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Gil McElroy

From St. Art: The Visual Poetry of bpNichol (Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum, Canada, 2000)

bpNichol's audio works on UbuWeb Sound Poetry

In the beginning there is the cosmological ground state. The vacuum. Absence. Recent theorizing about the origins of the universe has included a concept called "the decay of the false vacuum." The vacuum of empty space – the ground state – is not the void we cartoonishly perceive it as being. It is, rather, a turbulent sea of sub-atomic particles spontaneously popping into existence and then being quickly re-absorbed into the background nothingness. They are virtual particles, not quite real. From a nothing comes a sort of something, but as not to violate any physical laws and so maintain the cosmic status quo, these somethings are fleeting in existence, living an infinitesimally slight life span before re-assimilation into the ground state.

But add a little energy into the scheme of things to give a virtual particle a push and it can cross the line and become materially real. From nothingness can indeed come a palpable something and a universe be born.

I invoke the cosmological concepts of the ground state and the decay of the vacuum as a metaphor for the creative process, particularly as it occurred in the work of the late Canadian poet Barrie Philip (bp) Nichol. Born in 1944 in Vancouver, Nichol was a poet, novelist, and essayist who won the Governor General's award for poetry in 1971. He was an internationally renowned sound poet who performed with the ensemble The Four Horsemen (which included fellow poets Rafael Baretto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, and Steve McCaffery). He wrote children's books, and scripts for children's television shows like FraggleRock and The Raccoons. He was a librettist. And he was an artist who undertook a career-long exploration into the visual possibilities of the material stuff of language until his untimely death in 1988 at the age of forty-four. St. Art: The Visual Poetry of bpNichol constitutes a contextual enquiry into aspects of Nichol's range of visual poetries, from typewriter-based works of the 1960s, to comic-book inspired drawings and sequences, to his reinventions of the alphabet and work with his favorite letter, "H". Nichol's lifetime body of work can be less metaphorically likened to the branches of a tree sprouting from a single trunk, or even a Deuleuzian rhizome tunneling invisibly below the surface to appear in unexpected places. Rather, it can be seen more a part of an ongoing return to and encounter with the creative ground state and the charged space of the working surface.

For so universes are born.



Within the realm of the literary arts, visual poetry, a poetic form with a history that arguably stretches back to at least 1700 B.C.E.1, truly came of age early in the century with the work of the French poet (and first major theoretician of Cubism) Guillaume Apollinaire, his Dadaist contemporary, Tristan Tzara, and the Italian Futurist, F.T. Marinetti. In the 1950s, the Concrete poetry movement achieved international status and some degree of recognition by an avant-garde movement within the visual arts community. Mid-century too, the work of artists like Jasper Johns admitted language into the painterly canon, and carrying on into a new millennium, the likes of Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer (amongst numerous others) use text exclusively as a means of visual and conceptual expression.

But despite contemporary assertions that "visual poetry is one of the hallmarks of our age, like jazz and abstract art,"2 it has been largely ignored by the mainstreams of both the literary and visual arts. Visual poetry, it seems, would be claimed by neither camp, regarded as little more than the bastard child of a brief and embarrassingly unfortunate trans-disciplinary fling. And though Weiner's semantically conceptual language pieces, Holzer's work with electronic LED signage, and even Canadian painter Gerald Ferguson's typewriter composition The Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage, arranged by word length and alphabetized within word length (1970)3 all exemplify the interest in and exploration of language carried out by visual artists, visual poetry – "poetry meant to be seen"4 – created by literary artists is ignored or dismissed as irrelevant by visual artists.

It wasn't always so. In the heady days of Canadian culture – the late sixties and early seventies – the mainstream of visual art in Canada made some attempt to embrace the visual things that writers were doing. Both artscanada and vie des arts magazines, for example, extended their cultural catchment areas to include visual poetry, publishing examples of the work as well as the theory behind it.5 The work of bpNichol figured prominently in this period, but as the century and millennium drew to a close, this window of cross-disciplinary opportunity narrowed. Visual poetry would become ghettoized as a sub-culture within the literary world.

Print has dominated Western culture since Gutenberg, and while its authority is disintegrating synchronously with the rise of an image-based paradigm driven by the computerization of society, its sway within intellectual and academic spheres remains as yet unchallenged. "I have serious trouble," argues Barbara Maria Stafford in Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, "with the deprecating rhetoric that stakes out bookish literacy as a moral high ground from which to denounce our tainted ‘society of the spectacle’."6 In a print-dominated world, images have long been culturally and socially tainted; the internet today, for example, is nothing if not marked by its plethora of web sites exclusively devoted to erotic or pornographic imagery.

Nichol's visual work, then, has become bound up within a literary economy, and so has virtually no presence within the visual arts scene today, despite his production of a variety of visual poetries over a period roughly spanning twenty-five years, and both solo showings of his work and inclusion within larger international exhibitions. Though he initially established himself early on as Canada's most internationally renowned Concrete poet when the movement was a truly global phenomenon, Nichol's reputation – both national and international – now rests almost exclusively on his literary achievements, and particularly his major work, a long poem entitled The Martyrology.

Even here, though, in this literary landscape, Nichol's visual sensibility is well rooted, for he constantly explored the dualism of language as both container and content. Through the course of the sequen