Michael Ondaatje Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

(Philip) Michael Ondaatje 1943-

Ceylonese-born Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, editor, critic, and filmmaker.

Ondaatje emerged during the 1960s as one of Canada's most respected young poets. In his verse, Ondaatje examines the dichotomy between rational intellect and disorderly reality and suggests that the poet's efforts to render personal experience must necessarily result in distortion. Ondaatje's style is characterized by humor, flamboyant imagery, extravagant metaphors, and sudden shifts in tone. Sam Solecki observed that in Ondaatje's poetry, “the fundamental or essential nature of experience is consistently being described and examined. The entire thrust of his vision is directed at compelling the reader to reperceive reality, to assume an unusual angle of vision from which reality appears surreal, absurd, inchoate, dynamic, and, most important, ambiguous.”

Biographical Information

Born into a wealthy family in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Ondaatje left home after his parents' divorce in 1952 for London, where he attended Dulwich College. Shortly thereafter, Ondaatje immigrated to Montreal, Canada, to study at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, where he began writing poetry, and later at the University of Toronto, where Ondaatje met poet Raymond Souster. Souster included Ondaatje's work in his 1966 anthology of young Canadian poets titled New Wave Canada. After winning the university's Epstein Award for Poetry, Ondaatje was introduced by poet Wayne Clifford to Coach House press, which published his first collection, The Dainty Monsters, in 1967.

In 1964 Ondaatje married artist Kim Jones, who had four children from a previous marriage; the couple had two children of their own soon after. Marriage, family life, and friendships inform a number of poems in Ondaatje's first book as well as in the 1973 collection Rat Jelly. After completing his M.A. at Queen's University, Ondaatje began teaching English at the University of Western Ontario. In 1971, unwilling to obtain a Ph.D., Ondaatje left the university for a teaching position at Glendon College in Toronto. In 1980 Ondaatje separated from his wife and, soon after, began a relationship with another woman. The events of his life at this time, primarily the sadness of divorce and the joy of new love, are documented in Ondaatje's 1984 collection Secular Love. In addition to writing and teaching, Ondaatje has edited a number of important anthologies for Coach House press.

Major Works

Ondaatje's early collections of poetry, The Dainty Monsters and The man with seven toes (1969), display a preoccupation with domestic and personal conflicts, mythical and historical figures, the often violent relationship between humans and animals, and destructive impulses among artists. Critics noted that his verse is consistently presented in musical sound-conscious language. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970), which won a Governor General's Award, is considered Ondaatje's most important volume of poetry to date. Combining prose, verse, photographs, and drawings, Ondaatje presents a fictionalized biography that probes the psyche of notorious American outlaw William Bonney. There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979), which also won a Governor General's Award, contains selections from The Dainty Monsters and Rat Jelly as well as nineteen new poems centering on such topics as friendship and family history. Secular Love comprises four unified sequences of confessional lyrics exploring paternal love, Ondaatje's traumatic divorce, and the redemptive qualities of love. In these poems, Ondaatje is both a character and a creative observer molding his experiences into art. Ondaatje's more recent collections, The Cinnamon Peeler (1989) and Handwriting (1999), both explore Sri Lankan history and culture.

Critical Reception

Ondaatje's poetry has garnered popular and critical acclaim since publication of his first volume. Douglas Barbour found Ondaatje's early works “jungle-lush,” noting also Ondaatje's “rhythmic control over his language.” The man with seven toes has been performed as a dramatic reading and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje's most acclaimed poetic work, has been adapted for the stage. While some critics have chided Ondaatje for lyrical excesses, most scholars of Ondaatje's poetry have concurred that his highly original—and occasionally dark—vision, his linguistic skill, and his manipulation of myth both established and that of his own imagination make Ondaatje one of the most important poets of his generation.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Dainty Monsters 1967

the man with seven toes 1969

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems 1970

Rat Jelly 1973

Elimination Dance 1978

There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning To Do: Poems, 1963-1978 1979

Secular Love 1984

All along the Mazinaw: Two Poems 1986

The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems 1989

Handwriting: Poems 1999

Leonard Cohen (nonfiction) 1970

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid [based on his poetry] (play) 1973

Coming Through Slaughter (novel) 1976

Running in the Family (memoir) 1982

In the Skin of a Lion (novel) 1987

In the Skin of a Lion [based on his novel] (play) 1987

The English Patient (novel) 1992

Douglas Barbour (review date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Controlling the Jungle,” in Canadian Literature, No. 36, Spring, 1968, pp. 86-8.

[In the following assessment of Dainty Monsters, Barbour praises Ondaatje's natural imagery, subtle narrative, and controlled language.]

[The Dainty Monsters] is the finest first book of poems to appear since Margaret Avison's Winter Sun. Michael Ondaatje represents a healthy reaction in modern Canadian poetry. Although a completely contemporary writer, he eschews the “simple”, almost barren, style of so many of the poets influenced by the Black Mountain group. He owes much of his originality to his background, I think. The exotic imagery which crowds the pages of this book appears to stem from his childhood memories of Ceylon. His poems are jungle-lush, but, unlike a jungle, they are cultivated and controlled. Their profuseness suggest a full and fertile mind always at work.

Imagery, in itself, is not enough, of course. Michael Ondaatje is also sensitive to poetic form, and he exercises a firm rhythmic control over his language. There is also, in his longer poems, his sense of plot, or story. In the poems of the second part of the book, he demonstrates a fine and subtle understanding of poetic narrative. This does not mean he longwindedly “tells the story.” Rather, the story exists behind the poem, always present to focus the specific incident in a precisely imagined context. This suggestion of story context often occurs in the shorter poems, too. In “The Moving to Griffin,” for example, there is a gain in density from the implied context of the poet's life story.

