Robert Kroetsch Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Kroetsch 1927–

Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.

In his fiction, his poetry, and his travel literature, Kroetsch exhibits an appreciation of the Canadian landscape. Concentrating on the significance of his nation's myths, legends, and artifacts, Kroetsch creates distinctively Canadian works.

Kroetsch has been recognized as one of Canada's outstanding writers. His novel, The Studhorse Man, received the Governor General's Award in 1970. Critics consider the various sequences of Kroetsch's long poem, Field Notes, one of his finest achievements for it establishes him as one of the few contemporary masters of long verse.

(See also CLC, Vol. 5 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Paul R. Clarkson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["But We Are Exiles"] is about a young man's flight from the entanglements, pressures, personal relationships and unplanned happening inherent in living. (p. 11)

Deftly with subtle power, author Kroetsch communicates the sorry existence of characters adrift, lacking a purpose for living, assaulted from within and without. Especially well done are many descriptive passages and economical development of numerous minor characters. (pp. 11-12)

Paul R. Clarkson, "'But We Are Exiles'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 26, No. 1, April 1, 1966, pp. 11-12.

Arnold Edinborough

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Kroetsch's But We Are The Exiles [shows no absence of emotional or imaginative structure]. Kroetsch has thought deeply about his characters and his theme, trying to merge them symbolically in a sort of Virginia Woolf way. Peter Guy is running away from a soured love affair, and chooses to run by sailing up and down the Mackenzie River as a pilot. Hornyak, the man who stole his woman, has now bought the boat on which he serves and, in a vengeful moment, Peter consciously arranges for Hornyak's accidental death…. (p. 47)

[An] amazing amount of corroborative detail gives verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. For though Kroetsch knows his Arctic, the river, the boats and the men, and has lived a long time in the setting he so vividly describes, he is also an academic…. So he imposes layer after layer of symbolism on his basic story. The aimlessness of Guy's life is contrasted with his pilot's skill on the river. The river is life, but it causes death—spiritual and physical death. After Hornyak's body is found, it becomes like an albatross round the necks of the crew of the Nahanni Jane. Closely paralleling some of the details of The Ancient Mariner, the story, like the barge, sinks under the weight of its triple symbolism. The style also gets more and more involved until the final expiation is a sentence some fifty lines long—almost a whole dense, unintelligible page.

Though there are great moments in But We Are The Exiles, it is too contrived, too rigidly controlled in its form to get to us…. In fact, one wonders, with all that symbolism, what the fuss is really about. (pp. 47, 49)

Arnold Edinborough, "New Canadian Fiction: 'But We Are The Exiles'" (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 80, No. 5, May, 1966, pp. 47, 49.

Fred Rotondaro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Words of My Roaring"] really operates on two levels. On one level, it is an attempt to show a man who comes to at least a partial understanding of himself. On another level, it is supposed to be funny. I think it was Steve Allen who wrote that the first requisite of a successful comedian was that the audience like him. The best wit will fail when the audience has an antagonism toward the performer. This is the problem with "The Words of My Roaring." Johnnie [the protagonist] isn't very likeable. There are a number of counts one might bring against him. He is an alcoholic of sorts. But this is certainly forgiveable. He commits adultery. Well, even this. He is a rotten provider for his family. But perhaps more importantly, he is just plain stupid. He has virtually no sense of laughter himself; no ability, or wish, to understand other people. The humor of the book fails because of his excessive stupidity. The attempted psychological penetration also fails for this reason. For the story is told completely through the eyes of Johnnie. And he is just not sensitive enough to understand what is going on. His sudden moments of truth fall flat. He seems much more believable when he tells the reader, as he does constantly, that he is six-foot-four and very powerful. Much more believable but not very interesting.

Fred Rotondaro, "'The Words of My Roaring'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 26, No. 7, July 1, 1966, p. 171.

R.G.G. Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Words of My Roaring is weird but energetic and readable. A roughneck Alberta undertaker stands in the provincial elections against the long established Member, a doctor who is his father figure. Although there is a good deal of repetitive emphasis on the undertaker's size, strength and preoccupation with death, which is compared with the doctor's orientation towards life, and scenes of rustic festivity, like enforced farm sales, it goes with a swing. The author says, "the Messianic nature of prairie politics made an impression on me—the peculiar combination of fundamental religion and radical political theory." The fascination with the material comes through and hefts the tale over the sticky bits.

R.G.G. Price, "New Novels: 'The Words of My Roaring'," in Punch (© 1966 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 251, No. 6588, December 14, 1966, p. 902.

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The pattern of "The Studhorse Man"] is circular, as is Hazard's journey, and the point—made in a manner that fuses prairie tall-tale with Odyssean myth—is that perfectionists procrastinate and thus waste their lives while life in general goes muddling on around them. In the long run, Poseidon tramples Hazard to death … and the narrator goes off his head, the strain of "knowing" Hazard and of trying to tell the truth about him having proved too great.

There's a certain amount of strain for the reader too, especially if he always wants to know exactly what's going on; but if he can resist, at least as often as the narrator does, what the narrator calls "the necessity of interpretation," he will have a ball as Mr. Kroetsch's gross hero stalks with his prize beast through a landscape as abstract as it is lovingly delineated, as crammed with garrulous eccentrics as it is also demoralizingly empty….

In other words "The Studhorse Man," like all good books, stretches the mind, and does so with a gross yet realistic central notion flanked by bouts of farce….

