On the Soul of the Nichol Tapes
In a brief bio for the Guggenheim Foundation website, I included the following paragraph:
"My family's escape before the Holocaust (the half that made it) shaped my desire to both measure civilization's shadow and to somehow escape the grandiosity in doing so (as my father did, establishing the short-lived American Popcorn Company—in Detroit, where I was born). In my twenties, when I taught contemporary poetry at Toronto's York University, I once brought bags of popcorn and flashlights for a darkened classroom, to help refocus the solemnity of reading. The texts that day were by Sylvia Plath and bpNichol."
At that time in Toronto, fall of 1968, I was thinking of them in contrast: Sylvia writing out of pain, bp writing beyond it, transcendent in the sprightly irony of fresh language exploration. Now, however, I see them in parallel--and every bit the equals--partly thanks to the striking new biography by Frank Davey, aka bpNichol, and partly due to the suddenly revealed nine hours of bpNichol reading from his lifelong epic, The Martyrology, recorded in 1983 and lying in a closet until posted online last month, on bpnichol.ca, thanks to Fred Wah and Lori Emerson. In that reading event and the Nichol biography, the underlying passion and agony that fuels a "balance of urgency and emotion" in The Martyrology raises sublime new questions that affect the history of contemporary poetics even more than Plath's oeuvre. I say "sublime" because the answers are not obvious and are wonderfully complicated.
In a NYTimes article also last month, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Plath's suicide, contemporary women poets reflect on "their new approaches" to Plath:
'Tracy K. Smith, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for her poetry
collection “Life on Mars,” said she feels indebted to Plath for the
“framework of her poetry,” her balance of “extreme urgency of
emotion with lyric precision and forms.”'
What that urgency is, precisely, is not elucidated. When Gwynneth Paltrow is reading from Ariel in the Plath biopic of a few years ago, it seems only to be suicidal, or the struggle to keep from it. But hearing that desperate urgency in Nichol reading in 1983, and although the first instinct is to connect it to a similar pain reflected from Plath, several other instincts kick in: the second would be that it sounds less like a struggle with death and more like a struggle to being born. Or, constantly reborn, when we realize that the voice in which Nichol is reading is not his "natural" one--the calmer one in which he delivers some intros and asides--but rather that of his poet-narrator, "bpNichol," who lives entirely in the present and is searching for a "life-long" way to keep going, "breathing" into a future long after Barrie Phillip Nichol has passed away.
The New York Times described contemporary poets like Smith as:
"...part of a new generation of women who are able to appreciate
Plath not for her tragedy, but for her talent."
I'd say the opposite is beginning to occur in the reevaluation of bpNichol's poetic legacy: he's beginning to be appreciated not just for his undeniable talent but for his tragedy. Until now, the tragedy seemed to be not of Nichol's making, a tragic early death from misdiagnosed spinal cancer. Now it can be seen in his major work in particular, The Martyrology, as a tragedy of his own making as well; that is, of his lyrical and experimental talent applied to the creation of a poet-narrator, bp, who struggles to overcome youthful despair (in a long psychoanalysis with Lea Hindley-Smith, whom he acknowledges several times in the poem) by existing in a transcendent present. There, each new line equals each new breath, and it is where the original writer, Barrie Nichol, keeps watch over his character's shoulder, guiding him now and then to consider history in an exhilaratingly broad scope. History personal and civilizational, from human pre-history, through the origins of civilization at Mohenjo-daro and Sumer, and on up to our cultural moment in which myth, history, and religion have been devalued for the sake of a shaky realism founded on ambivalence plus the scientific theories of relativity, quantum chance, linguistics, and even a weirdly impassioned resistance to psychoanalysis.
What the new recording of The Martyrology reveals, however, is a Nichol anything but ambivalent--precisely because the narrating poetic creation, "bpNichol" and his "i's", writes as if he is both analysand and analyst, listening to himself seemingly free associate, and finding therein a wealth of pun and fresh interpretation that slowly evolves into a representation of responsible maturity--or what he has been exploring from the beginning in Book One as "fatherhood." Toward the end of The Martyrology, as Nichol left it when he passed--specifically in the posthumous Books 7&--Barrie's increasing physical pain unites with bp's increasing acceptance of the present moment's limits, especially in the irony of the "Assumptions" sequence. It would be neat to prove this by referring to the changing tone in which Nichol reads at the end, but alas, I'm not aware of any recordings of Nichol reading from the posthumous books.
