Crafting the Organic: George Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies

The differences between the cultures of Canada and the United States may seem too subtle for some, but have tremendous implications for citizens of each country and the world. Certainly the implications are inherent for artists whose job it is to be the “antennae of the race” in Ezra Pound’s words, or prevent a culture from “repeating the same dull round over again” in the words of William Blake. A whole-systems, organismic, or process view of reality values intuition as much as rationality, and does not consider any element of a system irrelevant.

Unlike the U.S., Canada did not revolt violently against British rule, which allows us to see a basic difference between the two cultures. In this paper I’d like to explore what I see as the difference between the organismic (or process, holistic world view) and the non-organic (or mechanistic, reductionistic), whose properties (symptoms) include the need to control and dominate, often in a violent manner. Canada today has not suffered from their lack of violent revolt from British rule. In fact one can argue that quality of life is better in Canada, given their federal spending priorities.

One example is funding for militarism. The U.S. Defense Department budget request for 2007 was nearly $463 billion dollars, not including funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will likely add a trillion dollars before they are over. Canada, on the other hand, will spend less than $11 billion Canadian dollars, or one percent of its Gross Domestic Product, compared to just over four percent of the U.S. GDP and we know most of the funds spent on the military have no multiplier effect on communities once the bombs drop, so this factor goes beyond the numbers used here in its effect on communities in the respective countries. (Nobel laureate economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University professor of public policy Linda Bilmes now offer a far more reasonable and likely estimate of more than $1 trillion for the George W. Bush Iraq war and spending on war and “defense” has been $3.2 trillion since George Bush came in to office up to the end of 2006.)

A holistic or process view proceeds with the understanding that all living things are connected, so the notion of bombing “other” people is akin to stabbing one’s self. (The notion of “other” itself is questionable from a holistic world view.) It is perhaps because of a trust in holism, or at least more of an openness toward it, that the stance-toward-poem-making Robert Duncan once called Organic (Open Form, or “Projective Verse,” or “composition by field” in the words of Charles Olson), was able to get a good reception in the early 1960s in Canada and become a critical stream in Canadian letters, perhaps more so than in the country just to the south.

When one thinks of Open Form poets in Canadian literature, the two names that come up most often are Robin Blaser and George Bowering. As Blaser is a U.S. native, and the focus of a recent interview, Bowering is the subject of this paper’s focus.

Basic Bowering

Born in Penticton, British Columbia in 1935, Bowering taught for over 30 years at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, among other institutions. He was the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada and was a founder of the influential TISH group, centered in Vancouver. How the group got its name is subject to debate, but it may have been that, phonetically, TISH is SHIT backwards. In advance of the 40th anniversary of TISH in Vancouver on October 20, 2001, Derek Beaulieu described TISH as follows:

Although TISH was resolutely local in orientation and demotic in language and concern, it never became an inward-looking movement. The very premise of its existence was the need to establish connection between Vancouver, the site of its production, and the wider world. The extensive and long-lasting inter-personal and global connections enjoyed by the poets of the TISH movement, as much as their continued productivity as poets, writers, teachers and publishers, speaks of the variety and depth of their literary and social concerns. Even if TISH was always open to strong innovative influences by forces and movements outside of the local and the national, the fundamental premise of the activity of its members has always been “if it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen anywhere.” Their main concern was never directed toward the passive consumption and imitation of literature and culture produced in the centres of world finance and culture in New York, London or Hollywood. The members of the TISH movement sought to open the ground for the active production of a literature responding to local concerns and demands, but also by choice and by inclination, outside the imperatives of the globalizing centres of hegemonic economic and cultural power (SUNY Buffalo List Serv archive)

TISH began when a group of writers at the University of British Columbia, Bowering included, were the beneficiaries of Warren Tallman’s network. Tallman was an American-born professor teaching there who introduced them to many San Francisco Bay Area poets, most notably Robert Duncan. Through other little magazines besides the one the TISH members edited and through Duncan’s visits and lectures, other poets of the Open Form tradition became known, including Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, among others. The Special Collections Library at Simon Fraser University, based on a tip from Blaser, started their focus on Beat and Black Mountain literature, helping Vancouver to become a world nexus comparable to San Francisco for this stance-toward-poem-making as evidenced by the legendary 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference. This was the first of three annual conferences focused on the outrider movements in North American poetry as categorized by the seminal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen.

