio calls “the globalization of affects.”
In this book, Bowering continues in his humanistic mode. “Bright” is an elegy to the sun which is said to be as old as poetry. “Generous is an old man’s confessedly grumpy speculations on winter, which is okay for the young as it was for Bowering when I was a small boy. Like a lot of old guys, Bowering idealizes his past:
I wore rough wool with melted snow down my neck,
you’d come inside and pull off all those layers, chickens
standing on snowdrifts, they didn’t mind, my favorite
pets till my family ate them. Life was simple then, it was
avalanches that killed kids, not guns, the U.S. president
thought people should be generous. It seemed
normal to shovel someone’s sidewalk, stones inside
snowballs were just a rumour, but I still don’t care.
“Yes, Chicken” carries on with those childhood memories, of chickens and how they seemed smarter than humans. “Olde Valley Guy’s Plaint” is a speculation on the different perspectives of youth (the gods) and old age (mortality). Bowering also spends some time on those causes that Stanley hears the young going on about in the pub:
Social without socialism is just a friendly dance
Or being polite or something like bees . . . .
Justice without socialism, it’s for sale
All men and women, some
Paper said are created equal; after that you’re
On your own — where’s the justice in that? Bees
Don’t live long but they’re always around until
Some operators without socialism kill them while
Making money instead of honey. There’s a word
for that, and it ain’t either of the two above.
“Social justice” is, presently, a buzz-phrase in sociology and social work, a phrase that has resulted from postcolonialist deconstruction of “the system” and the replacement of rule of law by rule of conscience (called in the trade “autoethnography”). Bowering wants socialism refining and backing up conscience.
Brian Fawcett’s Local Matters: A Defense of Dooney’s Café and Other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas (2003) has an article, “How I Got a New American Education.” This article describes the set, by way of describing the SFU scene that existed adjacent to and overlapping the Vancouver pub, café, library scene in the early seventies. Fawcett describes that scene as tolerant, but tolerance practiced at a level of skill and depth not approached before or since in human history. The postmodernist backlash to tolerance hadn’t happened yet: there was less hate then, particularly amongst liberal-minded people, which is what scholars and poets and students ought to be. The backlash happened because tolerance, too easily disintegrates into moral cowardice, indifference and silence, and the backlash it has precipitated amongst younger intellectuals is worrisome because it has undermined their respect for thought itself.
Humanism always needed to be scrutinized; it tended to put the needs of the individual above those of the group, depending on science and the mechanisms of democracy to right the balance. However, as Fawcett says, a badly thought-out turning against it by environmentalists and anti-racists has been the clandestine fuel for a bizarre outbreak of species-wide self-loathing in the twenty-five years leading up to the millennium.
Persky describes the aura of the set as, cosmopolitan intelligence: it is intelligence that pays attention to the specificity of the local, while valuing and measuring that specificity in the context of larger entities in time and space, namely, history and the world. Cosmopolitan intelligence, like all thinking, has ideological commitments, but it is demarcated from fundamentalisms and totalitarianisms in that it . . . tests its beliefs through actual experiences.
Cosmological intelligence is poetic intelligence, and its workings and insights are magnificently illustrated in this book.