PREFACE TO THE REVELATION OF THE NICHOL TAPES
A sudden shock comes from the newly released tapes of bpNichol reading nine hours of The Martyrology in 1983. Unexpectedly, we're exposed to a modulated depth of desperation and agony revealed by his mature voice hovering on the edge of anger. The immediate question is, why? Why the urgency, and at what or whom is the anger directed?
These are questions that have been largely avoided. For instance, the promo copy for Nichol's A Book of Variations, a just-published volume from Coach House Books, leads off:
"The range of bpNichol's output is unparalleled, the reach of his
curiosity, wit and inventiveness, immeasurable. Concrete poetry,
novels, comics, sound poetry and even a television show, Fraggle
Rock – it's his eclecticism and love of 'borderblur' that make bp so
Unfortunately, this pop image of Nichol remains one in which his "real life" is as a charming, restless, artistic pack rat; "eclectic" is the preferred term to explain his depth; and blurring of borders has long become a commonplace in art and literature. But even if this were the story--and I'd aver it barely scratches the surface--who is asking where this ostensibly obsessive drive comes from? The answer hiding behind bpNichol, although bp is transparent, is Barrie Nichol himself. And yet his lifelong self-analysis, his psychotherapy with Lea Hindley-Smith, and his decades of psychotherapy practice as a lay analyst have rarely been mentioned by anyone, even though Nichol addresses it at many levels in The Martyrology.
Frank Davey's aka bpNichol may be the first serious engagement with it, allowing us to probe a truer depth of Nichol's unprecedented life-long epic poem. Yet now we have these new tapes, thanks to Fred Wah digging them out from a closet in which they sat all these years and now available to us on the bpNichol.ca website. And they are shocking: how are we to address the urgent, desperate tone in which Nichol reads? Although many poets have read this way, from Ezra Pound to Charles Bernstein, and although both Pound and Bernstein could also be described as "eclectic" in their range of interests and sources, neither has hidden or blurred his "dark side." And neither has Barrie Nichol; it is, rather, a coterie of friends and colleagues, perhaps, who have conspired to present him as a comic master of all things, while conveniently overlooking the autobiography that threads through the work, as if pulling together a master Persian carpet.
So let me broach the question that both Davey's biography and The Nichol Tapes beg: From whence comes this powerful, mature (and somewhat unCanadian) anger in which Nichol reads?
I don't intend to stop considering the answer after just one hearing of the Tapes. I don't see how anyone can. I would hope that everyone reading these few paragraphs listen for themselves, especially those who have loved A Book of Variations, which Charles Bernstein calls..."bpNichol at his young, whimsical, charming, sweet, magical, formally inventive, childlike, zany, fecund, h-h-h-heavenly best." So there it is again, sweet childlike bpNichol(!) Why is it that even Bernstein, wonderfully dark enough himself, might wish to avoid the complexity presented by the Barrie Nichol who stands behind the "charming" bp? I suspect The Nichol Tapes will shake Bernstein, as will Davey's biography.
“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” --Pascal, “Pensées”
Religion fills these empty spaces with what I've described in recent works as "cosmic theater," and Barrie Nichol in The Martyrology filled them with a "Cloudtown," a whole civilization of cosmic individuals he called saints. There must have been a great deal of terrifying anxiety in young Barrie, since he fantasized speaking with these saints and, later, documenting their history. Of course by that time, when he had begun The Martyrology, he was able to relive his childhood experience in the safe distance of his psychoanalytic therapy with Lea Hindley-Smith, the director of Therafields.
Here is another reason, however, for the bpNichol who is the poet-character doing the reading on the Nichol Tapes, to read as if tremendously anxious about the "infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing." In later books of The Martyrology he tries to imagine a future reader thousands of years hence, and it causes him to reflect backwards thousands of years to Dilmun, that earliest pre-Sumerian civilization from the Indus Valley. As he reads these passages aloud, it sounds like almost a desperate search to connect our present moment with a mythology that can take the edge off Pascal's terrifying unknown--or what we today should not be afraid to term "unknowable," even though one rarely hears it addressed that way.
