Poetry

Booklength Poems

my darling nellie gray

My Darling Nellie Grey, Vancouver, Talonbooks, 2010.

buy-nowMy Darling Nellie Grey is a tiny sliver of George Bowering’s entire body of work. If I were to stack hisoeuvre in one spot, it’d probably be as tall as I am. Even the idea of a complete works of George Bowering makes my brain hurt. I have spent today writing a thousand words about eight lines of his and I know I haven’t really even begun to unpack them. But if you want to know how to live a life through writing, if you want to learn how to really play, to discover what is most interesting to you, take my advice and read him! Read him! Read him!”—Elizabeth Bachinsky

“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.”—Ian Rae, Canadian Literature

 


his life: a poemHis Life: a poem, Toronto, ECW Press, 2000.

buy-nowPersonal, confidential, compelling … Powerful, exquisite, and intricately crafted, His Life: A Poem, George Bowering’s stunning new poetic memoir spans and reconfigures thirty years of this award-winning writer’s life. A thoroughly unique project, vintage Bowering, His Life began to take shape in the early eighties. Bowering explains that at that time a young Sicilian in Toronto presented him with a fine Italian writing book with lines and rounded corners. He put the gift away, saving it until it was needed for a poem. The time came a few years later. In the late eighties Bowering began rifling his diaries for what he had recorded on the equinoxes and solstices between the years 1958 and 1988. Whatever he’d recorded on those days became the building blocks for the poems in this collection. Ultimately, His Life took shape organically, not chronologically. From the gathered raw material Bowering may have written, for example, Fall 1979 before Spring 1962. This means the project stands naked, honest, and unprotected; in his words, "the vapidity of a date’s entry," as much as its fascinating detail, could alter a poem’s course. Tough luck. Ten years after beginning the project, more than forty years after first recording information about the people, places, and events upon which the poems are based, His Life has taken on a "life" of its own, bent and reshaped by experience, time, and revision. Now, Bowering admits, there were times when he wondered whether there really was method to his madness, whether this was any way to write a poem. Imagine, he says, a page a month. Three years a year. Would he do it again? Never.

His Life is a memoir that questions the genre itself, demonstrating the facile, trivial quality of mere biographical data when compared with the rich, complex, and contradictory qualities of a life. The reliance on decades-old journal entries as his primary source material allows Bowering to avoid the temptation to reconstruct or interpret his own life, or to present events with the benefit of hindsight (as is the norm in most biographical writing). Rather than pat narrative resolutions, the reader is presented with thematic and biographical motifs, among them hockey and baseball, Bowering’s relationship with his daughter and his childhood hometown, his writing, and the writing of his peers. These issues recur and mutate over time, yet, as in life, remain tantalizingly unresolved. Bowering is to be credited for this achievement, for his bravery and his skill.”—Robert Wiersema, Quill & Quire

Easily Bowering's strongest book of poetry since Delayed Mercy and Other Poems . . . this is sincere and classic Bowering, illuminating new corners of phrase and personal / writing history, and expanding others, of home and life and love and ordinary events, beyond all the familiar and the unfamiliar tricks.” —The Globe and Mail

It is perhaps too cheeky to beg someone to stop writing poems, particularly when they’re one of our most celebrated writers, but I’d like to extend such a plea to Vancouver’s George Bowering. His Life, a verse autobiography of Bowering’s days from 1958 to 1988, is an example of what can happen when a poet with superannuated poetic gifts tries to live beyond his imagination…Bowering’s poems are notebookish, intellectually inert and ashen-phrased.”—Carmine Starnino, Montreal Gazette

An interesting dismantling of the autobiographical mode.”—Gary Geddes, BC Bookworld

These lyrics are tough, intricate things, full of bright surprises. They have something of the diamond-toughness and diamond-surprise of John Thompson’s ghazal poems.”—George Elliott Clarke, The Chronicle-Herald

 


kerrisdale elegies Kerrisdale Elegies, Toronto, Coach House, 1984. Vancouver, Pooka Press, 2008. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 2008.

