Avant garde, inventive, tricky, ‘at times infuriating’

Broken Glosa: An Alphabet Book of Post-Avant Glosa
by Stephen Bett

Tucson: Chax Press, 2023
$32.35 / 9781946104427

Reviewed by Peter Babiak


I tell my first-year students that I don’t ever rush home after work to unwind with a book of poetry. Like them, I find much of it a chore to read. The canonical poets—people like Purdy, Atwood, even cummings—aren’t that much of a problem because at least there’s a trace of logical syntax in their work that leads to a handful of comprehensible propositions, a narrative, or at least a few clear images. 

More unorthodox poetry, though, is different. Much of it is esoteric, lacking in clarity and sense, an intensely private language whose authors fiddle with words and syntax to deliver something that, apparently, can’t be delivered in regular sentence forms we’re taught to write in school. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that if, instead of uttering a simple request to a person like “bring me sugar” or “bring me milk,” he experimented with his grammar and said “milk me sugar,” that person would “stare at me and gape” because “this combination of words makes no sense.” 

The same can be said for some avant-garde poetry. For all the good it does us, it can leave ordinary readers staring and gaping.

Probably the best way to confront the bewildering thickets of poetic language is to sideline all preconceptions about what a poem is supposed to do or communicate. The language of everyday life refers to other people, the weather, and clothing, but poetry, as literary critic Jonathan Culler once put it, is “language organized to attract attention to the linguistic structures themselves”. It’s a message that we so easily forget that it’s good to remind ourselves every once in a while that poetry isn’t always about great big ideas or metaphorically tangled subjective experiences—the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” according to Wordsworth—but about the intricacies of reading, the proprieties of grammar, and even the tenacities involved in writing.

Cue Stephen Bett’s latest collection of poems, Broken Glosa. The marketing blurb on the back cover tells us the book “takes the ‘glosa,’ a Renaissance Spanish Court form, and breaks it down to its contemporary essentials—fractured forms for fractured times—riffing on postmodernist and post-avant poets in ways that are as surprising and inventive as they are richly textured.” 

To simplify, these historically fashioned poems aren’t the style most readers are familiar with, unless they’re avid readers of Dadaist, Surrealist, Concrete and other forms that aim to undermine reading habits, disrupt notions of what poetry is, or upset our thoughts about what language does. 

No, this book, the blurb continues, “plays out Bett’s lifetime in North American and British avant-garde poetry, taking the measure of 67 postmodernist poets,” which is to say it’s an innovative homage to other innovators in poetry to whom his work is indebted.

Author Stephen Bett

I didn’t know much of Victoria-based Bett’s work prior to reading Broken Glosa, but I commend him for adapting the challenging fifteenth-century Spanish form to his own “avant” ends. These are not the most lucid poems, but nothing packaged with those scary prefixes like “avant” and “post-” ever is. 

Their delivery of content is sidelined in favour of recursive displays of baroque structure. Traditionally, a glosa, which stems from the Latin word for an explanation of a foreign word and the Greek word for “language” itself, is an extended comment on another poem. It usually opens with a snippet of text from another poet, with every ten-syllable line in each of the ten stanzas interpreting a particular line from that snippet. That’s more or less what Bett does here, kind of like sampling other artists’ material in electronic music or hip-hop, only with vigorous postmodern inflections throughout.

In a nod to the convention of organization, Bett (Back Principles) alphabetizes his sixty-seven riffs on other poets’ work, and the first provides a notion of what the rest are like. In “Rae Armantrout: I put a glose on you,” a “nod” to the American language poet, Bett’s studied speaker offers us this: “Around the block / headed for juiced circuits / attenuated hypotaxis / Always runnin’ around ….” The quatrain, which trails off into an ellipsis, doesn’t rest on its content but on its relationship with a line from the original, Armantrout’s poem “Habitat,” where we read this fetching couplet: “Around the block / dogs bark at absence.” Bett then works the second line into “dogs bark at absence, / The gap in the fence / koan-flaked inflection / How put a spell on you …,” again ending with an ambiguous ellipsis. 

This stimulus-response structure repeats itself sixty-six more times. His more familiar nod to an icon of CanLit, “George Bowering: Scatter-Gun,” sent me looking through my shelves for Bowering’s “Against Description.” 

Bett opens with Bowering’s memorably self-reflective stanza, “I went to the blackberries / on the vine. They were blackberries / on the vine,” and then adds this more equivocal coda: “on the vine. / ouch, it’s all so Thea-retical, yr daughter stomped / on my stocking feet scatter-gun & no we’re not / doing Bök today, no OuLiPo left in our DNA.” 

A tad complicated, no doubt, but clever and well worked, too, and if readers were to search for an Archimedean point of reference in all this perplexing wordplay, they might grab onto that allusion to postmodern academic and writer Christian Bök, whose 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize winning work Eunoia, a sort of touchstone for experimental univocalic poetry,consists of five chapters each using only one vowel. 

Like Bök’s work, which is itself an homage to the obscure Oulipo group of French poets who set themselves the task of writing according to inordinately disciplined techniques—a poem where each line is one letter longer than the preceding line, for example, or prose where the first word in each paragraph is the last word in the preceding one, and so on—Bett writes to satisfy formal constraints rather than to communicate content. 

Admittedly, reading him can be tricky, even infuriating at times, especially to minds weaned on the rule that sensible thoughts, if they want to count as thoughts at all and not remain in the nebulous state of ideas, must be housed in grammatically correct sentences, or at the very least in proper combinations of words, as Wittgenstein might say. 

Outside the reverent alphabetical ordering and rules of the glosa form, there’s an absence of obvious orientation here, and I suppose this is what makes the collection post-avant. 