Olson and Duncan may have addressed it, but not with the intrepid fearlessness of Nichol. No, their music--and you can hear it also in their recordings--is delivered almost jauntily, though it remains vatic. It's the same voice that Creeley reads in; while it contains a great sense of urgency and self-conscious breath, it does not carry the sense of worldly anxiety that Barrie Nichol's lines do. Olson and Duncan almost seem to be enjoying themselves as they read what they wrote; however, a first-time reader of The Martyrology should be shocked to realize how Nichol was not exactly having a high time cracking wise linguistically and visually. Perhaps said reader was familiar with Nichol's sound and visual poetry, so that it would be natural for them to assume Nichol would be joyful. And no doubt he could be, though what one hears on The Nichol Tapes is the tragically innocent voice of "bpNichol," the poet-character embedded in The Martyrology.
Far from suggesting any diminutive quality to Nichol's work in his construction of this "life-long" character in a life-long poem, I can't think of it as anything but a major advance on the work of Olson and Duncan, or even O'Hara, whose projections of their own characters are obscured by their relatively self-confident, searching (even self-satisfied) poetics. Thus Maximus may take on a shimmering 4-dimensional "body" (thanks to Mike Boughn for the reminder) while the actual and physical Olson we count on for his scratchings on paper only barely comes vivid in three dimensions. Surprisingly little of Olson's childhood and youth is thought through for us, while the adult seems unable to get a good read on the element of tragicomedy he is living, and unwilling to deeply analyze it (as opposed to much else in the human universe he does confront tellingly). We can easily say the same for Duncan and O'Hara, both of whom seem to have been born fully-formed as adults. "Little Charles?" "Little Robert?" "Little Frank?" Improbable to conceive of. And without them, a wholeness is lost.
Spicer and Gertrude Stein might be more interesting cases; the latter certainly created a character of herself with Shakespearean dimensions, though she is another one born fully blown. Regardless, we are only just beginning to face Stein as a poet; her work is only starting to become available in its fullest sense. It began in the 1950s with the Yale edition, continuing with last year's new volume of Lifting Belly. We could even say the same for Emily Dickinson, whose three-volume collected (at last!) in the 1980s only then allowed her fullest dimension.
But when we hear Nichol read The Martyrology now, we can hear him embodying a dynamic "bpNichol" that is uncannily commensurate with Hamlet. He is as conscious of his real father (not simply fatherhood) as Hamlet. He has become as disenchanted with his childhood family drama as Hamlet--and along with it, the whole weltenshang of life in Denmark. But rather than chuck it and consider himself above it all, or glamorously postmodern, Nichol listens, actively listens and responds to himself, as does Hamlet in Shakespeare's hands. (BTW, did anyone else feel the pain I did when reading the reproduced letter by Creeley to Olson during the 1950s, in the recent Open Letter Olson issue? Creeley disavows any interest in Shakespeare, is "not even able to read him." ((Though I can forgive him, and hopefully myself, the grandiosity of youth))).
The entire The Martyrology can now be heard as an act of forgiving all the grandiose dreams and ambitions of a life sandwiched between the great unknowables of past and future. That is, I hear it in the dynamics of existential urgency as Nichol is reading through his character, bpNichol, a maturing Hamlet so totally committed to the present that he is even angry to be locked into it. But what else can he do?--saddled as he is with the postmodern epical experiences of Olson and Duncan, whose works were cut off by their deaths rather than transfigured by them. bpNichol, however, is being chased by his death all the way through The Martyrology, yet instead of searching out escapes through myths and texts, his author keeps him focused upon exploring the walls of his physical body and life. You hear the angst of a prisoner in the voice of bpNichol reading The M, as you might any person in a psychoanalytic session, but at the same time you hear the voice of the fatherly Barrie Nichol, the real-time therapist, forgiving and transforming such deeply-lived pain into a self-knowledge that is still, to this day, as far as any English-language poetics has ever taken us.
