Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 23)
Robert Kroetsch 1927–
Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.
In his fiction, his poetry, and his travel literature, Kroetsch exhibits an appreciation of the Canadian landscape. Concentrating on the significance of his nation's myths, legends, and artifacts, Kroetsch creates distinctively Canadian works.
Kroetsch has been recognized as one of Canada's outstanding writers. His novel, The Studhorse Man, received the Governor General's Award in 1970. Critics consider the various sequences of Kroetsch's long poem, Field Notes, one of his finest achievements for it establishes him as one of the few contemporary masters of long verse.
(See also CLC, Vol. 5 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Paul R. Clarkson
["But We Are Exiles"] is about a young man's flight from the entanglements, pressures, personal relationships and unplanned happening inherent in living. (p. 11)
Deftly with subtle power, author Kroetsch communicates the sorry existence of characters adrift, lacking a purpose for living, assaulted from within and without. Especially well done are many descriptive passages and economical development of numerous minor characters. (pp. 11-12)
Paul R. Clarkson, "'But We Are Exiles'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 26, No. 1, April 1, 1966, pp. 11-12.
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Robert Kroetsch's But We Are The Exiles [shows no absence of emotional or imaginative structure]. Kroetsch has thought deeply about his characters and his theme, trying to merge them symbolically in a sort of Virginia Woolf way. Peter Guy is running away from a soured love affair, and chooses to run by sailing up and down the Mackenzie River as a pilot. Hornyak, the man who stole his woman, has now bought the boat on which he serves and, in a vengeful moment, Peter consciously arranges for Hornyak's accidental death…. (p. 47)
[An] amazing amount of corroborative detail gives verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. For though Kroetsch knows his Arctic, the river, the boats and the men, and has lived a long time in the setting he so vividly describes, he is also an academic…. So he imposes layer after layer of symbolism on his basic story. The aimlessness of Guy's life is contrasted with his pilot's skill on the river. The river is life, but it causes death—spiritual and physical death. After Hornyak's body is found, it becomes like an albatross round the necks of the crew of the Nahanni Jane. Closely paralleling some of the details of The Ancient Mariner, the story, like the barge, sinks under the weight of its triple symbolism. The style also gets more and more involved until the final expiation is a sentence some fifty lines long—almost a whole dense, unintelligible page....
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["The Words of My Roaring"] really operates on two levels. On one level, it is an attempt to show a man who comes to at least a partial understanding of himself. On another level, it is supposed to be funny. I think it was Steve Allen who wrote that the first requisite of a successful comedian was that the audience like him. The best wit will fail when the audience has an antagonism toward the performer. This is the problem with "The Words of My Roaring." Johnnie [the protagonist] isn't very likeable. There are a number of counts one might bring against him. He is an alcoholic of sorts. But this is certainly forgiveable. He commits adultery. Well, even this. He is a rotten provider for his family. But perhaps more importantly, he is just plain stupid. He has virtually no sense of laughter himself; no ability, or wish, to understand other people. The humor of the book fails because of his excessive stupidity. The attempted psychological penetration also fails for this reason. For the story is told completely through the eyes of Johnnie. And he is just not sensitive enough to understand what is going on. His sudden moments of truth fall flat. He seems much more believable when he tells the reader, as he does constantly, that he is six-foot-four and very powerful. Much more believable but not very interesting.
Fred Rotondaro, "'The Words of My Roaring'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of...
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The Words of My Roaring is weird but energetic and readable. A roughneck Alberta undertaker stands in the provincial elections against the long established Member, a doctor who is his father figure. Although there is a good deal of repetitive emphasis on the undertaker's size, strength and preoccupation with death, which is compared with the doctor's orientation towards life, and scenes of rustic festivity, like enforced farm sales, it goes with a swing. The author says, "the Messianic nature of prairie politics made an impression on me—the peculiar combination of fundamental religion and radical political theory." The fascination with the material comes through and hefts the tale over the sticky bits.