The words on the page, in the tradition of the West Coast Language Poetry movement of the 1960s and ’70s, defy logical paraphrase. Randomly browse the sixty-seven glosa and you might not be sure how you should read them because the deep structure of subject-verb-object syntax, along with most punctuation markers and some morphological rules of word formation, have been tossed aside. You might not even be able to separate literal from figural words or even parse a subject in any phrase. 

In the glosa on Jan Zwicky, for example, “Zees & Zeds Tamped Down,” we read “words. Words, words, words, words. / Consumption every line, baby letters, commas / Zuker punch / tiny comas every breath / petite mort, each exhale dead on a wire.” Fragmented expressions and deconstructed phrase structures like these proliferate, and no amount of reading acumen helps resolve the quatrain into a unit of meaning—not even when you look to the bottom of the page and read the prosaic footnote explaining that “Zuker” is a reference to Mark Zuckerberg (and I’m not at all sure if the missing “c” is part of Bett’s poetry). You may be aware that Bett is executing some charming poetics here—and he is—but you’ll likely not be sure how the cortexes in your brain responsible for word recognition and reading are supposed to process it.

For all his experimentations with the black marks on the white pages, there’s something important to be said about Bett’s language games. Any linguist will tell you that description is only one of the many acts we do with language. Roman Jakobson positioned the “referential function” as one of the six functions of language, the others its poetic, emotive, conative, phatic and metalingual operations. We use all of them on a regular basis, though we prefer to think only in terms of the logic-chopping referential function where words and sentences are portals to preexisting things because we’re habituated to it from an early age. 

Bett breaks this habit, in effect avoiding what Ron Sillman, one of the founders of Language Poetry, called “the tyranny of the signified.” “What’s happening is the language,” he remarked in his 1987 essay “The New Sentence,” which is as much a classic in linguistics and literary theory as it is in experimental poetry. “Not only in the usual sense of being interesting (which it is), but in the new sense that words are events, as real and important in themselves as war and lovers.”

It’s the materiality of language, in other words, that Bett’s poems are “about.” This is perhaps best recognized in his more colourful, zany glosa

In “Robert Kroetsch: Would You Buy a Bruised Lemon from This Poet?”—a glosa framed by that writer’s 1980 poem, “Sketches of a Lemon”—Bett writes, “I kissed a lemon / so how do you broach a kroetsch? / windy carbs float big air / bruised auto, the more you toot.” A reader who, like me, will likely miss most of the allusions embedded in these unusual lines can still laugh along with it. 

In “bpNichol: these are my words”, a riff on Nichol’s gorgeous lines, “i look at you this way / noun then verb / these are my words / I sing you,” Bett’s speaker writes “these are my words / ‘Joe in the old coach house on Walmer’ / that v. same one, Hey Joe! where you goin’ / down Kendal that ol’ map in your hand.” You don’t need to read the long footnote explaining the reference to a coach house in Toronto’s storied Annex neighbourhood to recognize the sampling of the Jimi Hendrix lyric. 

And you probably don’t even need to ask why the allusion to “Hey Joe” is there in the first place. It just is, maybe because it just is a melodious combination of words. What the lines say, they do, and they do only what they say, no more and no less. 

All poetry buffs might like this book, but those who move in experimental poetry circles will enjoy it for sure. 

Confronted with the historical and intertextual patterning of these glosa—and by the fact that many of the lines just don’t make sense in the way we think they should—readers accustomed to the prosaic logic of sentences who don’t go in for meta-poetry, or aren’t familiar with the poets Bett glosses here, may find little in it that connects with their reading tastes. 

I confess that my first reading of Broken Glosa triggered bad memories of sitting in a graduate school postmodern lit theory seminar where we all compulsively name-dropped, referenced radical literary techniques, and spoke of meta-this’s and that’s as though we were the first generation to have thought of them. 

Just like in those abstruse seminars, reading Bett’s work left me wondering if I wasn’t smart enough to get what’s going on here. Yes, there is an insider’s club feeling here, but that’s to be expected in a collection that positions itself among sixty-seven poets of the last century. 

If you persevere a while and stay with the language experience, you can find something of value here.

I’ve got to hand it to Bett. For all the moments of misunderstanding I experienced reading Glosa—and there were a lot—his book reminded me of something that I know but often forgot, which is the simple fact that poetry is first and foremost about words. 

In “Sharon Thesen: North Shore Scrawl,” Bett riffs on a line from Thesen’s “I Drive the Car”: “My car I drive back & forth / road-testing the language, one hand tied to the wheel / the other transcribes white signal scrawl /Drive, he sd, you’d never sound like a machine.” 

There’s a couple of explanatory footnotes here that I didn’t pay much attention to them, but I think I got the point. Poetry really is “road-testing the language.”


Peter Babiak

Born and raised in the GTA, Peter Babiak now lives and writes in East Vancouver. He teaches linguistics, composition, and English Lit at Langara College, and writes for subTerrainmagazine. His commentary and creative nonfiction has been nominated for both BC and national magazine awards; his collection of essays—Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction, published by Anvil Press in 2016—was a Montaigne Medal finalist and an Honourable Mention in the Culture Category of the Eric Hoffer Awards. His work was selected for The Best Canadian Essays (Tightrope Books) both in 2017 and 2018. He has a dog, a cat, a garden, and an alluring garage. [Editor’s note: Peter Babiak has reviewed books by Claire WilkshireHeather HaleyTrevor NewlandDouglas CouplandClint BurnhamStan Rogal, and Jamie Lamb; his book Garage Criticism was reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy, for BCR.]


Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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