Elegie di Kerrisdale, Rome, Edizioni Empiria. Transl. Annalisa Goldoni. 1996.

buy-nowKerrisdale Elegies is a series of meditations on the strangeness of coming into the world, the loveliness of the world, and the sadness of leaving it. Set among the tree-lined streets of one of Vancouver's most gracious residential areas, it is Bowering's song of resolute middle age.

kerrisdale elegies"The autobiographical and the cosmic meet in these elegies. Bowering, the poet as world-maker, here becomes the poet as world-retriever. He reaches out from solitude to memory. He speaks to the presence of Rilke. We read in pain and awe and gratitude."—Robert Kroetsch

The scope of Kerrisdale Elegies, essentially one long poem broken into 10 parts is breathtaking, and its accomplishment matches its ambition.”—George Galt, Books in Canada

One of the major works of our literature.”—Shirley Neuman, Journal of Canadian Poetry

 


ear reach

Ear Reach, Vancouver, Alcuin, 1982.

Printed by Peter Quartermain at Slug Press for The Alcuin Society. The poem is the shortened version of Irritable Reaching.

 

 

 

 


allophanesAllophanes, Toronto, Coach House, 1976.

George Bowering's Allophanes is a poem in which "books speak of books." They speak "among themselves" as Bowering piles allusions upon puns upon parody upon numerous other tricks with words. The poem has no "theme" or narrative line. Like an illustration, its composition is its message. It does not contain a message: it is one….("Have a seat on my language, / & here we go." [p. 209]) lay bare the purpose of Bowering's poem and his view of what poetry is. It also sounds pretty scant — which explains the game playing — the spot the allusion hidden in the pun and the gratuitous Hermetic references. Stated baldly, the idea of poetry which Bowering espouses is not very gripping. But, recast as an illustration, done to us (as it were), it is another matter. The flow of the words, the rush of the images, the sensation that the great books are speaking to, and through, us makes us realize that "we are engaged. / Language rings us" (p. 242). The moment of discovery is an exciting one.”—Don Precosky, Canadian Poetry

 


at war with the usAt War With the U.S., Vancouver, Talon, 1974.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bowering’s best work, and have been amazed to find how, in the last few years, I seem to be in a minority of one on that issue. Indeed, it seems to me that precious few poets and readers are able to open to his poems at all nowadays, or to read them with any kind of objectivity. There are reasons for this, I am told, all of them personal and subjective, none of them valid in so far as the poetry is concerned, and all pointing to a high degree of literary back-stabbing, so prevelant in Canada today, so present and vicious, incestuous and insular…

This is one man’s justified exorcising of his ‘petty hate’, a psychotherapeutic poetry of the North American present. It’s a good piece, with ‘Letter to Richard Nixon’ up to Bowering’s best, and the future lies ahead.”—Doug Beardsley

At War With The U.S. is a poem of moral rage at the violent calculus of the Vietnam war and the authoritarian nature of the Nixon government. It describes itself as a gathering in of the "Cinders of a poem" (WW, p. 75) but it is ultimately a coherent gathering. And despite the fact that the speaker states that "I am no maker / what is left is ashes / of whatever fire, what ever / was consumed" (WW, p. 75), this is not a familiar, plaintive request that the reader consent to authorial aridity again, but it is rather the poet's recognition that the power of American imperialism — copresent with its habitual paranoia about all other nations — engendered a war, the horror of which ultimately silences the humanist voice, renders the poet aware of the weakness of his authority and the authority of art. In this context, the admission of artistic defeat is paradoxically effective: it effectively captures the dramatic sense of helplessness felt by protestors and poets alike during the Vietnam era. The poem's confusion is part of its coherence as a deeply felt public/private statement: it is a poem which has something to say.”—Terry Whalen, Canadian Poetry

 


curiousCurious, Toronto, Coach House, 1973.

