Three Recent Tish Items

Frank Davey, ea., Tish No. 1-19: Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1975. 433 pp. $12.95 paper.

C.H. Gervais, ea., The Writing Life: Historical & Critical Views of the Tish Movement. Coatsworth, Ontario: Black Moss Press, 1976. 229 pp. $4.25 paper.

Keith Richardson, Poetry and the Colonized Mind: Tish, with a Preface by Robin Mathews. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1976. 79 pp. $3.95 paper.

     Few literary quarrels in this country have been so rancorous or so long standing as the one centred on a batch of young Vancouver poets and critics, principally Frank Davey and George Bowering. In the early 1960s they edited Tish, a mimeographed “newsletter” of contemporary poetry, which was polemical and defiantly contemporary. It was also often narrow and cranky. Right from the start it excited and offended people. Al Purdy, initially sym pathetic, soon turned sour when Bowering made fun of Milton Acorn. (Purdy argued that Bowering was “damn near neurotic” in insisting upon “silly strictures” for poetry.) The complaints have poured in steadily ever since. Keith Richardson’s book, Poetry and the Colonized Mind: Tish, is a recent expression of that opposition.

     Richardson’s case is simple. American poets, especially the “Black Mountain” writers, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson, who visited Vancouver in the early 1960s, had an enormous impact on many of the young Canadian poets then studying English at the University of British Columbia. People like Fred Wah, Frank Davey, Jamie Reid, David Cull and George Bowering, having fallen under the spell of their visitors, rapidly became colonized (or more colonized) by American cultural imperialism. They took over American voices, interests, and values; and they swallowed an American ethos of individualism. As a result, they wrote weak derivative poetry and neglected their own literary tradition. In Richardson’s words, “The Tish poets’ belief in the U.S. Black Mountain poetics entailed a dismissal of Canada as an entity requiring its own particular forms of expression.

     The idea sounds inviting: yet another example of arrogant Americans trying to call the shots, and bug-eyed Canadians eager to sell out the home quarter. But the analysis is misleading. To begin with the beginnings: there is no homogeneous Black Mountain school. There is Creeley, who writes tight, tenuous, domestic poems; Duncan who writes allusive, erudite poems studded with archaic words and visions; Olson who writes prosy epics weighted with American place. Nobody could confuse their poetry. What they do have in common are assumptions about the nature of the universe and of mankind’s (and therefore of poets’) positions in it. To be somewhat simpleminded aft the point for the sake of brevity, “fish” poetics emphasizes the need for a literature written in process, so that the poem can register the dynamics of a universe that we should not, that we finally can not, fix or hold. Creeley, Duncan, and Olson all believe in a poetry of process, but they do not speak with one voice. Therefore, to argue, as Richardson does, that these poets represented a single model for writing is to misgauge their writing and their impact in Vancouver.

     It certainly is true that their trips to Vancouver helped shape the writers they met there. But understanding the nature of their influence needs more knowledge and thought than Richardson has brought to his examination of the subject. His determination not to understand leads him to misinterpret Bowering’s statement about what it means to be a Canadian. Bowering writes that American poets “taught me not to proselytize about my place nor to claim that I can interpret it for my own power — but to pay attention to it.” That statement, Richardson claims, shows that Bowering has surrendered to American forces of occupation. Richardson is so willing to put the worst possible construction on whatever his subjects say that he rewrites their statements: “Bowering said that ‘the most valuable find for the American reader is poet Robin Blaser.’ With Bowering’s confusion over cultural place names, he doubtless meant the recommendation of Blaser for all Tish readers, Canadian as well.” Similarly, on those occasions when Bowering and Davey state their own reservations about what they were doing, Rich ardson resorts to snide dismissal. To Bowering’s admission in Canadian Literature that Tish suffered from a “messianic intolerance” in its early stages, he responds with the speculation that “Bowering had perhaps come to realize that the poetic exclusiveness for which Tish was known could be a liability.” Frank Davey gets the same treatment. In 1962, during what Richardson calls “the height of Frank Davey’s involvement with the newsletter,” Davey wrote an important article on little magazines in Canada. In it he stated that the editors of Tish “seem to have made a fetish out of belligerency. A lot of their poetry seems weak and irrelevant.” Such comments, Rich ardson intimates, give only “an ostensibly objective, third-person description of Tish.

     Aside from its cynicism, Poetry and the Colonized Mind is weakened in ways. There are numerous confusions or oversights in it. For instance, Richardson quotes as proven fact a second-hand report on what Olson was alleged to have said about the desirability or inevitability of an American takeover in Canada. A few pages later he quotes another second-hand ac count about how Olson, distrusting nations, hopes “the term ‘United States’ will pass the way of all those meaningless things, generalizations: oblivion.” The disparity between the two reports does not even register with Richard son.