Bowering is a clear thinker and a world-class poet who has demonstrated a knack for using the strategies of the Open to maintain the poem as high energy construct, especially over longer efforts such as his 1984 masterpiece Kerrisdale Elegies. In his hard to find book of short essays on poetics from the same time as Kerrisdale, known as Craft Slices, Bowering states:

I do not compose poetry to show you what I have seen, but rather because I have seen. That is, this poet’s job is not to tell you what it is like, but to make a poem…So a test of a poem is not in how it adheres to your experience (though that can be a pleasure too) but in how it coheres as something made. This is not to say that you can squash together any old thing and declare yourself pleased…the point is that you are adding something to the world, something that was not there before. If you have any good feelings about the world, you will want to add something that will not diminish it in quality. For the same reason you would like to utterly destroy most of the pages of any given little poetry magazine. (CS 6).

In an October 2006 interview, he elaborated:

…Not trying to use your poems to prove a point, or address an argument. Not to try to control what they’re (the poems) are doing…but rather to be a kind of audience listening to where the poem is going to go…it has to do with, some people think it’s a metaphor, called the muse… So you write not to persuade an audience, but to provide a question…

The book itself is consistent with this sense. Bowering states the intent behind the arrangement of the essays in Craft Slices was to create order, but not development, so he went with alphabetical order for the pieces, making any part of the book a potential entry. This is one of the main distinctions between the Organic (Organismic) and Mechanistic as applied to writing. What is preferred is an “entry into” rather than “a control over.” The entry may be seen as an entry into the experiential understanding of oneness as Walt Whitman communicated so well in Leaves of Grass, or an entry into the sense of wonder which accompanies that experience, rather than an attempt at control. The need for control is so ingrained in Western culture that some people take it for granted it would be part of anyone’s way of doing business. In football one wants to control the ball. Basketball teams try to control the tempo. Ultimately it all boils down to winners and losers in the mechanistic model. Bowering knows control is an impulse that is at odds with the energy sources propelling the organic poem, and addresses that with typical Bowering irreverence in Kerrisdale’s eighth elegy:

Oh oh , says the anxious reviewer,
this poet is not in control of his materials (KE 107).

This is not to suggest the organic poem is without logic, or order, but that the order is discovered through the writing process. The connections are made by the poet, but then again made anew by each new reader of the poem. And the impulse Bowering may have connected consciously or not to that reviewer may be the same impulse behind most needs to control. Here is the first stanza of the eighth Kerrisdale Elegy:

Today I saw two robins feeding on worms along Yew Street,
eyes wide,
looking into the open air, they
were not beset by past and future and wishfulness.
All animals see with their eyes what is before them.

But we look elsewhere,
our eyes bind things
to our desires,
our fears mock the great trees
in this neighbourhood.

Oh oh , says the anxious reviewer,
this poet is not in control of his materials. (KE 107)

In his brilliant essay on Kerrisdale Elegies, Bees of the Invisible, Stan Dragland suggests these “leaps and dislocations … are more of its energy source than what makes immediate sense” (122). And the notion of leaps as energy source is another facet of the Open that differentiates this approach from poems which use a different compositional (and cosmological) strategy.

