(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.”
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.
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.
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.