Barbour, Douglas

views updated

BARBOUR, Douglas

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Winnipeg, Manitoba, 21 March 1940. Education: Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, B.A. in English 1962; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, M.A. in English 1964; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario (Canada Council Doctoral grant, 1967–68), Ph.D. in English 1976. Family: Married Sharon Nicoll in 1966. Career: Teacher of English, Alderwood Collegiate Institute, Toronto, 1968–69; assistant professor, 1969–77, associate professor, 1977–82, and since 1982 professor of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton. Editor, Quarry, Kingston, 1965–68; member of the editorial board, White Pelican, Edmonton, 1971–76; poetry editor, Canadian Forum, Toronto, 1978–80; member of the editorial board, since 1978, NeWest Press, Edmonton, and since 1979, Longspoon Press, Edmonton. Cofounder, with Stephen Scobie, Re:soundings (sound poetry ensemble). Address: 11655 72nd Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 0B9, Canada.



Land Fall. Montreal, Delta Canada, 1971.

A Poem as Long as the Highway. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1971.

White. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1972.

Songbook. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1973.

He.&.She.&. Ottawa, Golden Dog Press, 1974.

Visions of My Grandfather. Ottawa, Golden Dog Press, 1977.

Shore Lines. Winnipeg, Turnstone Press, 1979.

Vision/Sounding. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

The Pirates of Pen's Chance: Homolinguistic Translations, with Stephen Scobie. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1981.

The Harbingers. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1984.

Visible Visions: The Selected Poems of Douglas Barbour, edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1984.

Story for a Saskatchewan Night. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College Press, 1989.


Worlds out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany. Frome, Somerset, Bran's Head, 1979.

Canadian Poetry Chronicle: A Comprehensive Review of Canadian Poetry Books. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1985.

John Newlove and His Works. Toronto, ECW Press, 1992.

Daphne Marlatt and Her Works. Toronto, ECW Press, 1992.

bpNichol and His Works. Toronto, ECW Press, 1992.

Michael Ondaatje. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Editor, The Story So Far Five. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1978.

Editor, with Stephen Scobie, The Maple Laugh Forever: An Anthology of Canadian Comic Poetry. Edmonton, Alberta, Hurtig, 1981.

Editor, with Marni Stanley, Writing Right: Poetry by Canadian Women. Edmonton, Alberta, Longspoon Press, 1982.

Editor, Three Times Five: Short Stories by Harris, Sawai, Stenson. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1983.

Editor, Selected and New Poems, by Richard Sommer. Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1983.

Editor, with Phyllis Gotlieb, Tesseracts 2: Canadian Science Fiction. Victoria, British Columbia, Press Porcépic, 1987.

Editor, Beyond TISH: New Writing Interviews Critical Essays. Edmonton, NeWest Press, 1992.


Critical Studies: "Douglas Barbour: The Land Was Ours before We Were the Land's" by Wayne Tefs, in Essays on Canadian Writing (Downsview, Ontario), Summer/Fall 1980; "Shore Lines" by Andrew Brooks, in Writers News Manitoba (Winnipeg), December 1982; "'There's More Nothing to Say:' Unspeaking Douglas Barbour's Story for a Saskatchewan Night" in Negation, Critical Theory, and Postmodern Textuality, edited by D. Fischlin, Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994; by B. Leckie, in English Studies in Canada, 21(1), 1995.

Douglas Barbour comments:

To entertain possibility in the process of writing the poem—that is my desire. My early poems tended to begin in a clear perception of the outer world—that landscape, that event, that encounter—and I was trying to say something of what I had seen and felt. By the mid-1970s I had, in what I feel are my best works, moved to a more direct encounter with language. If I could listen carefully enough, I would hear something interesting and perhaps be able to transcribe it.

I try to write poems from a poetic stance that proposes that language is alive and not simply a "tool" to be "used" or "manipulated" for some ulterior purpose. I can only discover purpose in the process of writing if I am sufficiently open to what language speaks through me, which is not to say that poems do not mean but that in their wholly grounded being, when I am lucky enough to write a good one, they mean more complexly than ordinary discourse or any conscious ideas I might wish to purvey. It is always more interesting to follow the line of a poem's thought as it leads me on to new discoveries. One of the great arguments of such a poetry discovered and heard in openness is the value of such human openness before the world. This is an ideal, one I try in my writing to live up to.