 Punctuated Equilibrium

In 1972 scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge offered the notion of evolution not as a gradual, linear process, but as a mostly static process with bursts of evolution. They called this theory “Punctuated Equilibrium.” This strikes me as similar to the process of composing the organic poem. One minute the voice leading the poet on inspires a perception of a huge cedar tree, or oak, there in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood on Yew Street. These are huge, majestic beings with great energy and a history that, often in the Pacific Northwest’s remnants of the rainforests, goes back hundreds of years. OK, in Kerrisdale, maybe a hundred or two, but in those centuries the native cultures were being nearly decimated by the ways of the European settlers. Yes, the trees are fearless, but the reviewer who doesn’t take the time to understand the process allowing for the spontaneous poem, that guy who demands control, he mocks the poet, the huge trees, the history they’ve seen and the capacity for energy this all has in the context of the affirmation of death AND life, which is the subject of Kerrisdale and its prime energy source and model, the Duino Elegies by Rainier Maria Rilke.  The leaps, the punctuation of the equilibrium are beyond what the poet understands before the act of composition, which Denise Levertov, in a friendly amendment to Robert Creeley’s statement quoted in “Projective Verse,” explained that “form is never more than a revelation of content.” William Carlos Williams (a huge source for Bowering) and Michael McClure are among the many who understood the organic process as one of discovery. Allen Ginsberg’s term for those leaps is “Surprise Mind.” I’m convinced the mind works this way, and not in the linear way we’re conditioned to think it does by Western culture. This is one of the magic aspects of great poetry, using these leaps, this surprise mind, to get beyond the rational. There is no such thing as a rational apparition and one can understand how there is more energy in the natural workings of consciousness, rather in mindless addiction to the linear.

The process view is based on trust. All things happen for a reason and, as we learn to trust there is a mythic reason for all events, and develop gratitude for it, whether as writers, readers, or just people wandering through the mysterious hallways of spaceship earth, we learn the universe is, indeed, rigged in our favor, as Bowering suggests in the first Kerrisdale Elegy:

Be grateful –
sadness makes music, cruel
April tuned a string for you.
whirled around planets waiting for you to spot them.
The middle of the Pacific prepared a wave
to plash ashore at your visit.
A radio
switched to melody as you walked by
a neighbour’s window.

You should know by now,
the world waited
to come alive at your step –  (KE 12)

Write What you Know? No.

            As one gets to the C’s in Craft Slices (or flips there at random) we get another of the sources for the richness of the poetics of the TISH movement, the poet Jack Spicer. Bowering explains what is beyond self-expression. Everything:

When university students, thinking that I teach creative writing, tell me they want to study such a thing because of their desire to express themselves, my heart shrinks. Poetry is not yourself, I tell them; poetry does not come from inside. It comes, as it always has, from the world. The poet’s job is not to disgorge, but to read all the great and good writing that has been granted to the human race, to learn all the mechanics of our language, tune his body and then listen. The poet is not an ex-presser but a reacher. The poet Jack Spicer was one of our teachers beyond the creative writing department. Poetry writing is what Jack Spicer called it, the practice of outside… Try to forget your own voice…and listen hard for what the language is saying… you yourself are the audience, hearing a voice you’ve trained your ear to receive (emphasis added)… A writer who finds his own voice is likely to stay with it, turning out the same book over and over. This is what readers of schlock are looking for (CS 22-3).

Robin Blaser’s essay “The Practice of Outside” elaborates on this particular aspect of the open better than can be done here.

The Desert Music

As mentioned above, William Carlos Williams is a huge source for Bowering who would spend hours in the library at the University of British Columbia. In a July 2005 interview with the author, he discussed an experience he had in the mid-1950s:

