After fifty-seven years in archival gestation, Milton Acorn and bill bissett’s I Want to Tell You Love has finally, like a letter lost and deferred in the mail, reached the ears of its public.
The work first took shape as a manuscript in 1965 when Acorn and bissett met in Vancouver: Canada’s most quintessentially postmodern city. Both poets of the Maritimes (bissett was born and raised in Halifax, and Acorn in Charlottetown), they found themselves in Vancouver just as the spark of 1960s counterculture caught flame along the coast and set Canada alight. To this day the West Coast is still considered the hotbed of some of Canada’s most experimental poetics, and the 2022 publication of this volume, pulled and polished from the Library and Archives Canada and the Special Collections at York University, only continues to stoke these embers.
Bringing together thirty-nine poems by Acorn and twenty-two poems and ten drawings by bissett, I Want to Tell You Love is a supplication that defies most odds. Stylistically, bissett and Acorn initially appear miles apart: Acorn famously told bissett in 1965, just as they were assembling the book’s manuscript, that “there is more in common between me and, say, Baudelaire, then [sic] there is between you and me” (3). Such a distinction certainly lays the groundwork for an interesting encounter. Sameness, we might remember, is not a predicate for conversation—certainly not for one as fascinating as is the dialogue of I Want to Tell You Love.
Over the collection’s course we can see evidence of mutual influence, insight and collaboration, distilling a record of bissett and Acorn’s friendship and respective creative processes. We can see Acorn, for instance, beginning to move beyond dense lyrical forms towards a more open, socially conscious aesthetic as engendered in the typographical experiments of bill bissett. As Gregory Betts has written, quoted in the volume’s expansive introduction, there is a “parallel in Acorns’ radical politics and bissett’s radical formal experiments”—a parallel which now becomes observable across the spine of I Want to Tell You Love. In turn, the more established poet Acorn was instrumental in introducing bissett to a broader reading public and to his peers at the Canadian Forum magazine, where he was an editor: these include Alden Nowlan, Margaret Avison, and John Robert Colombo. In bissett’s own words, which here serve doubly to give the reader a sense of his poetic aesthetic, Acorn was “a veree important part uv the road uv my poetree development” (29).
I Want to Tell You Love thus emerges from a period of flux, chronicling an important moment in Acorn and bissett’s careers and in the Canadian literary scene more broadly. As the central influence of the Montreal Group of Poets dissipated to the country’s borders, and as these borders became themselves increasingly porous, poetry, as is its nature, followed suit. What we have in turn is a work that plays across the visual and the verbal, the semantic and syntactic, the political and the aesthetic. It is a work that evokes at once the Futurists of the early twentieth century and the postmodernism of the Beats (Jack Kerouac famously called bill bissett “the greatest living poet today”). Ultimately it is a book that transcends its own limits, be these formal or historical. Even the titular declaration “I want to tell you love”—culled from the title of Acorn’s own poem and collection I Shout Love—is a negotiation that moves beyond its own terms. As bissett says in an appended conversation with Eric Schmaltz, the collective voice of I Want to Tell You Love is “less uv a teem as the we sumtimes can b we each wanted 2 say 2 stand in 4 evree ‘i’ a plea from evreewun” (199). In bissett’s characteristic omission of punctuation we can read I Want to Tell You Love as less of a personal declaration and more of an open-ended supplication to the world at large; an agapeic appeal, unencumbered by syntax, that tumbles from our mouths, to the page, and back again.
I Want to Tell You Love: A Critical Edition
by Milton Acorn & bill bissett
Edited by Eric Schmaltz and Christopher Doody
University of Calgary Press, 240 pages, 10 illustrations, $29.99 CAD
ISBN: 978-1-77385-229-4 (paperback)
Alexandra Sweny is a student and settler currently living in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). She is completing her master’s degree in English literature at Concordia University. Her favourite colour is yellow.