Michael Ondaatje Poetry: British Analysis - Essay

Michael Ondaatje Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Perhaps no other Canadian writer, with the exception of Atwood, has written well in such a variety of genres and received the international acclaim accorded Michael Ondaatje. This “international” reputation is hardly surprising, given his Sri Lankan heritage, his thoroughly “British” schooling, and the foreign teaching positions he has held. In fact, since Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid have distinctly American themes (the first about jazz man Buddy Bolden; the second about a Western cultural icon), there has been a tendency to deny Ondaatje Canadian status. Similarly, given the unconventional nature of the narrative in Coming Through Slaughter and the blending of poetry and prose in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (which some critics have categorized as fiction or “other”), Ondaatje’s writing tends to blur, if not to obscure, conventional distinctions between fiction and poetry.

The Dainty Monsters

The Dainty Monsters, Ondaatje’s first volume of verse, contains many poems about animals and birds. “Description Is a Bird” is the first of eight poems in the collection. For the most part, humans are absent from these poems; the animals seem to serve as symbols but resist interpretation, leaving room for various responses. Douglas Barbour reads the poem as follows: “Love is a performance against solitude which demands discipline in the midst of apparent chaos.” The birds’ actions describe love. Barbour feels that poems like these, those that allow “closure,” were omitted in later collections because “Ondaatje’s restless imagination” found them “too confining.”

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

In 1970, three years after The Dainty Monsters, Ondaatje published The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a hybrid book containing some lyric poems but also photographs, a fictional newspaper account, ballads, and selections from real documents. For Dennis Lee, “this polyphony introduces an exuberant flow into the book’s movement, which carries a reader with ease through the discontinuities of the plot.” In the book, civilization and nature are at odds, and Billy dehumanizes himself by becoming a killing machine. Constantly on edge, Billy is the outsider constrained by boundaries which he crosses or observes. The volume begins with an empty square that represents a picture of Billy, but the prose passage alludes to moving pictures. In fact, the book contains references and descriptions that suggest that Billy is a camera, observing angles and distances, or a motion picture camera, describing actions as one would write a screenplay:

Garrett smiles, pokes his gun towards the door.

(The entire section is 1165 words.)