I’m in the library and it’s got like a…the floor is concrete or cement or whatever that is, and I pull out The Desert Music, which at that time had only been out for two years, something like that. I just stood there and started reading it and I was just shaking. I was weak. I could not hold on to the damn book. I can still remember the sound, it goes SPLAT on this concrete floor and it just echoes through that whole floor of the library…And it was so funny because in that wonderful long poem, it’s Williams in his later age, still asserting at the end of the poem, I am… this is a phrase that keeps showing up, I am a poet. I am a poet. (Laughing) Holy Crow! … I’d been reading lots of poetry language, right, so you would read the kind of poetry language that you would expect to get from oh Allen Tate, and all those people. Then here’s a person who’s speaking in human. Speaking a language called (laughing) human, right? And I was also taken by the way he had structured…this is when Williams was going through all that business of the American idiom, and he was working on tercets, three-line things going down the page as he does in Paterson and trying to find out in the poem if he’s a poet. And in the poem, a person sounding very much like himself and some other people walk across the bridge from El Paso to…Juarez, yeah, and he sees a strip dancer and he sees a figure in a serape who looks like an egg right in the middle of the international bridge, and there’s this wind blowing across the desert and bringing…and the desert music is partly that wind, and the wind is like an OLD OLD OLD idea about where you’re going to get change happen, where you’re going to get inspiration, and so on. And the Greeks gave the winds all different names… And the desert music is also the music that’s being played behind the person that’s stripping in the Mexican bordello…and thus the desert music become the source of his poetry. It was so darn good. I’d even read some of Williams’ before, of course, but I STILL look upon this as one of the premier poems EVER, right? In any language, any time in history.

In our most recent interview in October 2006, Bowering was more specific about the quality of the poem:

See, The Desert Music to me, seems to be, a poem that is ENTIRELY shrinking the distance between the poet’s perceptions at the moment and the reader’s perceptions on reading the poem. It seems to be ALMOST identical…and also that Williams thing is the exact opposite of the use of a simile or something like that.

The direct treatment of a thing is what Williams was after, what Bowering is after and is this not a huge part of what shrinks the distance between poet and reader? Because the poem is an event in the organic tradition, not the poet’s description of what an event was LIKE, there is no distance. We’ve made the path easier for the reader to be with us because we’ve removed a degree of separation. As Williams puts it:

Only the poem
only the made poem, to get said what must
be said, not to copy nature, sticks
in our throats      (PB 109).

Ironically, the two cultural elements Williams saw as battling for supremacy had one side:

“ – looking toward Europe, necessitous but retrograde in its tendency…and the other forward-looking but under a shadow from the first” (SE 135). But by the time European culture got a proper toe-hold on the western outskirts of the continent, the influence of this shadow was not as prominent as the energies coming from further west, Asia, and a long history of holistic thought. The irony is though Canada did not separate violently from British rule, they are less influenced by that cultural shadow than the U.S. which continues to be mired in violent events it cannot control, despite its military might. Bowering and the TISH group, already in a place more open to the OPEN, found wisdom and USE of the organic tradition and the cosmology undergirding it offered by Williams, Olson, Spicer, Duncan, Levertov and others of this lineage. Each of these poets no doubt felt the rush of composition and were likely aiming for writing moments when their process of composition lined up with a proper process of incubation for the subject matter(s) each poem would then disclose in the act of writing.  They felt themselves getting huger with each glimpse of the largeness beyond them that somehow they were able to access commensurate with their ability, in Bowering’s words, to abandon theattempt to describe the world in favor of transforming it by way of the shaping imagination” (CS 138).

Transformation is the crux here with Bowering clearly in control of his own process and clear in Kerrisdale about the most bittersweet transformation, death:

We see everything’s entry,
the robin’s that sing,
la la,
the muscular dog that trots down our street the first time,

each quick appearance is a farewell.

The single events that raise our eyes and stop our time
are saying goodbye, lover,
goodbye. (KE 147)


Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry. New York: Grove, 1960.

Blaser, Robin. The Fire (Collected Essays). Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2006.

Bowering, George. Craft Slices. Ottawa: Oberon, 1985.

__________      Kerrisdale Elegies. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1984.

__________.   Personal interview, August, 2005. __________. Personal interview, October, 2006.

Dragland, Stan. Bees of the Invisible. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991.

Williams, William Carlos. Pictures from Brueghel [PB]  New York: New Directions, 1962.

__________. Selected Essays [SE]New York: New Directions, 1969.