R.G.G. Price, "New Novels: 'The Words of My Roaring'," in Punch (© 1966 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 251, No. 6588, December 14, 1966, p. 902.
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[The pattern of "The Studhorse Man"] is circular, as is Hazard's journey, and the point—made in a manner that fuses prairie tall-tale with Odyssean myth—is that perfectionists procrastinate and thus waste their lives while life in general goes muddling on around them. In the long run, Poseidon tramples Hazard to death … and the narrator goes off his head, the strain of "knowing" Hazard and of trying to tell the truth about him having proved too great.
There's a certain amount of strain for the reader too, especially if he always wants to know exactly what's going on; but if he can resist, at least as often as the narrator does, what the narrator calls "the necessity of interpretation," he will have a ball as Mr. Kroetsch's gross hero stalks with his prize beast through a landscape as abstract as it is lovingly delineated, as crammed with garrulous eccentrics as it is also demoralizingly empty….
In other words "The Studhorse Man," like all good books, stretches the mind, and does so with a gross yet realistic central notion flanked by bouts of farce….
An Englishman grandly withdraws from history; a horse ignominiously swyves his way into it; and, in between, Mr. Kroetsch stages a raunchy pantomime in which pigstickers and penis-measurers, bone-buyers and hockey-stars, an ancient nun and an almost blind ranch-mistress, reel toward and past one another, hunching away from history and the world...
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[Robert Kroetsch's] novels seem to defy the existential despair characteristic of contemporary prairie fiction both rural and urban. Kroetsch's anti-heroes are painfully aware of their isolation in a meaningless world running to waste; but they escape their anguish … through sheer gusto. Kroetsch's prairie men are the inheritors of the stonepicker's simple determination to endure and of … unregenerate, saucy humour, but they have an unquenchable exuberance which transcends both.
Johnnie Backstrom, the narrator and protagonist of The Words of My Roaring (1966), is, at thirty-three and six foot four, the giant of a man so typical of the prairie novel. Johnnie, the local undertaker, is running against Doctor Murdoch, the incumbent, for a seat in the Alberta legislature. He backs into a rash promise to bring the constituents rain before election day, a promise which in 1935 had particular appeal to drought-stricken electors. Johnnie was a prairie dreamer from the time he "saw all that distance out beyond;… that horizon so far away." But the dream and Johnnie's ambition are constantly mocked by the parched, implacable land: "Hope was faltering…. The stinkweed was shriveled and small, clinging to life low on the shoulder of the road; even the thistles, Canada and sow, looked stunted. Stunted and mean. The wheat fields themselves seemed to be praying for water, stirring as they did dumbly before a small wind."… (p. 133)...
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R. H. Ramsey
A good novel should have, so the dictum goes, depths, and Kroetsch's Badlands is suitably multidimensional. The bulk of the action tells the story of William Dawe, a domineering, hunchbacked man who abandons his family in Ontario and sets out on an ambitious journey on a flatboat down the Red Deer River into the Badlands of Alberta. In search of dinosaur bones, Dawe dreams of scientific fame, hopes to take up where his predecessors, eminent paleontologists, left off, hopes in fact to surpass their efforts by uncovering a perfect and unique specimen….
There are at least three overt levels of meaning in the book, all of which work at once and reinforce each other: the main action as it unfolds; Dawe's brief and often misleading entries in his notebooks; and summaries of events, based on these notes, made many years later by Dawe's daughter…. With the latter concern Kroetsch develops yet another level of significance—the problem of language, reality, and literary structure. The notes are selective, sometimes deliberately and even melodramatically contrived by Dawe for effect; they record, but also falsify experience.
Underlying the whole and providing its special impact are the mythic dimensions of the novel. Dawe's voyage westward is a quest for the past which, carried far enough, becomes an epic descent, a trip into hell. In a sense the men are graverobbers, scavengers of bone, probing the underworld for...