An Englishman grandly withdraws from history; a horse ignominiously swyves his way into it; and, in between, Mr. Kroetsch stages a raunchy pantomime in which pigstickers and penis-measurers, bone-buyers and hockey-stars, an ancient nun and an almost blind ranch-mistress, reel toward and past one another, hunching away from history and the world...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Laurence Ricou

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Robert Kroetsch's] novels seem to defy the existential despair characteristic of contemporary prairie fiction both rural and urban. Kroetsch's anti-heroes are painfully aware of their isolation in a meaningless world running to waste; but they escape their anguish … through sheer gusto. Kroetsch's prairie men are the inheritors of the stonepicker's simple determination to endure and of … unregenerate, saucy humour, but they have an unquenchable exuberance which transcends both.

Johnnie Backstrom, the narrator and protagonist of The Words of My Roaring (1966), is, at thirty-three and six foot four, the giant of a man so typical of the prairie novel. Johnnie, the local undertaker, is...

(The entire section is 1379 words.)

R. H. Ramsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A good novel should have, so the dictum goes, depths, and Kroetsch's Badlands is suitably multidimensional. The bulk of the action tells the story of William Dawe, a domineering, hunchbacked man who abandons his family in Ontario and sets out on an ambitious journey on a flatboat down the Red Deer River into the Badlands of Alberta. In search of dinosaur bones, Dawe dreams of scientific fame, hopes to take up where his predecessors, eminent paleontologists, left off, hopes in fact to surpass their efforts by uncovering a perfect and unique specimen….

There are at least three overt levels of meaning in the book, all of which work at once and reinforce each other: the main action as it...

(The entire section is 419 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The novel of exhaustion," a contemporary literary term with several synonyms, describes fiction whose subject is fiction in the making, the creative process in action. It is often manifested in parodic forms and an indulgence in private fantasy which threaten to become precious. But in its sophisticated examples this species of reflexive writing sports with and flaunts the mechanics of the imagination and the devices of expression. "Novel" becomes a descriptive adjective rather than remaining an unquestioned noun; the form becomes a quality, justifying its claim to novelty. Its motives still reverence the light-bearers, Apollo and Prometheus, but its patron is the self-regarding, echo-haunted Narcissus. Robert...

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Karen Mulhallen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue carries with it something of the aura of Tobe's Catalogue and perhaps for this reason it is a difficult work to review. This elusiveness seems to be a quality intrinsic to the genre to which Seed Catalogue belongs, the long auto-biographical poem.

In one sense the long autobiographical poem is of no interest whatsoever to the reader. What a man or a woman eats for breakfast, when he or she first copulates, falls in love, leaves home, can be, for strangers, matters of some indifference….

What can save the long autobiographical poem seems to me to be a voice which engages the reader in a dialogue which transcends the poet's life, and a...

(The entire section is 381 words.)

Dale Reagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Sad Phoenician] is the latest sequence in a long poem by Robert Kroetsch, tentatively entitled "Field Notes." Earlier segments include "The Ledger" (1975), "Seed Catalogue" (1977), and "How I Joined the Seal Herd" (published in the Seed Catalogue volume). The present volume contains two poems: "The Sad Phoenician" and "The Silent Poet Sequence."

Unlike many contemporary long or serial poems—which seem to be bound together by no more coherent an organizing principle than the fact that they are the product of a single consciousness—"The Sad Phoenician" is identifiably part of a poetic sequence and takes on its fullest meaning when read as the fourth movement in a longer poem....

(The entire section is 893 words.)

John Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Over the past decade Kroetsch has rather quickly established himself as a novelist of significance, but it is as a poet that he has chosen to explore the ancestry of his own imagination.

In such novels as Badlands, Gone Indian, and The Studhorse Man Kroetsch has rummaged in the boneyards of western history and culture in search of the myths that make us real. In The Ledger the quest is more personal…. But the poem is not a simple record of search. What we get here is the poet watching himself search, watching himself write, and finding some pleasure in the irony of his self-regarding posture….

Like all good seekers the poet collects the artifacts and...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

David S. West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A poem should be economic and precise. It should be free of too strong an authorial presence. Objectivity is a virtue that lends shapeliness and focus to the finished product. But [in The Sad Phoenician] Kroetsch is writing about writing, and that changes the rules. There is always, here, a sense of the author lurking behind the language, manipulating, contriving, and interjecting at will….

In a book concerned with basic communication, these characteristics illustrate the struggle of the individual to express publicly his emotions and responses to the external world. The inner and outer world meet on the plain of language, where poetry is the struggle to share experience and perception. And...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Peter Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch brings together nine parts of the long and continuing poem of that name. "Stone Hammer Poem," the introductory section, appeared as the title-piece of a collection in 1975 (Kroetsch's first book of poetry)…. Field Notes is also described on the title-page as "The Collected Poetry of Robert Kroetsch"—though it contains none of the short poems he has published during the same six years.

A preface by Eli Mandel offers a sprightly and acute introduction to the poet Kroetsch or Poet/kroetsch, disclosing this figure with gleeful flourish. It is, as a piece of critical writing, like the Prologue to Pagliacci, part of the act. (p. 36)


(The entire section is 871 words.)

Albert Moritz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Field Notes is Kroetsch's "collected poems." It contains nine long poems, arranged as "field notes 1-8" and a prologue, "Stone Hammer Poem," from Kroetsch's first book…. The selection engagingly displays Kroetsch's wide range as a poet, his supplely shifting tones, his seriousness, humour, and irony, his talent for epigram, lyricism, description, and narrative, his formal inventiveness, his learning, and his deft, unassuming way with an allusion. His decision to present his poetry as an accumulating single work is justified, as was Yeats's, by the continuity of its themes, and by the gathering, self-reflexive awareness that intensifies these themes in and through all variations of style and form.


(The entire section is 1079 words.)