(1995) In recent years my interest in exploration in language has led me closer to the kind of "radical artifice" Marjorie Perloff speaks of in her book of that title. Ways of subverting traditional lyric subjectivity while maintaining some sense of lyric music and rhythm make up one part of my interest in poetic form; another has to do with serial forms. But I still believe in what that great essayist Guy Davenport says: "Language itself is continually an imaginative act."

*  *  *

As an undergraduate at Acadia University, Douglas Barbour read and was influenced by William Carlos Williams and the American West Coast poets who published in Tish. He began to look for an escape from the language and form of the modernists and a way to replace order and knowledge with exploration and encounter. Lecturing at the Upper Canada Workshop in 1983, he explained that he had used deconstruction to achieve the necessary defamiliarization of language and text. He had discovered new perspectives in intertextual writing, or writing from a pretext, basing a new poem on rearranged elements of an old poem. For instance, the words "rad os" might be invented from the title Paradise Lost and included, to echo the original, in a new poem.

Barbour's preoccupation with language also led him to explore the possibilities of what was called "sound poetry." He joined forces with Stephen Scobie, a friend and colleague of many years at the University of Alberta, to form Re:sounding, a sound poetry ensemble that has performed in North America and Europe.

The partners then collaborated on what they call homolinguistic translation in The Pirates of Pen's Chance. In an afterword they explained that "these translations take us, as writers, in directions we would never have gone without the stimulus of this process. The poems are unlike any we would ever write in our own voices; they free us from our poems. When Tristan Tzara gave his 'recipe' for making a Dada poem by cutting words at random out of a newspaper, he concluded that 'The poem will resemble you.' He was right."

The poems in The Pirates of Pen's Chance illustrate Robert Kroetch's view that metonymy rather than metaphor is the key to postmodern writing. The poems represent three types of translation:(1) metonymic, in which words of the original text are replaced by words associated with them; (2) acrostic, in which the original text is spelled out either by the first letter of every word or by the first word in every line; and (3) structural, in which all of the words of the new poem are taken from the original text but are chosen by arbitrary methods. The extraordinary thing about these translations is that some are unusually musical, and many are moving. "Anger Song No. 3," based on John Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness," is a structural translation, with one word taken from each line of the original:

   Anger Song No. 3
   light dark
   useless Maker
   he denied

   Ask God
   man's state

   thousands rest

In Barbour's selected poems, Visible Visions, poems from eight volumes of verse published from 1971 to 1981 appear with new poems. In both the old and new work Barbour displays his two main preoccupations: those of eye/I—perception and internalization; and those of breath/language—sound and meaning. He is deliberately a language poet, using puns and unusual arrangements of punctuation and lines on a page. Language is no longer a tool but a substance in itself. One can generalize to this extent: sharp, immediate images are reflected in sound and repetition.

Barbour is the grandson of a pioneer who became a painter in later life, a man who tried to capture the unique colors and feel of the western Canadian prairie. In the poems taken from Visions of My Grandfather the eschewing of capital letters and omission of apostrophes sometimes become confusing: "& i move deeper into this poem without thinking how ill get to the end." The effect is too often prosaic and sometimes breathless. But others of the early poems, particularly those from Songbook, restore music to the dryness of postmodernism Some of the songs are imagistic, like expanded haiku, while other are minimalist, showing the influence of Phyllis Webb, to whom several poems are dedicated. The poems from White appear to be an expansion of William Carlos Williams's poem "Queen Ann's Lace," in the spirit of homolingual translation.

One of the grand themes that run through Barbour's selected poems is love—for his wife, for the landscape of the prairie, for the changing seasons. Another is his difficulty in making contact with other people. "I am awkward among pain," he says in "Song 2" from Songbook, and, later, in "Song 28,"

   They tell me to write
   a people poem/a poem
   with people in it.
                       Not the forest
   in which they walk nor the sunset they watch

The poem ends with

   me my friends I love
             you. You
   are always near
             by. In the
   awkward songs where
     you don't appear.

Some of Barbour's later poems are described as "breath ghazals," a type of oriental lyric poetry usually dealing with love and having a distinctive pattern of rhyming, a form first exploited in Canadian poetry by Phyllis Webb. They reproduce the sounds of rain, of lovemaking, of a spring breeze in a beguiling way.

Barbour describes himself aptly in an afterword to The Pirates of Pen's Chance:

Douglas Barbour
born, not yet died. tried & not always found wanting. wanting poetry got language; language never languishes, even in translation. translation is what he eventually seeks, but while on this plane, enjoys: language, the listening thereto. to live is to listen: he tries. it is easily borne.

—Patience Wheatley