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LOUIS K. MacKENDRICK
"The novel of exhaustion," a contemporary literary term with several synonyms, describes fiction whose subject is fiction in the making, the creative process in action. It is often manifested in parodic forms and an indulgence in private fantasy which threaten to become precious. But in its sophisticated examples this species of reflexive writing sports with and flaunts the mechanics of the imagination and the devices of expression. "Novel" becomes a descriptive adjective rather than remaining an unquestioned noun; the form becomes a quality, justifying its claim to novelty. Its motives still reverence the light-bearers, Apollo and Prometheus, but its patron is the self-regarding, echo-haunted Narcissus. Robert Kroetsch's novels The Studhorse Man and Gone Indian reflect this postmodern approach to the house of fiction…. (p. 10)
[Kroetsch] has often commented on his practice in writing, and one sees that a particular approach to his work necessarily involves its techniques as an adjunct to its themes. The epigraph to Gone Indian, from Frederick Jackson Turner—"For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant"—is appropriate as theme and stylistic metaphor. However, Kroetsch's unrestraint is more of idea than performance, for he retains all the virtues of story and storytelling while imitating their conventions and parodying their devices.
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Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue carries with it something of the aura of Tobe's Catalogue and perhaps for this reason it is a difficult work to review. This elusiveness seems to be a quality intrinsic to the genre to which Seed Catalogue belongs, the long auto-biographical poem.
In one sense the long autobiographical poem is of no interest whatsoever to the reader. What a man or a woman eats for breakfast, when he or she first copulates, falls in love, leaves home, can be, for strangers, matters of some indifference….
What can save the long autobiographical poem seems to me to be a voice which engages the reader in a dialogue which transcends the poet's life, and a patterning which also points beyond the individual life. Few autobiographical poems have either of these virtues, the virtues of Whitman, Olson, Williams and Ginsberg's Howl in American poetry.
Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue does have this strong narrative voice, at times humorous, probing, specific, tragic….
[It is at once tender] and mythologizing…. (p. 46)
It is a voice which changes often, takes on many characters….
[Seed Catalogue is a poem of what Kroetsch calls the] "imagined real place," and its patterning which transcends the individual life in the best way is embodied as this dream of, really a search for, origins, the quintessential Canadian...
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[The Sad Phoenician] is the latest sequence in a long poem by Robert Kroetsch, tentatively entitled "Field Notes." Earlier segments include "The Ledger" (1975), "Seed Catalogue" (1977), and "How I Joined the Seal Herd" (published in the Seed Catalogue volume). The present volume contains two poems: "The Sad Phoenician" and "The Silent Poet Sequence."
Unlike many contemporary long or serial poems—which seem to be bound together by no more coherent an organizing principle than the fact that they are the product of a single consciousness—"The Sad Phoenician" is identifiably part of a poetic sequence and takes on its fullest meaning when read as the fourth movement in a longer poem. (pp. 6-7)
"Field Notes" is an attempt to find a language for exploring "the imagined real place." Working within a succession of imposed imaginative structures (as the titles reflect, the ledger and the seed catalogue are the organizing devices of the first two poems), Kroetsch sounds out possible ways of imagining the real. Each poem at once struggles to create the dream and contends with the possibility that "no song can do that." "Seed Catalogue," for example, expresses the concern that the poet's "record" is an insignificant fabrication, worthless in the face of the real…. And yet without the creative act upon nature, there is "the danger of merely living." The landscape remains a wilderness. We learn nothing....
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Over the past decade Kroetsch has rather quickly established himself as a novelist of significance, but it is as a poet that he has chosen to explore the ancestry of his own imagination.
In such novels as Badlands, Gone Indian, and The Studhorse Man Kroetsch has rummaged in the boneyards of western history and culture in search of the myths that make us real. In The Ledger the quest is more personal…. But the poem is not a simple record of search. What we get here is the poet watching himself search, watching himself write, and finding some pleasure in the irony of his self-regarding posture….