     The most serious deficiencies in Poetry and the Colonized Mind are its blind insistence on “the Canadian poetry tradition” and its willful ignorance of Charles Olson’s precepts. While maintaining that the Tish people opened a beachhead for an American cultural invasion, Richardson would have us believe there has always been a definite Canadian tradition remarkably different in nature from the kind of writing Bowering and Davey have done. He names no names, he mentions no poems, he describes no features of “the” poetry. Evidently the mere saying makes it so. His arbitrary assertion becomes all the more unconvincing when he invites us to recognize only a single tradition. Such exclusiveness will not bear examination. Modern Canadian poetry, like modern American poetry, possesses no one centre; it is richly varied. Richardson seems to think of “the” tradition as something so fixed that it can permit no divergence and no evolution. As near as I can tell, this exemplary writing is formally conservative, intellectually rather than experientially founded, and concentrated somewhere in Eastern Canada.

     Tish poetry is proudly West Coast. Olson, chief theoretician for the editors of that magazine, insisted that poets must write in their own unique voices out of their own particular places, “foolishly ‘local,’ heavy with particulars,” as he recommends. No other places and no other voices — certainly not Olson’s world and Olson’s voice — would do. Be in Vancouver, of Vancouver — here, now (in 1962) — that is what Olson said to Lionel Kearns and Daphne Buckle, David Dawson, Jamie Reid and David Cull, and all the others. It’s you and your world that go into your poetry. Writing out of Olson’s poetics, then, means anything but imitating his par ticular form of writing. His notion of locus stresses the necessity of attending to the things in the instant and in the spot of creation. A local pride in a local tongue. In a sense Canadian writers become more “Canadian” the more they are influenced by Olson’s poetics.

     There is a related point Richardson has overlooked. The Vancouver crew saw their magazine as a vehicle for contention and for trying out possibilities. Because for them (whether or not they realized it at the time) it served as a place where they could immediately, feverishly, practice their apprenticeship, it would be wrong of us to view their reviews, editorials, letters, notes, articles, poems and essay-poems as their last or best word. In his retrospective “Introduction” to the Talonbooks reprint of the first 19 numbers, Davey asserts that the series delivered a record of work-in-progress. Davey, chief apologist for Tish, was only 22 when it started. The others were young enough that some of their contributions suffered from ignorance, confusion, embarrassing glibness, and adolescent posting.

     Finally, Poetry and the Colonized Mind misses the mark because it does not ask the right questions. The issue of nationalism is, I have tried to argue, essentially mistaken. More urgent concerns, I should think, are the implications of Tish poetics and the accomplishments of its practitioners. Sister Beverley Mitchell is about the only critic who has intelligently explored those issues, with the result that her “The Genealogy of Tish” is the best single piece on the group.

     There is no opportunity in this account to evaluate the theory and practice, but I want to suggest two reservations I have about what appears in Tish, No. 1-19 One of them has to do with the poems published in it. A fair number of them are failures. Many read as thinly disguished essays on poetics. There is little pleasure in digging through a bagfull of poems, each of them earnestly and explicitly telling how the poet would write poems and what poems are. Other poems speak feverishly of “my poems” as though the poem had, each of them, bushed of them in hand.

     Still, other poems work in their own terms — not trying to make any thing more of life than it is, sounding “the personal song of a man interacting with the universe around him and inside him.” The aesthetics of “projective” verse emphasize the need to be honest to the particulars of experience taking shape in the poem. Unfortunately, fidelity to an experience does not ensure good poetry. However faithful a poet may be to an occasion, and therefore true to the writing of poetry in process, the result will matter to a reader only if it has power and resonance for him. Mere recording, devoid of metaphor, can be appallingly flat and inconsequential. By itself, tone-leading of vowels and consonants can dish up thin, cold porridge.

     Obviously, the poet who writes in process takes a great risk of failure. However, the depth and range of experience a poet brings to his work can improve his chances of transcribing a poem that matters. That may be one of the reasons why the best poems in the early issues of Tish come from Bowering, who is a few years older than the others (26 at the time Tish began). David Dawson’s first contributions flounder for want of something to record. They improve tremendously as they take on concrete life, until he comes up with some of the best work in Tish, No. 1-l9 “tentative coastlines” and “Tinandra” — concrete, rich poems in beautiful rhythms. Almost all the regular contributors — Wah, Cull, Davey — get better as they go along.

