Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael (Vol. 14)
Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael 1943–
Ondaatje is a Canadian poet, playwright, critic, editor, and film director who was born in Ceylon. The musical, rhythmic intensity of his poetry reveals Ondaatje's love of language and sensitivity to the meaning of words. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
[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 and again. Yet in the poem, "Song to Alfred Hitchcock and Wilkinson", he does the unexpected, and the poem fairly leaps from the page as a result:
Flif flif flif flif very fast
is the noise the birds...
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The many lamely constructed similes of Dainty Monsters and the often lurid lyric excesses of The Man With Seven Toes are a far cry from the more carefully crafted, casually understated material of [The Collected Works of Billy the Kid]. Negotiating this book, I sensed a sure-footedness, a control which I have never felt in Ondaatje's earlier books. Indeed, if he hadn't used the historic framework of the adventures of Mrs. Fraser (The Man With Seven Toes) in a manner somewhat prophetic of his similar technique in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I would have found little area for comparison whatsoever.
The rather unusual choice of an old Wild-West saga—the story of Billy the Kid—as a literary vehicle struck me at first as dubious, but strikes me now as quite an intelligent choice to have made. For one thing, though much has been written about the incidents surrounding the Kid's life …, very little record remains (or has existed) of the Kid's own version of his story, of anything which might have given the reader more of an insight into his character than the descriptions of those who claimed to know him…. [The] Kid still remains essentially a silent, mysterious puzzle, an assemblage of pieces of hearsay and history representing a man whose deeds were clear, but whose reasons for perpetrating them were not. For this reason there was plenty of room for Ondaatje to develop and amplify, with few restrictions, an entire personage to whatever specifications he pleased, and, on top of this, to plunge quickly into deep water without having to waste unnecessary space with lengthy explanations and introductions, since the exterior, physical realities of his subject were already general cultural property.
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[The Collected Works of Billy the Kid] fixes a certain view of the Kid into an intense, fully realized image…. (p. 42)
Ondaatje's mythmaking is a careful process, built up by various means, and he indicates in several ways the degree to which he is presenting a legendary or poetic image of the Kid. There is, for instance, the concern with photographs. The book opens with an account of photography at the time of Billy's life, indicating the difficulty (which is also Ondaatje's) of taking a sharp image of a moving object…. [And] what the photograph shows is always accurate…. Indeed, it was the reversed image of one famous photograph of Billy which led to the mistaken idea that he was left-handed. All contemporary authorities … remember Billy as right-handed; but his left-handedness fits in better with the legendary image of the outsider…. Ondaatje's subtitle, "Left Handed Poems" derives from [Arthur Penn's film on Billy the Kid,] The Left Handed Gun. (pp. 42-3)
The film image is a further way in which Ondaatje transforms the historical Billy into a legendary image. The subtitle casts the image of Penn's film across the whole book, and also recalls Penn's later masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde, in which the outlaw figures are subjected to a my thologising process within the film itself…. Ondaatje uses comedy in much the same way as Penn: grotesque images of violence become almost simultaneously comic and horrible…. Finally, closely akin to the movie image is the comic-book legend which forms Billy's apotheosis…. This is the final transformation of Billy in pop culture into the upright clean-living hero…. (pp. 43-4)
But although Ondaatje's image of Billy the Kid may be influenced by the images of comic-books and the movies, these references are merely the context in which Ondaatje sets his own central image of Billy: and … it is the book's title which points to the nature of that image….
Ondaatje gives a list of "the killed". To Billy he ascribes 20 victims (curiously, for the usual legendary number is 21), most of whom … are totally unsubstantiated historically. Then he gives Garrett's victims, ending
… and Pat Garret
sliced off my head.
Blood a necklace on me all my life.
The strange, violent beauty of the image, together with the use of the first person, point towards the concept behind the title The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Ondaatje's legendary context for Billy is poetry; the transformation will be carried out mainly through the poetic image; the book will present Billy himself as an artist. Of course, "works" is ambiguous: it can also refer to Billy's actions, the killings. But Ondaatje is clearly working within the Romantic tradition of the artist as outsider…. Billy's status as outlaw is intimately connected with the nature of his perception. He is placed outside society not only by what he does, but by the very way in which he sees the world…. (p. 44)
Of course, Billy's poetic personality is not entirely distinct from Michael Ondaatje's. The concern with animals—apparent throughout the book—is familiar to any reader of Ondaatje's poetry. What results from the title "The Collected...
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Based on the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the originators of New Orleans jazz, ["Coming Through Slaughter"] jumbles actual history, interviews with old jazzmen, snatches of local color, fictional reconstruction, three "sonographs" of dolphin sounds, primitive poetry and pretentious writing. Bolden's eventual insanity is romanticized, as if he blew himself beyond coherence on his horn. "Coming Through Slaughter" is written in several voices, none of them is satisfactory. Too many sentences float between cliché and bombast: "Swimming toward the sound of madness." "What he wanted was cruel, pure relationship." "The music was his dance in the auditorium of enemies." "In terror we lean in the direction that is most unlike us. Running past your own character into pain." "All suicides, all acts of privacy are romantic."
Now and then, when Mr. Ondaatje relaxes, "Coming Through Slaughter" warms up. The description of the mattress whores of New Orleans is properly appalling. Their beds on their backs, their ankles broken by the heavy sticks of monopolistic pimps, these ghosts of prostitutes ply their trade on the pavements, in the back alleys of shantytown. While the evocation of New Orleans is rather thin, an occasional image comes through.
Bolden finally went mad while leading a band through the streets in a parade. Mr. Ondaatje has embellished the occasion by introducing, among the people thronging the sidewalk, a girl who dances to Bolden's improvisations, mysteriously anticipating his every impulse. The scene is well done and not uninteresting, but it ultimately becomes self-conscious and arty. And whatever the relation between Bolden's lust for life, his music and his insanity, it is too pat to imply that he blew his mind over an unknown girl….
A novel like "Coming Through Slaughter" [is] made up of shards of various techniques…. The author gives us all the broken pieces and leaves it to us to infer the final form. (p. 14)
Anatole Broyard, "New Woman, Old Jazz, Hemingway," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1977, pp. 14, 44.∗
G. E. Murray
Michael Ondaatje's poems in There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning to Do … use the lyric as a weapon…. [His] landscapes are populated by horrifying figures and events. It's a fashionable track, and any number of aspirants can turn out a glum swatch of verse given a dead animal or nightmare inspired by an anchovy pizza. Yet Ondaatje rises above the usual muck with an aggressively inventive, if sometimes offhanded, flourish. His freshness creates its own season of isolation in "the cell of civilized magic." (p. 578)
G. E. Murray, "Six Poets," in The Nation (copyright 1979 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 19, May 19, 1979, pp. 578, 580.∗...
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["There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963–1978" is] filled with odd angles of vision, but it lacks the kind of spectral music it seems to need. It's a poetry that mixes the bizarre and commonplace, but its accents are prosaic: "I have been seeing dragons again." And in another poem, "We are in a cell of civilized magic." There's a witty poem spoken through the persona of a young Queen Elizabeth I, and another about Henri Rousseau and the wealthy women who collect his paintings. But often there are juxtapositions that aren't sharp enough….
[The] lack of a driving or lilting music and the barren punctuation create a disembodied effect.
This is a poetry that...
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