Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

Time and place are not essential in Michael Ondaatje’s “To a Sad Daughter.” The message, or the advice, passed down from father to daughter is the central issue, and it could occur anywhere at any time. It is unlikely, however, that a man would offer such liberal advice to his little girl in years prior to the second half of the twentieth century, and so we may assume the time frame is “contemporary.” The only confirmation of that in the poem is the reference to items and events that were not prevalent or not available earlier, tracksuits and the National Hockey League, for instance. We also know that the poem takes place when color motion pictures have been common for many years since the 16-year-old feels “superior” to black and white movies. As for place, we may assume that the father and daughter live somewhere in the “north” since hockey is the sport of choice, although we now have professional ice hockey teams located in cities in the southern United States. Another clue is the mention of the cereal “Alpen,” a popular breakfast food in northern Europe and Canada, though not a household name in America. Our best sense of setting for this poem stems simply from knowing that Ondaatje writes mainly from real-life experiences and that his “family” poems are primarily creative nonfiction. Given that, “To a Sad Daughter” probably takes place in Ontario, Canada, sometime during the early 1980s.

The decade of the 1980s is sometimes looked back on as culturally benign. The disco craze and flashy fashions of the 1970s gave way to a more bland mixture of “new-wave” music and powerchord rock as well as the “grunge” look of loosefitting jeans, sweatshirts, and flannel shirts. But more was going on than some of the decade’s admittedly “me-first” generation recognized. Perhaps an anonymous author who has posted a Web page entitled “Children of the Eighties” captures best both the spirit and the lack of spirit that made up this often-thought mundane, self-indulgent period of time: “We are the children of the Eighties…. We collected Garbage Pail Kids and Cabbage Patch Kids … and He-Man action figures and [I] thought She-Ra looked just a little bit like I would when I was a woman…. In the Eighties, nothing was wrong. Did you know the president was shot? … Did you see the Challenger explode or feed the homeless man? We forgot Vietnam and watched Tiananman’s Square on CNN and bought pieces of the Berlin Wall at the store.”

This was the world in which Michael Ondaatje was raising his daughter. Wars still raged across the world, there was plenty of violence happening in the streets at home, crack cocaine was invented, assassination attempts were not uncommon on the nightly news, and the general public reaction to it all was less than remarkable. While the murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s outraged people and sent them pouring into the streets in protest and in grief, the attempts to kill President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, both in 1981, elicited only cursory, often cynical, responses from millions of people around the world. Also in the early 80s, AIDS began to be recognized as an epidemic, but most people brushed the deadly disease off as a plague on homosexuals and something that could not touch their own “straight” lives. The father in “To a Sad Daughter” surely knows that his child will face more than “angry goalies” and “creatures with webbed feet” when she grows up and leaves home, and he wants her to be prepared to face everything— including war, drugs, and disease—with her eyes wide open. In light of the “wild” and dangerous society she will become a part of, he wants her not only to accept the challenges of it, but also to look deep inside it, to search out whatever good she may find hidden beneath the chaos. He wants her to understand that even a “goalie / in his frightening mask / dreams perhaps / of gentleness.”

Also evident in the historical context of this poem is that it presents a subject—a girl who can, and does, take her freedom and her self-confidence for granted. She does not appear to have any concerns over or struggles with “liberation” because she does not know what it’s like not to be liberated. She has no qualms about pursuing interests typically sought by boys and men, and if she prefers reading the sports page over the society section and would rather watch horror films instead of love stories, so be it. She is growing up in a decade when many young girls do not give second thought to crossing the gender barrier, and she is being brought up in a home where her aspirations are apparently respected. The father does not attempt to turn his daughter into a “little lady,” but rather eggs on her free spirit by encouraging her to “want everything.” In the 1980s, many people did indeed want everything, and some, as it turned out, got more than they bargained for.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

“To a Sad Daughter” is an 85-line poem with eight stanzas written in free verse. While Ondaatje does not rely on any overt poetic devices here, a close look does reveal considerable use of alliteration, as well as a strategy fairly common and always remarkable in this poet’s work—his ability to sharply define a message with brief, surprising statements.