Again, the insistent question: As you listen to bp's desperate voice on The Nichol Tapes, to whom is he speaking? Not the saints; those he is reanimating in retrospect--yet for whom? Not son to literal father; he's already intimated that the urgency is greater than that. In fact, the sun has gone "'Nova"! "the saints are dead!" and even "poetry is dead, dead, dead!"
It can only be creator to Creator, so that it's a type of mourning--of history lost, the kind of crucial history that poetry has told, the creation stories and origins of culture, the local histories. What is left, what is post-poetry? A total commitment to the present is all, so it's bpNichol re-creating himself from line to line. With each pun on words or letters, he finds more is buried in the language than bargained for: traces of his own personal history in the form of saint's names, and the encompassing story of who the original Creator is, and how all the names attributed to him are the bearer of stories, histories. In other words, starting with "The Folk-Tales of the Saints," Nichol has come face to face with his own creation--who created "bpNichol"?--a tale of journeying, just as were the folk-tales, yet a personal epic or autobiography of the last poet, since poetry is dead.
Now, today, the question of how to write poetry has merged into one about how to survive it. No reliable Olson and Duncan, Stein and O'Hara, as canonized guides. That's how Nichol shadows us. Now it is reading/listening only to himself, an oracle of one, which is how his voice sounds as it slips occasionally into the vatic, but then free of it, when he recognizes again that the oracle of poetry is dead. We are listening witnesses, his soul-survivors.
The struggle that the reading voice of Nichol represents, even just struggling for another line, another iteration of the process of life unfolding, evokes a battle for sanity in retrospect and for a new community of readers--even those in a distant future--as a community of friends. But as soon as you think this might resemble the "comrades" of Whitman or 20th Century communism, Nichol strips ideology bare--and we hear it in the insistent, desperate drive onwards. Not Beckett's "onward" in "Waiting for Godot," not that ironic a despair; not Olson's or language poetry's push into a new frontier. And not the tribe of hippies either, not that faux innocence. No, it's a drive to origins, back to the pictogram and beyond for the human creature discovering its soul, back to Sumer for civilization, back to sound and image in the sound and visual poetry that lies behind The Martyrology the way Michelangelo's drawings prefigure the Sistine Chapel--or rather, make it possible. It's a drive unique to Nichol's bpNichol, and the Tapes verify it.
Finally, it's Freud's "reality principle," that drive, with which Nichol is our most recent explorer. Consciousness is our only reality now, "The Martyrology" imprisoned bpNichol keeps wanting to say, the only reality left and worthy of the name. Ashbery and others have gone on to make a poetry out of it, but in fact The Martyrology has a deeper dimension in which we step back from the narrating bpNichol, mindful of his imprisonment in the present, and consider his "creator," Barrie Nichol--as if the urgent narrating voice is speaking to "him". Himself, that is, and thus a theory of selfhood that is in advance of the broken arm--as Duchamp and the collaboration of Padgett and Berrigan once had it. It's an advance proven by the uncanny situation we as listeners are in, when we have it proven for us by bpNichol's prediction that he will outlive his death, as that very voice does. Only a soul could do that--but do we still have one, as bpNichol's desperate voice on the 1983 recording is questioning?
And that's the uncanniness I hear in The Martyrology that was also at the core of all the old religions, a cosmology of the unknowable represented by the Creator and his creation, namely us creatures. Nichol has put that Creator through the washing machine of our modern dabblings in disembodied consciousness, in dream and collage, and through the wringer of linguistic probity as well as self-conscious realism. Washed and dried, we come out as more intelligent and caring beings, as the analysand would have it, or "shrunk," as the resistance to analysis would have it. Barrie Nichol was no such shrink to his character bpNichol, whose anxiety prefigures a new poetry; rather, he was a kind of internalized Lea Hindley-Smith, as Frank Davey's biography, aka bpNichol, elaborates in greater detail than we've known before. Once you've read Davey's book, you may be ready for the uncanny, anxious vigor of the voice that has been hidden away in a closet all these years and finally dug out by Fred Wah.