     Then there are the impressive new writers who turned up in the newsletter from time to time. In Tish, 17 five good pieces by Diane Wakoski appear. At the time she was relatively unknown, having only just issued her first book of poems. Following, as they do, 352 pages of work by the same 5 or 6 people, her poems gain the advantage of freshness. The same sense of discovery comes with Carol Berge’s publication in No. 17 (probably the best number in the first series, as it also included strong poems by David Bromige, Lionel Kearns, Dan McLeod, and a perceptive Purdy review by Bowering). Berge came out of nowhere at the time (though she and Wakoski both were included in LeRoi Jones’ 1962 edition of Four Young Lady Poets). There are other pleasant surprises: Daphne Buckle in Tish, 12, Luella Booth in Tish, 16, Peter Auxier in Tish, 18 and in Tish, 19. Their emergence speaks well of the creative ferment at the magazine and the judgment of its editors.

     Undoubtedly Tishs insistence on printing and supporting only poems that conformed to its taste gave the organ its edge. That edge was both heady and irritating. The excitement of doing something here, now, recklessly, insolently, runs throughout Tish. So does a querulous bad temper that takes the form of intolerant pronouncements about other forms of writing. The urgent desire to bring poets and professors to their senses led to some crabbed and cranky attacks on other writers. Even when the Tish people made their case with good humour, they were inclined to use their literary terms honorofically, however much they may now deny it.

     C.H. Gervais’ collection of fugitive “Tish” material, The Writing Life, shows as much. A few of the entries, in particular the interviews with Stan Persky and Gladys Hindmarch, are sloppy and uninformative, and some times in Persky’s case, downright egotistical. Some entries do little more than deal with personalities (Persky, Hindmarch, and Carol Berge). At least one contribution is execrably written (Gervais’ own “Tish: A Movement”). Another, Bowering’s “How I Hear Howl,” is so peripheral that it should not be there. (Gervais would have been far better off with Bowering’s “The New American Prosody,” or “Dance to a Measure,” a brilliant piece that explains W.C. Williams’ poetics better than anything I have seen.) One of the entries (Bowering’s “The Most Remarkable Thing about Tish”) is only a summary note. The rest of the selections vary in value.

     Most of Davey’s pieces (four of them — five counting the Komisar interview with him) show impressive knowledge, intelligence and sophistication. He probably has become the best apologist for experimental writing in Canada. Certainly he is now the most conspicuous as editor of Open Letter, and author of From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960. His command of the field is so great that opposing critics like Richardson look all the more ineffectual. Davey makes a good case for the origins, nature, and the contributions of Tish in the history of Canadian poetry, rightly arguing that its poetics are hardly peculiar to Vancouver, an earlier version having arrived in Eastern Canada from Williams through people like Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster. If Davey’s youthful effusions in the early sixties do not always hold up under scrutiny, he certainly holds no illusions in retrospect about the deficiencies of the ‘smartass’ stance in Tish. At times what it published was stupid, snobbish, frivolous, pedantic, wordy, and pretentious, he says in his “Introduction” to the recent reprint. Davey’s shrewd assessment of Tishs role in Canadian poetry also emerges in the Komisar interview where he has some interesting things — say about the recent emergence of Canadian poetry from colonial status.

     The Writing Life records the scattered attempts of the Tishites and to defend their poetics. Most of those efforts are worthwhile in their own rights Apart from the Davey interview, however, only two selections actually attempt to assess Tish in hindsight — Warren Tallman’s “Wonder Merchants: Modernist Poetry in Vancouver During the 1960’s” and Sister Beverley Mitchell’s “The Genealogy of Tish.” I have already spoken well of Mitchell’s article as the best single survey of the subject. Tallman’s essay is oddly disappointing. He, more than anyone else, introduced the Black Mountain people to Vancouver. For several years he served as supporter and intellectual centre of what came to be the Tish crew. But his account loses value as it meanders all over the map. He takes too long in coming to the point and, once he does, passes over the individual poets with such speed and such lack of illustration that they end up sounding much like one another. The problem is hardly lack of insight, as his penetrating comments on Daphne Marlatt (Buckle) indicate. But he dissipates his paper, perhaps out of a desire to pay tribute where it is due and to avoid signs of favouritism.

     Tish No. 1-19 and The Writing Life assemble many of the documents necessary for work yet to be done in the area. Serious research will also involve careful reading of the numerous poetry books published since 1962 by the Tish editors and associates. Whatever the studies reveal, I hope they will.

Dennis Cooley