- RUSH: what fuckan theory; a study uv language by bill bissett
bill bissett is one of the key Canadian poets of the 1960s, whose forays into phonetic spelling and concrete poetry established – along with the work of his comrades bpNichol, Judith Copithorne, and many others – an experimentalism that was both political and libidinal. This recent text is a reprint of a notorious book by bissett from the early 1970s, when, living in northern British Columbia, he improbably survived a brutal winter in a remote cabin by assembling a manifesto for “langwage,” for the politics therein, and, arguably, for the media specificity of his own practice.
I will delve into bissett’s argument for this politics shortly, but first a brief note on the context for this reprint. In the mid-2000s, at the invitation of Ottawa poet and publisher jwcurry, bissett performed the book in its entirety; Calgary writer (and publisher) derek beaulieu was in the audience, and in 2010 he wrote about RUSH – the book and the performance – for the blog Lemon Hound. The present book, then, edited by beaulieu and Gregory Betts, includes the original text from 1972, an afterword (“a study uv langwage what can yew study”) written by bissett in 1971, an editorial from bissett’s blewointment magazine in 1963, an interview with bissett by the editors from 2012, and a short essay, also by the editors.
This is to say that RUSH has received a respectful treatment both by these scholars and by the press (as is often the case with BookThug, the book is a beautiful production). And so it should. For here we see bissett’s most sustained treatment of aesthetics and linguistic theory over his now fifty-year career. bissett’s phonetic spellings also turn out to be critiques: thus we pay a wage when we use “langwage,” he drops out unnecessary e’s from th, and the first-person i implicitly critiques the egocentricity of the I. bissett turns continual attention to the media of printing: “making masters use both sides” may, for instance, refer to Gestetner or mimeograph masters. And a late passage brings this media criticality together with bissett’s refusal of grammar and rules:
writing is what yu write. yu need to print it yrself to make its freedom. yu cin do anything yu want or feel like with word. [End Page 527] th rules are there to oppress yu. rules watch yu in a lot of ways, check yr expression. they are not yur pomes that yu order ther expression to be what is saleable.
or what theyul do to you stay close to th printing machines.
Of course, much has changed in the more than forty years since bissett wrote – and printed – these words. On the one hand, media discourse has made the lower case i into the brand of iPhones and iPods, not merely bissett’s critique of the I qua ego. But the same devices’ autocorrect feature renders a normative grammar even more insidious. And with our phones in our pockets, we are never far from our cybernetic “printing machines” with which to update our blogs, Facebook statuses, and Twitter feeds.
But bissett’s work retains its radical critique. Formally, its montage-like structure extends from the line and the page (which also feature drawings, concrete works, and sound texts) to the book itself, which includes, every dozen pages or so, excerpts from a student essay on James Joyce that bissett wrote while an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. The essay is dreadful, with the usual romantic readings of Stephen Daedalus living “beyond the conventions of fidelity, injury and revenge.” But its normative grammar and syntax, and its demonstration of the gentrification of modernism that was in full swing in the 1960s literary academy, stands out all the more forcefully in juxtaposition with bissett’s hippie odes: “o baby o baby o baby,” he writes on the same page as the Joyce quotation. If you want to understand Canadian literature, you have to read bissett’s RUSH...