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 make running over us. A poet would say 'fluttering', or 'see-sawing with sun on their wings'. But all it is is flif flif flif flif very fast.
Although his poems are filled with images of violence and terror, his love poems are able to stand against this vision. Life is seldom gentle in these poems, but the love lyrics salvage and savour those moments of deep gentleness which cannot last but must be accepted joyfully in their passing. "The Diverse Causes", "She Carries a 'Fat Gold Watch'", "Christmas Poem, 1965", "Four Eyes", as well as the poems of love in the Troy Town section, all present the particular moments of communion with an intensity sufficient to command belief. We accept the validity of such moments because the poems poignantly create that validity. (pp. 86-7)
Yet Ondaatje's poetry never dissolves into sentimentality. His sure control, and the precision of his vision won't allow that. The ironies of his animal poems, his use of tone, the mythic vision of the Troy Town poems, the sense of the power in others, of our inability to control or protect others … all preclude sentimentality. He is too tough-minded, too aware of the complexities of life, and his poetry offers no answers or escapes, as sentimentality always does.
"Troy Town", the second part of The Dainty Monsters , is concerned with myth and the creation of myth. This is a difficult term; but it should be sufficient to suggest that, in these poems, Ondaatje tells "stories" which engender responses of awe...
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and admiration. The life of these poems is violent, for they deal with the permutations of human violence. He has used the well-known myths of Troy and Lilith for some of these poems, but he has also created new myths out of history, or, in "Peter", probably the finest poem in the collection, out of his own imagination. The poem on Egypt, and the Elizabeth poems … are fascinating for their sense of the person. These are monologues, and, especially in "Elizabeth", he has achieved a high degree of dramatic realism. I have said that he has a clear imaginative understanding of violence, yet this violence never overwhelms the poet. The poetry is not voluptuous in its violence; it is chiseled and carefully wrought. The old idea of decorum applies perfectly to these poems. This is especially true of "Peter", where the poet deals with varieties of physical and mental violence in an almost virginally pure style and manner. The result is a tremendous gain in imaginative force over most modern treatments of the theme.
This is a beautiful book. It is this in both senses of the word, as a work of poet's craft and as a work of printer's craft. (pp. 87-8)
Douglas Barbour, "Controlling the Jungle," in Canadian Literature, No. 36, Spring, 1968, pp. 86-8.
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.
In The Collected Works, then, Ondaatje projects himself into the minds of the Kid and Sheriff Garrett to retell the saga from the inside, writing down the reminiscences, jokes, casual thoughts, answers to simulated questions and even hallucinations which may have passed through the two men's minds. Using poems, prose sketches, "eyewitness" reports, diary-like notations and an ostensible newspaper interview with the Kid, Ondaatje restores to the saga the third dimension it had lost by having become an old tale always told from a single storyteller's point of view. Ondaatje's "new version", in fact, becomes one of the most intimate kinds of documentary imaginable, the camera having completely free access to both public and private sides of the subject(s); i.e. the incidents themselves as well as the minds of the men who provoked them are open to inspection.
Of course, the value of The Collected Works as a colourfully reconstituted account of the history of Billy the Kid has only little to do with the value of the book…. The success of the poetry and prose … goes well beyond its subject—a telltale hallmark of good literature in any style. And if the person of Billy the Kid consequently evolves into a character almost too sensitive to be a believable gunman, well—history must remain the slave of Art. (pp. 80-2)
Indeed, one is always conscious of Ondaatje speaking through the mask of Billy, Garrett, or any of the other characters in the book, but this never detracts from either the story or the verse; the characters, in fact, flourish by this method in a truly dramatic way. Whether any of the historic persons really appeared the way Ondaatje recreates them simply becomes irrelevant; they make a very credible amount of sense within the context of Ondaatje's version of the tale. His story takes on its own rhythms, entirely outside the realities of history….
The clean simplicity, the uncluttered, toned-down, almost easy precision … generally characteristic of the book is probably the happy result of Ondaatje's being forced to assume, at least to some degree, the simplicity of speech his characters themselves would have used. This little exercise has done Ondaatje a world of good, and The Collected Works reflects it. Only occasionally, in precisely five poems, does he let his lyric overdrive run away with him to the detriment of the poem, which becomes not only nonbelievable in context, but simply bad or mediocre poetry outright…. I don't mean to imply that the rest of the work is therefore necessarily all undiluted genius, but it's certainly strong enough to keep one reading voluntarily and continuously…. (p. 82)
Andreas Schroeder, "The Poet as Gunman," in Canadian Literature, No. 51, Winter, 1972, pp. 80-2.
