Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Late Bowering

While I probably have not read everything that George Bowering has published since Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), I have now read most of this output.  For the longest time, I owned Selected Poems, then recently I tracked down Delayed Mercies (1987), Urban Snow (1992), Blonds on Bikes (1997), Vermeer’s Light: Poems 1996-2006, Teeth: Poems 2006-2011 and then the selected lyric poems in Changing on the Fly (2004).  Apparently, the only recent collection that I have not read is His Life.

I am not going to attempt to review all these books but will make a few comments here and there.  I found somewhat to my surprise that I generally liked his longer poems and poetic sequences better than his short poems.  This may be because they are not these near-epic or mock-epic sprawling things that span many books (I found bp Nichols' The Martyrology to be just unreadable).  They are generally just 10 or 15 shorter pieces that have some internal cohesion, but Bowering doesn't push them all that far.  That is much more acceptable to me.  While the market for poetry is definitely in the tubes, Bowering would be a poet who would really benefit from a volume of his Collected Long Poems (a la Rexroth), as I think his best work has always come in the form of poetic sequences and not individual lyric poems.  Even Changing on the Fly bears this out.  The three long poems in that book are the best of the bunch (and incidentally all three are in his Selected Poems)!  And while Selected Poems has two long poems from The Catch, "George, Vancouver: a Poem" would definitely benefit from being put back into print and the most likely avenue would be through a Collected Long Poems.

Curiously, while studying English literature, I actually wrote a term paper on (long) postmodern poems (many examples written by Canadians incidentally).  If I can fish it out, I will scan it and post it here.  Given how annoying I found some of these poems, it probably was dodging a bullet that I didn't make studying long poems the basis of my livelihood.  Now when I read literature, and particularly poetry, I can just read what catches my fancy and not what I feel obligated to read to keep up.

What I find particularly intriguing about Bowering is that he does seem to skip around stylistically (quite possibly to avoid boring himself).  He'll write some longer sequences, then write quite a few short, rhyming poems (some really not much more than doggerel).  Then he will write a bunch of poems that quote questions from other poems.  I'm pretty sure it was in Vermeer's Light that we saw a precursor to the chapbook Shall I Compare brought out in My Darling Nellie Grey.

I tend to either like most of a poet's work (Charles Simic, August Kleinzahler) or all of it with the exception of some specific experiment they were doing (I love pretty much all of Anne Sexton's work except Transformations which contained long retellings of fairy tales).  Some poets gradually lose me (Mary Oliver for sure, Sharon Olds (though Stag's Leap was a major improvement over the previous two collections) and if I am being honest -- Adrienne Rich).  Others I find I appreciate their later work even more (perhaps Alan Dugan falls into this camp), though it would be very rare for me to stick with a poet who really bored me with their first or second book long enough to find this out.  But the bottom line is that there is generally a pattern.  Bowering is rare in that my appreciation/enjoyment of his work doesn't follow a pattern.  (The only other equivalent I can think of off-hand is Pablo Neruda.)

I quite liked Delayed Mercies, a few parts of Urban Snow and Vermeer's Light.  I wasn't particularly taken by Blonds on Bikes and I didn't like Teeth at all (only one halfway decent poem in the entire bunch).  I actually liked Delayed Mercies and Vermeer's Light so much that I ordered both, though due to crazy shipping rates to Canada from the U.S., it may be quite a while until they turn up.  I probably should have just reviewed those two collections while they were in my hands (from the library) but I had other pressing business.  I will try to circle back around to review them early in 2014 I guess.  Delayed Mercies will probably be hard to track down, but I would encourage folks to pick up Vermeer's Light, which in addition to some quite good poems has a long essay where Bowering tells the story behind his much-anthologized poem "Grandfather," then rewrites it 5 or 6 different ways: reversing words, selecting nearby words from the dictionary to replace the actual words of the poem, translating the poem back and forth from different languages.  In short, Bowering is engaging in a lot of postmodern playfulness, but it works reasonably well since 1) the poem is quite short and 2) because he is being so clear about what he is doing and isn't being purposely opaque about whether the new versions "mean" anything profound or if they are just language games.

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