THE ABIDING QUESTION
When you listen to Charles Olson read from his epic poem, Maximus (many hours are on the Pennsound website) you hear a continuation of the vatic voice familiar from Pound and Eliot, and roughly maintained through Lowell and Ginsberg to Olson in the '60s. Because this oracular voice of a seer or prophet-poet is disembodied, the personal character of the author is of minor concern. Probably Whitman, who also used the vatic rhetorical manner, tried to re-embody it, though the epic ambition remained in force by invoking the mythic (as against the everyday). Olson said--and so it seemed at the time--that poetry was going through a new era, incorporating ancient epic consciousness, that would last far into the future. In fact, it lasted no more than a few years, when a great Canadian poet (still marginalized for lack of U.S. citizenship), one B. P. Nichol, began his twenty-year-long epic, The Martyrology (published over the years in six volumes).
Nichol, who died unexpectedly in 1988, age 44, had allowed for this eventuality by consistently encoding his own death in the epic "life-long" poem. He was able to do this because, although Barrie Phillip would one day die, he had created a complex character for the poem, bpNichol, a processual poet who lived and wrote exclusively in the present--so that, he averred, his poem would outlive him. In other words, he eschewed the vatic voice and took on a personal, autobiographical one. Sometimes it's not clear whether Barrie or bp is speaking--they both share the same biography--but the ambiguity leads to the kind of rich characterization that Olson alludes to in Maximus but isn't able to bring off. That's because Nichol is the first and so far only poet to make use of a psychoanalytical model in which "bpNichol" is the putatively free-associating narrator while Barrie is the largely quiet, listening analyst.
Nine hours of Nichol reading from The Martyrology (recorded in 1983) have recently been dug out of a closet and posted online at bpnichol.ca. One hears the immediate difference between Barrie Nichol introducing his readings and the voice of bpNichol doing the reading. The latter assumes almost a vatic voice--he is, of course, reading a contemporary epic--yet that rhetorical device is subverted by two things. First, he reads in a tremendous rush, as if in a hurry to finish the poem while still alive. Second, his voice is forced to become more intimate due to the great amount of autobiographical detail. This intimacy can take on the attribute of desperation, almost anger, as if the poet is resisting the vatic, which would be the natural voice for an epic. "bpNichol" is desperate on behalf of his troubled consciousness, given in youth to semi-psychotic fantasy, when he spoke with imaginary "saints" from another galaxy. The fantasy never quite goes away and disturbs his intimate relationships, with women and with friends.
When, in Books 2 and 3, he has begun (in retrospect) a years-long analysis with Lea Hindley-Smith in Toronto, the desperation begins to clear up. By the end of Book 4, we are aware that bpNichol the narrator (like the actual Barrie) has himself become a lay analyst, so that in ensuing books he is able to "analyze" his earlier life by re-hearing, rewriting or re-processing the previous books of The Martyrology, from Book 5 on. The fantasized saints have now melted into linguistic punning and experiment. They never disappear altogether because they are fundamental to who the narrator, bpNichol, is--a voice that will outlive himself, just as the saints outlived the "''Nova" explosion of their original home, represented on Earth as "Cloudtown."
The narrating epic poet's voice mellows, however, until sometimes we are unsure if we are still in an epic, especially by Books 7 and 8, which were published posthumously. Yet we're forced, violently, to realize that we're still in an oracular epic, as we read beyond the death of the author. In those final books we find bpNichol suffering for years from the undiagnosed cancer of the sacrum that will finally kill him. However, he remains quite cheerful, paradoxically, for he knows the poem continues as long as he writes it, and that the complex character of "bpNichol"--a character of perhaps greater depth than any persona in modern poetry--may remain always alive in the poem.
What Nichol has achieved in the character of bpNichol (who also carries on a writing life outside the epic, especially as a visual and sound poet) is a state of self-consciousness that was foreign to Olson, or Pound and Eliot before him, poets who had little time for their childhood and youth, other than naming events and places. They wrote a lot of letters when they were older, but not back to themselves in their childhood family drama. It's as if they didn't know what to do with their souls anymore, or whether they were even necessary; that only their forceful adult consciousness--complete with dreams and the record of historical human memory--could still be dug into.