Like all good seekers the poet collects the artifacts and documents of the past. The book contains maps, pages from a ledger, newspaper reports, dictionary definitions, even a letter from the poet's aunt. It is the ledger, however, the daily record of the transactions of his grandfather's sawmill, that gives the poem its shape and its basic metaphor. Indeed everything about the volume, from the green embossed cover to the columns of poetry, speaks of the urge to register, to list, to find a balance in the commerce of life. Within this form, the poet as book-keeper, as a clerk of the imagination, records the various possibilities of the ledger metaphor. Working with a definition of ledger as timber for example, Kroetsch articulates the agrarian and mercantile vision of the pioneer…. A ledger may be a...
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David S. West
A poem should be economic and precise. It should be free of too strong an authorial presence. Objectivity is a virtue that lends shapeliness and focus to the finished product. But [in The Sad Phoenician] Kroetsch is writing about writing, and that changes the rules. There is always, here, a sense of the author lurking behind the language, manipulating, contriving, and interjecting at will….
In a book concerned with basic communication, these characteristics illustrate the struggle of the individual to express publicly his emotions and responses to the external world. The inner and outer world meet on the plain of language, where poetry is the struggle to share experience and perception. And during the life-long conflict, an author must develop a sense of what language and communication mean to him both as the means of expression and as an objective phenomenon—the whole range of the sounds and shapes of letters and words and all that they can be made to mean. Whatever the penalties for being a poet, at least the satisfaction of putting words on paper rewards the author; no matter what else goes wrong in life, he has his 'poetry to protect' him….
But the poetry alone is never enough. The poet lives in a living world; life rushes on about him, he responds to it, he makes it part of his living changing craft. (p. 122)
Kroetsch is always present, reminding the reader that yes there is a real...
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With Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch brings together nine parts of the long and continuing poem of that name. "Stone Hammer Poem," the introductory section, appeared as the title-piece of a collection in 1975 (Kroetsch's first book of poetry)…. Field Notes is also described on the title-page as "The Collected Poetry of Robert Kroetsch"—though it contains none of the short poems he has published during the same six years.
A preface by Eli Mandel offers a sprightly and acute introduction to the poet Kroetsch or Poet/kroetsch, disclosing this figure with gleeful flourish. It is, as a piece of critical writing, like the Prologue to Pagliacci, part of the act. (p. 36)
[Kroetsch's own address, "For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem," is written] in an aphoristic, non-linear fashion, reminiscent of Susan Sontag, and making wide reference to recently-published long poems in Canada, it will rightly become a source text for anyone interested in its subject. But here, it has an anti-climactic, even slightly bathetic impact. After the playful wisdom of Mandel's opening and the often shimmering wit of Field Notes, it reads like special-pleading, even timidity about the authority of the poetry itself.
The poetry is quite another matter. (pp. 36-7)
Field Notes is a continuing, incomplete, uncompletable poem …, a long, nimble telling...
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Field Notes is Kroetsch's "collected poems." It contains nine long poems, arranged as "field notes 1-8" and a prologue, "Stone Hammer Poem," from Kroetsch's first book…. The selection engagingly displays Kroetsch's wide range as a poet, his supplely shifting tones, his seriousness, humour, and irony, his talent for epigram, lyricism, description, and narrative, his formal inventiveness, his learning, and his deft, unassuming way with an allusion. His decision to present his poetry as an accumulating single work is justified, as was Yeats's, by the continuity of its themes, and by the gathering, self-reflexive awareness that intensifies these themes in and through all variations of style and form.
Throughout his book Kroetsch confronts the mute innocence of earth and the baffling presence of this (natural and/or divine?) enigma joined with a human person in woman. The microcosmic theme of love and the difficulties of embodying it in a sexual relationship are linked with the terrible social problem of worthily husbanding the land.
A second, closely related, nexus of concerns more or less completes the survey of Kroetsch's intellectual "field." To teach himself how to husband, he looks for the help of a history, a tradition, a memory, a muse. This search occurs primarily in the first two major poems, "The Ledger" and "Seed Catalogue." It leads to what can only be described as an agony of not-finding, although...
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