This Old Poem #107:
bill bissett’s pavlovs dog 1
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/4/05


  bill bissett is 1 of those poets that is not really easy to define. Is he a great poet? No. Is he an innovative poet? No- not in light of antecedents like e.e. cummings & fellow Canadian poet Wilfred Watson. That said, he has been 1 of the best humorist- aka ‘light’ poets to emerge in the late 20th Centrury.
  Born on November 23rd, 1939 bb has been 1 of Canada’s most prolific poets in the late 20th Century. Of course, the vast majority of his work is crap, as 1 might be able to squeeze just 3 or 4 good books worth of poetry from the 60. He’s also, like cummings, known as a painter, as well as a musician. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, & educated at Dalhousie and the University of British Columbia (1963-65), but dropped out of both. In 1958 he moved to Vancouver, B.C. & started a small radical press. He also ensconced himself in his nation’s Academia- he was a writer in residence at Western University, conducted  workshops across Canada from British Columbia to the Maritime Provinces. Through his career bb has de-emphasized poetry as a written construct, preferring to throw his lot in with performance poets. Of course, this has allowed him to cavalierly disclaim his written word weaknesses. His credo has been to ‘lift the poem off the page into sound or even into some happening that attempts the total involvement of the senses’. Such theoretical mumbo jumbo has little to do with poetry, but shows bb’s actual lack of innovative thought in approaching art.
  However, he has greatly benefited his own poetic reputation by being subject to unfair criticisms from ensconsed elitists who, rather than attack some manifest flaws in his poesy, have assailed him for vulgarisms, sexuality, & radical politics. His website is

  A typical example of the great majority of poems bb has written can be found in this poem:


it usd 2 b

              4 konrad white n ken thomsod


yu cud get sum toilet papr
nd a newspapr  both  4
a dollr fiftee


now yu cant   yu gotta
make a chois


  In a sense, this is truly not a poem, merely a statement on a small ‘life situation’. Compare this to the average William Carlos Williams or e.e. cummings poem of the same length. WCW’s poem would probably have at least 1 interesting turn or phrase while eec’s poem would at least have a great musicality to it. So, while structurally the poem looks like theirs from the outside it is not- it is prose broken in to lines, & further masked by the unusual spelling & typography. In its attempt at humor his work has more in kind, spiritually with his American contemporary Richard Brautigan- save that RB had a far greater wit. Lacking the typography the typical RB poem of this length would have had a Henny Youngman-type punch line to follow this last line. Whereas an RB poem would have the full ‘ba-dum-bum!’ the typical bb poem only has the ‘ba-dum-  ’.

  Let’s gander at a longer poem:


a violent prson


is marreed 2 a changling


th changling can adapt
can sumtimez radikalee b
on her his gud side   evreethings
going swimminglee   sumtimez
get shit whn he she runs out
uv prsonas  masks  goez 2
th closet n  thers nothing


hanging ther  can b myself he
she thinks  thn thats th feer
that th punishment will cum
fr sure if he she cant leev her
him self fast enuff  breeth  b
call her him  n start packing


him her self is alredee enuff
is alredee fine is alredee all ther
can go now  can b now  she he is
sew flexibul  now  who 2 trust or
2 find  discovr


a mountin sliding  in2 th sand
sumwun who wud stay  yu cud
with hold n they cud find yu  they
wudint leev  n yu wud bcum all
ther  with them  not that


thers anee all ther


th changling writes lettrs 2 her him
selvs  in th ambr waves  n touchinglee
with love  keeps th nite


  Aside from the last line, is there a truly poetic moment in this poem? No. Granted, compared to a Wilfred Watson bb has not gone over the cliff into poetic cryptography, but he’s close. What does this poem really say that is not learnt from any article on domestic violence? More importantly, where is the art?

  On to the poem in question:


pavlovs dog 1


wud yu rathr onlee b
ths happee  thn fullee
trusting  agen  n gettin
whackd  whappd  wun
mor time as yu cirkul th
reel prize  yr own focus
on yrself   innr serenitee
yr love  happee being
without goal attainment
alredee is  not self having


bells ar ringing  great smells
b careful  sumthing mite
not work  having can b valu
 n thers no food  nun  not
dont  care abt things yu have
 no powr ovr agen  n get reelee


miserabul   sew thers a ringing
sum wundrful perfumeree from
th larkspur hydrangea  roses n
plums  pears  n a kleer lake neer
by  valu can protekt  its virtual
realitee  sumwun may honor
theyr agreement with yu  if they
dont  sum thing els may  still
cum up gud


happeeness is sew tempting  yu
dont want 2 fall apart if yu dont
get it   meditating tails  or  heds
oftn its not binaree  its in th 7th
or third opsyun th magik resides
wait 4 it  hungree  awkward re
wired  agilitee   taking yr time
fr sure  but redee  2 leep


  Ok, let’s look at it again. Where is the poetry? Perhaps only in the last line. Like most of bb’s oeuvre this poem is simply a banal thought broken into lines, & then skewed by typography. But, why is this so gripping to him?
  Let’s redo the poem by trimming it & then fitting the remaining pieces together so that there is at least a little give & play between the images. I won’t even dare to undo the typography for, why bother? It won’t make that much of an improvement even if implemented.


pavlovs dog 1


wud yu rathr onlee b
yr own focus yr love

without goal attainment


miserabul larkspur hydrangea  

roses n plums pears n a kleer lake 

happeeness is sew tempting  

oftn its not binaree th magik

resides hungree awkward
agilitee yr time redee 2 leep


  The poem has been trimmed to 3 tercets & the title now is not merely a recap of the poem’s sentiment, but actively tugs against it. Roteness is portrayed in the 1st stanza as the cause of the query? Stanza 2 is a sort of answerless answer- the proof against it is out there, in the pudding of life, so to speak. Then Stanza 3 tries to define its opposite, ending with the unexpected ready to spring upon it. In 3 stanzas we have the classic premise, counter-premise, & summary/reaction formula, yet each of those 3 parts is a bit different from their classic presentation. With just a little tweaking I’ve shown that bb’s forced diction, used mainly as a gag to separate himself from other poetasters, could have been deployed far more effectively within each poem. That he did not do so is testament to his true intent as a ‘poet’- not to write great poems but to make a ‘name’ for himself as a radical, a ‘good man’, & a true believer in the art is about social change movement. That’s why he has his own TOP, though.

Final Score: (1-100):

bill bissett’s pavlovs dog 1: 45
TOP’s pavlovs dog 1: 70

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