Letters to the World

The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader BY bpNichol. edited by Lori Emerson, Darren Wershler-Henry. Coach House Press. Paperback, 250 pages. $18.

The cover of The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader

Who was the first blog poet? Wrong answer, whatever it was. The best candidate is bpNichol, a Canadian who died in 1988 (at age forty-three), before the blogosphere arrived. Reading Nichol now is unbelievably poignant. It’s at once a time capsule and an intimation of the end of days. Nichol’s work radiates an innocence on the far side of life, an innocence unrivaled since Adam (yes, that Adam). But it’s augmented by an acute sense of situation—historical, geographic, and psychological (Nichol worked for many years as a lay therapist). The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader is infused with everything that was abandoned not only by poetry but by the culture at large in the fin de siècle decades: sentiment, accessibility, generosity, and an unembarrassed taste for—for what? the corny? I’m not sure what word applies in the case of an imagination that could come up with such exquisitely simple concrete poems as “groww” and “em ty.”

Allen Ginsberg’s dictum “first thought, best thought” played havoc with aspiring poets of Nichol’s generation, for whom “process” was a rallying cry and an invitation to indulgence. In one of his cartoons, Nichol depicts a gravestone’s RIP and this clarifying caption: remains in process. “I wanted a writing . . . that would not pretend to an omniscience or to an authority that it didn’t have,” he recalled in a 1987 interview with Clint Burnham, reflecting back on his career, “a writing which partakes of the human condition in the sense that we’re all vulnerable, we could die at any moment.” Committed as he was to a process-oriented poetics (his long poem The Martyrology is a verse journal), Nichol nevertheless understood the sculptural demands of “immediacy.” Amid even the most casual dictations, he manages to indicate, in an aside, that the words you’re reading have been revised—or might be:

this next bit doesn’t quite cohere

already past tense

or converted to a noun

when it’s the bite of consciousness eludes you

Studied simplicity was an art of the ’60s—think of Belmondo and McQueen—and Nichol, born in 1944, shares much with that generation muscled into consciousness in the grim postwar decade, only to have the world blossom before them like a Shangri-la accessible only to those under thirty. But even to put it this way is misleading, for Nichol’s ecumenical outlook and transgenerational charity made him unique among his peers. He was a community builder, and his commune was the page, open to all. True to his nature, that page harbored no prejudice concerning medium—poem and cartoon were equally welcome, as were prose and poetry (and, in poetry, long and short). His engagements were far too extensive to be contained in a book: He was also a member of a world-famous sound-poetry group, the Four Horsemen (Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, and Steve McCaffery were the other members), and collaborator with numerous artists and composers, including R. Murray Schafer, whose essay “Theatre of Confluence” could apply to Nichol’s outlook in general.

bpNichol at Coach House Books, Toronto, ca. 1970.
bpNichol at Coach House Books, Toronto, ca. 1970.

The twentieth-century long poem is a special province of Americans. Between them, Pound, Williams, Olson, and Zukofsky slapped down thousands of pages in The Cantos, Paterson, The Maximus Poems, and “A”. But with characteristically Canadian unpretentiousness, Nichol blew them all away with his Martyrology, nine volumes of which he completed before his untimely death. Unlike the big American guns, Martyrology does not make martyrs of its readers: Absorbing what the poet dubbed its “mirthology” is not a chore. If anything, it’s a pun expanded to improbable dimensions. Nichol’s martyrs are alphabetic runes derived from the simple fact that the appellation for saint is abbreviated as St., two letters commonly found beginning English words: street, state, stutter, and a legion of others. “In a curious way,” he once said, “the saints were language, or were my encounter with language.”

