Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

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.


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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

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.

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Pretend you are the parent of a daughter turning sixteen and you want to give her something special for her birthday. You decide to write her a letter as a “gift” of advice for her future. What would your letter say?

Consider the encouragement to “Want everything” and write an essay on how children who take this advice seriously will lead their adult lives.

Your hometown is trying to raise funds for a professional women’s hockey team. Write a letter to the newspaper editor thoroughly explaining your feelings for or against the new team.

Write a poem that begins with the lines: When I thought of having sons/ this isn’t what I thought.

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

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.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

By the time Michael Ondaatje published his collection of poems called Rat Jelly in 1973, he had already developed a reputation as a writer unafraid of taking chances with both descriptive language and subject matter. This book carries on that bent with what may be the precursor to some of the subjects in Secular Love in poems that deal with living with a wife who has been married before and in being the son of a temperamental, alcoholic father.

In addition to novels, plays, and collections of poems, Ondaatje has also published book-length poems, or epics, one in 1970 called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. This well-received publication explores the history of the young gunslinger in both fact...

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