I had the feeling after first hearing more than a couple hours worth (yesterday and today) of Barrie reading The M that here was the last incarnation of a singular character speaking or meditating--while holding together all the possible i's he might suggest. After that, it's all consciousness, as in Ashbery or Hejinian, rather than character; that is, all the possibilities a consciousness could hear or contain but which cohere not in a possible instance of Homo sapiens within its time or culture, but rather can only exist in a work of art--collage, intertextual, whatever--as a forceful field, a life-force. But not a man or woman--or rather, I should say, not a man or woman you could stand the company of for eternity. So when I hear Barrie reading back in 1983 I'm convinced that bpNichol still exists and that he does for a reason: to make it possible for poetry to make sense of the soul again--and not only the sense of a life in art.
But he's the last, as far as I know, the last character who could speak prophetically and despairingly and many other serious ways, with or without irony: the character he has created embodies it all. Just to make sure, I listened to two other of my favorite living poets with live readings online, Ashbery and Wheeler, and find it is true. The latter inhabit an exciting, artful consciousness--they make complex art--but I'd probably call it disembodied art, rather than embodied, as I do with Barrie. The very starkness of the difference comes clear on these tapes of Barrie reading--and the shock of his coming alive there, the revelatory strength of his voice, as not a "voicing" but an embodying of a compelling character whose life coheres, as much so as Hamlet's.
I just found the tapes online yesterday, at bpnichol.ca, finally put up there by Lori. The voice is the same as I remember it last from 1971, though surprisingly matured. And quite different from the fragments of The M that exist in his reading from around then, '71. He seems quite aware by now ('83) that bp is fully alive, and he gives a sense of the creation maturing as he reads through the books, even describing in an aside as "Barrie Nichol" how, after Bk 3, it was you who steered him into realizing it could go on.
He's just started Bk 3 when I left off, but there is a curious fact I come away with: the parts he has left out in his reading of these early books are precisely the most autobiographical and despairing parts--not a thing to do with his despair on Comox Ave. is covered, for instance, and no mention of dave and barb, or dace, etc.
It's as if he did not want to risk confusing his audience (us, the readers of the future) into thinking he himself was unclear about the boundary between the actual Barrie, and the voice and inner life of bp. As if, that is, bp was like an analysand speaking and allowing what essence of truth he could voice--within, of course, a confined and contextualized (if not artificial) space or room for the analysis. Yet Barrie wished not to risk the audience imagining that and trotting out the usual weird resistances that us creative people have. From where I sit now, I can say there was no risk of that, that bp was a whole embodiment already--but perhaps in '83, at the time of the reading, Barrie felt the only crucial aspect of bp that could be easily apprehended by his contemporary audience was bp the bon vivant procedural poet, the process-oriented one who deconstructs Bk 1 in Bk 5, etc.
Fascinating to think about, though it takes nothing away from the strength of his reading here. Much more I could say, of course, as of the uncanny encounter with a ghost every bit as real as a father--that is, as if you're hearing your dead father earlier in life and talking to you. This is not the ghost you might hear one day in listening to Ashbery, which would be a grand consciousness but not quite a poignant being. Though there would be plenty of poignancy, of course, in that what Ashbery makes clear is that a character fully created like bpNichol is no longer possible, perhaps not even conceivable. Not his character, not his soul.
Though when you hear these tapes, it is there, conceived. Was he the last of an era, our era? Seems so. It makes it feel miraculous that we're still alive.
Of course, coming from Motown Detroit as I do, I grew up in the era of "soul music." Although that word, soul, was universally applied in our culture, as in "soul food" or "soulful," soul music implied a specific area of music in general, like "postmodern poetry." It had its own canon, its own history, and its own geniuses. At first, it was taken as a direct challenge to the mostly white canon of pop music, from Sinatra to John Lennon. It had its immediate precedents, as in Elvis Presley, but it also had a deeper historical resonance, back through Gospel music, to old spirituals, to Bach and Handel cantatas, and back to the Bible--the latter, though bedrock, still a lost resource to current poetics. But not to Nichol, who seems to be challenging precisely the loss of all that, and who sounds on this shocking recording like our last soul singer.
Has the postmodern lost its soul? Is that why he's angry?
Onward through the clouds,