The seventy-seven pages excerpted in The Alphabet Game hardly scratch the surface, but it’s an intelligent selection. In fact, the editorial sagacity evident throughout makes this a splendid primer. The urge to present all the facets of Nichol’s work could easily have resulted in a jumble, but the lucidity of the result attests to the studious reverence editors Darren Wershler-Henry and Lori Emerson brought to their task. Several pages in the afterword meticulously catalogue the typographic and design decisions that arose in the case of a poet whose many media rarely allowed a simple transfer from manuscript or typescript to print. Significant portions of this volume, in fact, present concrete poems and typewriter compositions that mandated facsimile reproduction. The varieties of concretism on display here are commendable, if not all equally compelling (fourteen pages of boldfaced headlines from the New York Daily News are visually aggressive, but that’s about all). The sheer breadth of materials in The Alphabet Game vividly engages Nichol’s credo, auspiciously published when he was only twenty-two: “The other is emerging as the necessary prerequisite for dialogues with the self that clarify the soul & heart and deepen the ability to love. I place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as are possible.” The Alphabet Game abounds with exits and entrances, its three-hundred-plus pages accommodating a healthy portion of concrete and visual poetry (about eighty pages), a few short “novels” (very short), and excerpts from a dozen of the fifty poetry titles listed in the book’s admittedly abbreviated bibliography.

Nichol was drawn to letters in the full sense of the word: components of an alphabet (his aleph habit), but also as the older term was displaced by our modern word literature. He was truly a man of letters, a human tuning fork set humming by noticing laughter inside slaughter or by introducing spaces into a single word to make a sentence: “arch a is m.” He proposes “to rid me of / the ugh in / thought / i spell anew / weave the world / out of the or / binary”—where Nichol subtly turns the letter d on its axis so it becomes the b in binary, but the line break guides the eye to the presence of the word ordinary lurking beneath “or / binary.” In a concrete poem reproduced in Nichol’s lettering, the title is the setup—“Self-contradiction”:

Nichol’s fondness for the visual doodle gives him a considerable leg up on other poets. For one thing, it affords an outlet, a decompression chamber, in which reading gives way to viewing, and the view is every bit as persuasive as Lucy and Linus in Peanuts, where the rudiments of drawing leapfrog over every mimetic stricture as Charles Schulz’s elementary lines congeal into personalities. (Indefatigably productive, Nichol authored children’s books and even contributed to Fraggle Rock, produced by Jim Henson.) Many of Nichol’s cartoons involve the alphabet (the title for this collection was inescapable), subsisting in some archaic space or pan-semiotic horizon where writing and art have not yet separated. Above all, Nichol’s doodles manifest a curiosity that spreads infectiously to all the other creations, written and drawn, with which this collection abounds. “Allegory #30” characteristically finds a world in a single letter—the proverbial world in a grain of sand glimpsed by the cartoon voyeur with all the excitement of Keats’s Cortez staring, his men too, with “wild surmise” at the Pacific Ocean.

The Alphabet Game is published by the most esteemed literary house in Canada, Coach House Books, which is located on Toronto’s bpNichol Lane, in homage to one of its guiding spirits—an address preserving the alphabetic specificity Nichol himself always used in preference to the cumbersome, and capitalized, Barrie Phillip. The peculiarities of literary nationalism being what they are, Nichol remains unknown in the United States, despite having won the most prestigious Canadian literary prize, the Governor General’s Award, way back in 1970. But poetry doesn’t cross borders as readily as its commercial cousins. Nichol’s friend Michael Ondaatje crossed long ago with his novels. In any case, the magisterially generous and inviting imagination of bpNichol is one that American readers and writers would really benefit from getting to know. It effortlessly dispels the noxious vapors of canonical imperialism, special pleading, cult esoterica, and personality mongering. Conventions of appraisal would have me commend Nichol as a major poet (and he is), but his work exudes such preternatural curiosity, such human warmth, and such conviviality that it amounts to a tacit reproach to the whole jargon of appraisal. “God my life ends / years before this poem possibly can,” Nichol wrote in The Martyrology. Sadly, prematurely, true, but we’re fortunate in the other truth bestowed: Of poems such as these, there can be no end.

Jed Rasula is the Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Georgia.