[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 Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje" is in fact a composite figure: Billy the Kid, outlaw as artist, and Michael Ondaatje, artist as outlaw, meeting in one persona, which is part history, part legend, part aesthetic image, part creator of images. It is in terms of this complex persona that the book approaches its material. (p. 45)
Ondaatje presents Billy's violence in terms of the poetic image of energy: the energy necessary to both outlaw and artist…. Energy tightly controlled by form is one definition of a work of art; and in art the "one altered move" will result in the dissipation of energy, a bad poem. Or, when the energy of the work of art is directly expressive of violence, and when it is transmitted in a context where such artistic controls as irony are severely compromised, then the "one altered move" can be physically destructive beyond the aesthetic bounds…. Ondaatje's book depicts the shattering of the precarious control over the energy of Billy's violence, and the violence he evokes in those around him; the events then drive inexorably towards his death. (pp. 47-8)
If a writer's intentions can be most clearly seen in the places where he most drastically alters his source material, then Ondaatje's metamorphosis of the Chisums must be the very centre of his work. The impression that Ondaatje's book gives is that the Chisum ranch is a fairly small place, out in the desert miles from anywhere, inhabited only by Sallie and John, who is seen as a gentle, peace-loving man with little interest or influence in the world beyond his ranch. In fact, John Chisum was one of the largest and most influential landowners and cattlemen in the territory…. (p. 49)
The image presented in Ondaatje's book is, then, largely his own invention; and the pains he has taken to alter his source material indicate the importance he attaches to it. The Chisum ranch is the "still centre" of Billy's world. It is a place of peace, of affection, of comradeship. None of the apologists for Billy as a poor misunderstood child driven against his will to violence have ever provided him with such a beautiful and fully realized context for his "true nature": but Ondaatje succeeds in doing this without in the least sentimentalising Billy. (p. 50)
Ondaatje omits any account of Billy's early activities, such as his murders in the Lincoln County War, and presents him mainly in two contexts: the peace and beauty of the Chisum ranch, and the final chase and manhunt. In other words, Billy is seen almost entirely as victim. There are three extended accounts of killings in the book … and in every case the killer is Garrett. We never get any similar account of a killing by Billy…. In other words, Billy is a humane murderer…. Ondaatje stacks his deck. If the reader reacts in horror or disgust from the violence in the book, he is reacting mainly against Garrett. Although Ondaatje's Billy is far from a blameless character, there is a definite implication that the violence exists around him rather than in him…. (pp. 53-4)
Ondaatje's [Billy] is destroyed by something outside himself, something that itself remains calm and indestructible: and therefore, all the more terrifying. Garrett's character thus presents an interesting paredox: he is himself an embodiment of order, control; yet in contact with Billy he becomes the "altered move" which produces chaos.
Or is it chaos? It is violence, certainly, and death; but there is a kind of direction to it. Within the terms of the legend, it is an inexorable progress, and what it ends in is not Billy's death but Billy's apotheosis into legend: the creation, that is, of an aesthetic image. If Billy is one image of the artist, then surely Pat Garrett, even if his material is dead bodies, like his birds, is another? The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is, after all, a tightly controlled book: Ondaatje is a careful artist, and the images of violence are never allowed to get out of hand in the book. The book is not chaos, the book is not manic. It is an attempt to comprehend the legend of Billy the Kid, to see him as one of the exemplary figures of modern consciousness, outlaw as artist, artist as outlaw. He is involved with violence, but the violence results from the conflict between himself and his society, it is a product of his symbiotic relationship with Pat Garrett. Ondaatje's final image of Billy sees him waking up after a bad night: the smell of smoke, the stain of violence, is still with him—but only in his shirt, which can be changed. We turn the page and find a photograph of a small boy smiling in a cowboy outfit: Billy's costume of violence turned into an image, a toy. That small boy is Michael Ondaatje, poet.
Ondaatje's Billy does not have the substantiality of history; his history is changed and fashioned into something else: legend, the aesthetic image in all its depth and detail, its vividness and force. (pp. 54-5)
Stephen Scobie, "Two Authors in Search of a Character," in Canadian Literature, No. 54, Autumn, 1972, pp. 37-55.
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.∗
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.∗
["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 relies on a hushed approach, and on occasion its claims sound helpless and confused: "My mind is pouring chaos/in nets onto the page." But there is a yearning for wonder in this poetry, and a curiousity that informs the imaginative life of his poetry at its best. (p. 14)
Charles Molesworth, "Five Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 2, 1979, pp. 8, 14.∗