by Sean Michael Nelson
As well as the work of Michael Morris, the recent exhibit Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery also featured the work of a number of other poets who worked in the field of concrete poetry. Among them was bpNichol.
bpNichol’s Blues. Image source <bpNichol.ca> retrieved May 9, 2012
Nichol is perhaps most well known for his visual work such as Blues. What some may not recall is that he can be found outside undergraduate literary anthologies—he’s also to be found in children’s books and on the small screen. Through it all bpNichol was a “highly moral writer,” as former poet-laureate George Bowering notes, “he was interested in the good of the intellect. His song, even if sung on a Saturday morning TV show was a hymn. A hymn to be heard”[i].
Towards the end of his life, Nichol was gaining prominence for these small screen hymns as a talented writer for children’s television, including such programs as The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, The Carebears, and The Raccoons. The latter was particularly notable for its strong messages regarding the environment, solidarity, and the value of hard work. The Raccoons program often conveyed these themes through the misadventures of the show’s well-intentioned, though often misguided protagonist, the raccoon Bert, in a Canadian forest under threat from the unscrupulous industrialist aardvark Cyril Sneer.
Nichol had concerns about the ethics of these programs (often rather blatant advertisements for toys) as his essay “R-Toys-Us?” shows[ii]. In it he questions the sometimes shallow attempts at social-awareness in kids’ TV shows such as banishing sexual stereotyping by avoiding making female characters pink or male ones blue. Nichol notes that “because the focus is on what are finally the end products—the surface symptomology of deeper rooted problems—it’s usually only the surface details that get changed.” This leaves characters such as Rainbow Brites’s dwarf/sprites to do all the work, loving their mining, while not owning the means of their labour. Recognizing all this, Nichol advocates going below the surface, saying that, “part of the problem for a parent is that it’s necessary to get into the fantasy world with the kid and muck about a bit.” Adults tending to get easily bored, he wonders how many parents would be willing to put the necessary time into this endeavour.
Being a creator of these fantasy worlds, Nichol was enthusiastic about “mucking about” there. He felt that when he sat down to write he “already kn[e]w the story [he] set out to tell […] so really why not start by listening?”[iii] Nichol’s verse attests to the fact that he was willing to listen (to share); the twelfth poem in his children’s book Moosequakes and Other Disasters begins:
From my front door there’s a path to the moon
That nobody seems to see
Tho its marked with stones & grass & trees
There’s nobody sees it but me[iv]
Here Nichol shows a willingness to pay attention to the ordinary signs in life, the “stones & grass & trees” and see what they point to, that is, the extraordinary—a path to “the moon’s grey, dusty, bright side / Visiting all the craters / Trying to find where the moon creatures hide.” This is the fantasy world of children: “mucking about” on the moon. There are perks to sharing in this with kids, to listening—we learn something, as now we can see “the path to the moon,” which “nobody seems to see / Tho its marked with stones & grass & trees / No one sees it but you & me”[v].
[i] “‘Narrative in Language’ The Long Poem.” Meanwhile. 392-95.
[ii] Moosequakes and Other Disasters. Scarborough, Black Moss Press, 1981.
[iii] Emphasis mine.
[v] An H in the Heart: A Reader. Ed. Michael Ondaatje and George Bowering. Toronto: McClelland, 1994.