Many of the lines in “To a Sad Daughter” are quite prosy, detracting from the assonance and consonance that would otherwise be more prevalent. We find, however, a good flow of sound in such instances as the repetition of the “p” in “… reading the sports page over the Alpen/ as another player …”; the repetition of the “ah” sound in “When I thought of daughters / I wasn’t …”; the various uses of “s” in “… I’ll come swimming / beside your ship or someone will / and if you hear the siren / listen …”; the “s” sound again in “You were sitting / at the desk where I now write this / Forsythia outside the window / and sun spilled over you …”; and even the near-rhyme at the end of the poem with the use of “mask” and “perhaps.” What keeps the alliteration in this poem from seeming forced and unnatural is that it is cloaked within casual verbiage, giving the words more of a prose cadence than a poetic one. In a 1984 interview with Ondaatje, Sam Solecki asked the poet about his recently published Secular Love, and Ondaatje had this to say about its form: “I wanted to call my new book of poems … ‘a novel.’ I structured it like one. For me, its structure and plot are novelistic.” Even so, “To a Sad Daughter” contains just enough of the elements of poetry to prevent it from sounding like a paragraph broken into short lines.

While these short lines, however, do string together into complete sentences throughout the poem, Ondaatje includes an element of surprise by shifting suddenly to abrupt short phrases that startle us both with their message and their exactness. For example, the first two “sentences” of the third stanza, read as such, are followed by a four-word statement that suddenly rings of doom: One day, I’ll come swimming beside your ship, or someone will, and if you hear the siren, listen to it. For if you close your ears, only nothing happens. You will never change. In the seventh stanza, an even more poignant message appears in only two words, preceded by a longer sentence: You step delicately into the wild world and the real prize will be the frantic search. Want everything. Critic George Bowering, in his article “Ondaatje Learning to Do,” claims that “the poet shows us a sure comprehension of what a line is, not just a length, not only a syntactic unit, but a necessary step in knowing and surprise.” In the final stanza, the poet employs his “knowing and surprise” once again in advising his daughter about death: If I speak of death, which you fear now, greatly, it is without answers, except that each one we know is in our blood. Don’t recall graves. This mixture of lengthy and brief lines in the poem is an appealing addition to an already intriguing work.

Compare and Contrast

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1982: A Supreme Court decision in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan finds that an allfemale state supported nursing school that denied admission to a male is unconstitutional.

1997-98: The Virginia Military Institute is ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to accept women into its program after its all-male policy was found unconstitutional.

1981: In what was called a “fairy tale” match, Prince Charles of England marries Lady Diana Spencer while millions watched on TV.

1996: Prince Charles and Princess Diana divorce; Diana is killed in a car crash one year later.

1978: The world’s first test-tube baby is born in London to mom Lesley Brown.

1997: Scottish geneticists announce the successful cloning of a sheep and name her Dolly.

Media Adaptations

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An audio cassette of The English Patient is available from Random House (Audio) in an abridged edition. The tape is narrated by Michael Ondaatje and the reader is Michael York.

Two cassettes containing Michael Ondaatje reading his entire Running in the Family is available from Random House (Audio). The tapes run a total of three hours.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bowering, George, “Ondaatje Learning to Do” in Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, edited by Sam Solecki, Montreal, Canada: Vehicule Press, 1985, pp. 61-69.

Mundwiler, Leslie, Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984.

Ondaatje, Michael, Secular Love, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984.

Solecki, Sam, “Coming Through: A Review of Secular Love,” The Canadian Forum, 745, January 1985, pp.32-36.

Solecki, Sam, “Nets and Chaos: The Poetry of Michael Ondaatje” in Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, edited by Sam Solecki, Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1985, pp. 93- 109.

Solecki, Sam, “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1984)” in Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, edited by Sam Solecki, Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1985, pp. 321-32.

World Wide Web site, Amazon Books at www.amazon.com.

World Wide Web site, The History Channel at www.historychannel. com.

For Further Study
Davey, Frank, From Here to There: A Guide to English Canadian Literature since 1960, Erin, Ontario: Porcepic, 1974. Davey presents a very colorful review of Ondaatje’s poetry, claiming his poems “reverberate with exotic violence,” and contain “a strong photographic element.” He calls the poet’s work “superbly tense, multicolor, explosive, [and] macabre.”

Marshall, Tom, Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition, Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia Press, 1979. This book offers a good overall look at Canadian literature, both past and at the time of publication. It is interesting to read about Ondaatje’s work among his Canadian contemporaries, and he is cited as one of those poet-novelists who “seek to depict in fiction rather than in epic verse a world of primal psychic conflict, a dark underground of the soul.”

Ondaatje, Michael, Running in the Family, New York: W.W. Nortron & Co., 1982. Considering the real-life experiences examined in “To a Sad Daughter,” it is beneficial and enlightening to read the poet’s own creative autobiography dealing with the lives of his father and mother in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This book tells the tale of broken engagements, drunken suicide attempts, and of parties where wealthy revelers tango in the jungle.

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