Ondaatje's imagery is obsessively natural: the book is a kind of modern bestiary, with birds, predatory and domestic animals, and the beast, man, always present, always active. Images of birds, especially, occur again...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Michael Ondaatje with Jon Pearce (interview date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Moving to the Clear: Michael Ondaatje,” in Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets, Borealis Press, 1980, pp. 129-44.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1978, Ondaatje discusses his poetry, particularly the creative process.]

[Jon Pearce]: When did you start to write? Did you write at all in England when you lived there as a teen-ager?

[Michael Ondaatje]: No. I think I did write one short story, but I didn't have much interest in writing at the time. I had read a lot, but had actually no interest in writing. I started to write in 1963 and The Dainty Monsters came out in 1967.


(The entire section is 6105 words.)

Sam Solecki (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Point Blank: Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's the man with seven toes” in Canadian Poetry, No. 6, Spring/Summer, 1980, pp. 14-24.

[In the following essay, Solecki offers an explanatory overview of Ondaatje's the man with seven toes, arguing that the collection is “a pivotal book in Ondaatje's development.”]

In view of the acclaim and the attention received by Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and Coming Through Slaughter (1976) it is inevitable that his first book-length work, the man with seven toes (1969), is often overlooked in most discussions either of his work or of contemporary...

(The entire section is 5481 words.)

Judith Owens (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘I Send You a Picture’: Ondaatje's Portrait of Billy the Kid,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1983, pp. 117-39.

[In the essay below, Owens presents a thorough analysis of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, focusing in particular on the tension between order and disorder in the collection. Owens asserts that Billy “seeks or imposes order in the external world to compensate for a disintegrating inner world.”]


The reader finds in Ondaatje's Billy a strong desire for order, a rage for order, one might say, if Billy's style and voice were not so deliberately flat in so many places. From his opening...

(The entire section is 9122 words.)

Lucille King-Edwards (review date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “On the Brink”, in Books in Canada, Vol. 13, No. 10, December, 1984, pp. 16-17.

[In the following assessment of Secular Love, King-Edwards heralds Ondaatje's break “from reason and control” in the collection, but laments what she perceives as inconsistency in his poetry, arguing “It is jarring… to go from the confessional poems of anguished, passionate love to the more mundane ones of friendship and fatherly love.”]

Once again a book by Michael Ondaatje, and the expectancy is qualified by the memory of one's first encounter with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a book that swept one through it on an ever-cresting wave. Until...

(The entire section is 1068 words.)

Sam Solecki (review date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Coming Through,” in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXIV, No. 745, January, 1985, pp. 32-4.

[In the following laudatory evaluation of Secular Love, Solecki describes the collection as “the ruthless and unembarrassed engagement with the self,” adding “Almost every page shows evidence of Ondaajte's brilliant visual imagination and his auditory sensitivity to the musical possibilities of free verse.”]

Although we don't usually think of it in this way, poetry, like life, has its historically significant dates: 1798, the first Lyrical Ballads; 1857, Les Fleurs du Mal; and 1922, The Waste Land are for us not just dates of publication...

(The entire section is 2486 words.)

Gillian Harding-Russell (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Note on Ondaatje's ‘Peter’: A Creative Myth,” in Canadian Literature, No. 112, Spring, 1987, pp. 205-11.

[In the essay below, Harding-Russell discusses Ondaajte's handling of both myth and the artist figure in the early poem “Peter.” The critic asserts that, with “Peter,” Ondaajte “deftly objectifies the artist's dilemma by representing him as ‘court monster’ in a fairy tale setting.”]

In “Peter” of The Dainty Monsters, Ondaatje explores the artist's ability or inability to rise above personality and experience.1 He creates a myth around a vindictive artist figure which recalls other implied analogues or figures...

(The entire section is 3382 words.)

Ray Wilton (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Narrative in Michael Ondaatje's ‘the man with seven toes’,” in Canadian Literature, No. 137, Summer, 1993, pp. 63-74.

[In the following essay, Wilton analyzes Ondaatje's narrative technique in the man with seven toes, particularly the unconscious and conscious participation of the reader in the text.]

The man with seven toes may be seen as Michael Ondaatje's first major narrative. However, reading this text as narrative presents numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the tendency of the individual poems to elicit lyric expectations that in fact resist narrative continuity. The design of the book, with its broad pages,...

(The entire section is 4665 words.)

Douglas Barbour (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry and Maturing Poetics,” in Michael Ondaatje, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 67-98.

[In the following essay, Barbour traces Ondaatje's poetic development from his first collection through There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do. Barbour discovers a trend in Ondaatje's writing toward more experimental and personal poetry.]

An edition of selected poems, especially when published by major presses in a poet's own country, the United States, and the United Kingdom, signifies both achievement and recognition. For Ondaatje, the Governor General's Award-winning There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979) also provided an...

(The entire section is 15403 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 247 p.

Book-length study of Ondaatje's poetry and fiction with chapters devoted to early poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Secular Love.

Bök, Christian. “Destructive Creation: The Politicization of Violence in the Works of Michael Ondaatje.” Canadian Literature No. 132 (Spring 1992): 109-24.

Analyzes the creative and destructive roles violence plays in Ondaatje's poetry and fiction, noting that while “Ondaatje's earlier texts appear to valorize violence enacted for purely idiosyncratic reasons,...

(The entire section is 447 words.)