what we have
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1988
Review by Stephen Morrissey
Even now, twenty years since I first read bill bissett's poetry, I am convinced that his work is some of the most original and exciting poetry being written in Canada. bissett doesn't rely on one or two "experimental gimmicks" to distinguish his poetry from that of other poets; his phonetic spelling is a part of his philosophical and political position, a philosophy that opposes authority and ideologies. In what we have he writes that "sins th industrial revolushyun th invensyun uv th printing/ press langwage has imbedid in its presentaysyuns agreed/ upon symbols to encourage . . . standardizaysyuns/ uv responses n understandings." Right he is; and right he is to say it.
Unfortunately, reading bissett's newest poetry is like entering a time warp and finding oneself returned to the concerns and lifestyle of the late 1960s and early 70s. This is good poetry; bissett's narrative sense is almost flawless. But, and it's a big "but," there is something peculiarly "young" about this poetry, it's as though bissett is living in the past. His concerns and lifestyles seem so deeply rooted in the past that perhaps many of his readers have left bissett behind. We've grown older, but bissett remains a kind of Peter Pan of Canadian poetry. Perhaps growing older is our loss; bissett challenges all of us who have drifted into a middle class lifestyle, complete with mortgage payments and permanent job security, to wake up and reclaim the ideals of our youth. After all, bissett is still cranking out books of poetry, complaining about when he was harassed by the police, getting involved in different relationships, and being a symbol for what we were or could have been had we not embraced the kind of life our parents and society demanded of us. For bissett, "all we need is our selves cleen air cleen watr each othr."
bissett's poetry describes a life of integrity. His is not a lifestyle that most of us would embrace, or possibly even want, but bissett has remained true to his convictions. How many people today believe in anything or even know what they do believe in, let alone remain true to their vision? Some poets have sold out, copied the style of other poets, or become academics, while bill bissett has stayed with his original vision and has maintained his integrity above all else.
Copyright © 2007 The author