Bowering, aside from being a talented poet, is also a deeply curious man, as much interested in the human comedy as he is in what makes a good line or even a good poem. His poems in Curious are intensely interesting little structures built on the personalities and the work of his contemporaries.”—Robert Fulford, Toronto Star

Compared to the thoughtful developmental poems of In the Flesh, Curious is a limited personal indulgence.”—Quill & Quire

 


AutobiologyAutobiology, Vancouver, New Star, 1972. Vancouver, Pooka, 2006.

Autobiology is a complete change around in my writing methodology, an important one that is still producing a direction I find most important to me as I had experienced, from 1966 till 1972 a kind of rootlessness, a knowledge that I had made myself proficient in the lyrics I’d written till then, but that there was no impelling need to go on there, no invention.”

 

 


GeneveGeneve, Toronto, Coach House, 1971.

A prophetic book for me was George Bowering's Geneve, published at Coach House, summer of '71. Based on the Tarot, the cover unfolded into a poster displaying the photographed cards fanned out in order.

In his seminal work on photography, Camera Lucida (1981), Roland Barthes described the photograph as a madness, a stopping of time - a domestication of it, into images. A few artists might remake those images into the madness of which they come, while poet Bowering remade them by a form of collaboration. He turned the cards themselves into real-time photos in which the author is also there, his hand at the margin outside the picture, at one point handling a hockey stick.

GeneveBowering revealed the dominance of marginal cultures within the mainstream by merging Tarot with hockey, and turning it - and by extension, all popular culture - into our universal myth of life and death. 'I ask for no more/than two minutes/for one chance to score/a power play goal...then fall forever to the ice.' This performance of Bowering's was so prima-donnaish that it made the madness of stopping time - the photo-like cards - poignant.

Poignancy was the closest thing to innocence we had left. While the influence of Geneve in Canada extended to Frank Davey's Arcana (1973) and others, I had gone in search of poignancy to New York, where some poets were already deep into performance. In fact, a week after I arrived, I attended a John Coltrane concert on Second Avenue that included a reading by the equally-speeding Ted Berrigan in striped pants and purple glasses.

Can this be true? Is memory to be trusted? Probably it was two separate events at the Fillmore, but they might as well have been the same because I found Ted in collaboration with any other art in which performance could be elaborately critiqued. Both Coltrane and Berrigan critiqued the limitations of performance - of the socially-constructed self - by blurring past that self, lightning-fast. But first - and suggesting a collaboration between life and art - Frank O'Hara had raised poetry to a new level of reaching out. And this poignant longing for camaraderie (no matter if living or dead) could only be represented by the trope of collaboration. The observing artist behind the performing one rendered the scene of writing itself poignant for being so desperately lost.”—David Rosenberg, CH Archives

 


george, vancouverGeorge,Vancouver, Kitchener, Weed/Flower, 1970.

"It makes an attractive cover because it shows how Vancouver worked, how they moved around and dropped the fathom lines up Cook’s Inlet, which is in Alaska.”

“As "a discovery poem," as its subtitle calls it, George, Vancouver is Bowering’s first extended play with the terms "exploration" and "discovery," and it is Bowering’s first long, or at least book-length, poem: 590 lines of poetry over thirty-five pages. In these lines, it spans two centuries from the Madness of King George the III to the idiosyncrasies of George Bowering. Often critics, including Bowering himself, seem to see George, Vancouver as a blueprint for the better-known Burning Water and not much more. To me, however, it cements the differences between Bowering’s B.C. And Reaney’s region. History and geography here do not provide the comfort of a shared understanding but the space for a mobile subjectivity Bowering continually creates through his poetry that goes by the singular pronoun ‘I,’ which refers to multiple individuals.”—Michelle Hartley, Canadian Literature

Poetry Collections