Ondaatje's Long Poem Anthology

The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979, 343 pp.

     This is a welcome volume for teachers of Canadian poetry, for it brings together nine contemporary long poems, most of which are not available in the standard teaching anthologies. The poets represented are Robert Kroetsch, Stuart MacKinnon, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Robin Blaser, Frank Davey, George Bowering, Roy Kiyooka, and bp Nichol. It is unfortunate that Ondaatje's own Collected Works of Billy the Kid is not included in the anthology because it is, in my view, the finest long work of poetry produced by a contemporary Canadian poet. It was, perhaps, too long to include, or, it might be, judged by the editor (who ought to know) not to be a long poem at all, but something else. In any event, its absence considerably impoverishes the volume. It is also rather disappointing that the anthology is exclusively contemporary. It would have been much more useful as a classroom text had it included some of the long poems from the Nineteenth Century and the first three quarters of this Century.

     Still, the selection gives the teacher the opportunity to consider the long poem as a contemporary genre. It is a familiar, if not much remarked upon, fact that the contemporary poet has largely abandoned the old pattern of the isolated lyric. Even those poets like Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes, who continue to write short poems, habitually organize their poems into sequences that can be read as a single long work. The reasons for this are no doubt partly commercial, but have, I suspect, more to do with the imaginative nurture of people born in the age of graphic narrative — film and television. The film, of course does not narrate a story. It simply shows it, bodies it forth in images; in shape, colour, and sound. The novel's response to this graphic narrative was to internalize itself, to retreat to the world of unacted and even unvoiced sensibility and emotion that the graphic narrative could not easily reach. In so doing, the novel encroached upon the traditional territory of lyric poetry. Joyce's epiphanies are truncated romantic lyrics; his interior monologues, meditative poems. The Joycean epiphanies — or a particularly vivid moment of pity, terror, or joy in a film —  are moments, interludes, or nodes in a larger structure. In themselves they render the same imaginative experience as the romantic lyric. As a consequence, the contemporary reader of poetry remains dissat isfied with the isolated lyric. When he is forced to confront it, he will hasten to place it into some larger context — an expression of the age, another instance of an archetype, or other poems by the same author. Nor is this tendency merely a reader's stock response. The poets, too, have been anxious to provide us with larger contexts for their poems — Yeats' creation of a contextual system in A Vision being the most celebrated case.

     The academic establishment has behaved for a long time as if T.S. Eliot had resolved the problem of the long poem in the age of cinema with The Waste Land. But its technique of narrative fragments contained within the frame of an ancient symbolic narrative has proved to be largely barren for contemporary poetry. Eliot himself abandoned it in favour of the long meditative lyric and the poetic drama. The Eliotic technique (itself an adaptation for poetry of Joyce's method in Ulysses) is represented in The Long Poem Anthology only by Frank Davey's King Of Swords. Davey's poem makes fine use of the Arthurian cycle as an analogue of the contemporary world — particularly its sexual politics. However, it is quite remote from Eliot stylistically, employing a single speaking voice, and being divided into 40 numbered strophes.

     At the level of style Davey's poem, like every other poem in the volume, derives from the large population of American and Canadian poets associated one way or another with Black Mountain. Black Mountain is, of course Charles Olson; and Charles Olson is The Maximus Poems. And The Maximus Poems are out of Ezra Pound's Cantos by Williams Carlos Williams' Paterson. It is the Pound / Williams / Olson line that dominates the contemporary long poem — particularly in North America. Davey, and others, call their long poems "serial poems", by which they mean simply that their long poems are a linked series of shorter poems. This is more or less what The Cantos are — as their plural title would suggest. However, the multiple voices, languages, locales and historical periods characteristic of The Cantos' rhetorical surface are not to be found in The Long Poem Anthology. Instead we have the Williams / Olson domesticated version of The Cantos' resolution of the problem of the long poem. Williams and Olson both retain a single speaking voice a single locale. Their poems — like The Cantos — are time journeys. They are simply, histories of places transmitted in a mixed series of information, commentary, excurses into mytho logical analyses, and lyrical, "epiphanic" interludes. Paterson and The Maximus Poems (like The Cantos) tolerate quoted prose accounts, conversation, road signs, etc. That is to say, the poem's stylistic surface is only incidentally and occasionally verse. It is poetry by virtue of its syntactic rather than its rhythmical structure. A passage selected at random from Roy Kiyooka's The Fontainebleau Dream Machine will illustrate my point:

the Dream Machine & its ghostly twin the undreamt dream
ride the Night Mare Sky above Pristine Towers
Gleaming Thrones of a Corrosive Economicks pitch'd on steep
Medieval rooftops — indentur'd to the Medici with
their Midas Touch.

All of this is Poundian, and has been virtually institutionalized in contemporary North American poetry.

     Lest I be misunderstood, let me add that my comments on the style and organization of the Black Mountain long poem are meant to be descriptive, and not in the least censorious. There exists a great deal of stylistic variation within the general strategy of a poetic based upon interval — juxtaposition of disparate items — and analogue rather than rhythmical structure. And one should add that these poems are held together by the felt presence of the poet. He or she is present in the poem not as an experiencing consciousness in the Wordsworthian manner, but as a constituent element of the poem reacting to its materials, thus directing and guiding the reader's response. Characteristically — as in Don McKay's The Long Sault — the poet enters the poem through items of personal anecdote that somehow "cross" with the journalistic or historical material that comprises the poem's main subject.

     The most "personal" poems in the volume are Stuart MacKinnon's The Intervals, Daphne Marlatt's Steueston, and Don McKay's Long Sault. The first two are obtrusively didactic and surprisingly sentimental in their response to the underprivileged and neglected segments of society they take as their subject. Both of them are tightly tied to place in the Williams / Olson manner — Kingston, Ontario, and Steveston, B.C. respectively. McKay's poem is a lament for the Long Sault Rapids, drowned by the St. Lawrence Seaway. This historical event is seen as an incident in his own biography — thereby humanizing it — while at the same time lending metaphorical resonance to anecdotes from his own life and from those of others. In this way the lyric moments such as the following are given the context that our modem sensibilities require:

stroke we bite is deep and crisp and rich
in protein we unzip
the water cleanly, honing,
the banks we enter and
we enter, still
thirsting after, cleaving
to the thrum the other
utterly (ambush)

Robin Blaser's Moth Poem is a little different version of Black Mountain. It is essentially a lyric meditation punctuated and penetrated by the accidental and anecdotal. Its unifying device is an emblematic metaphor supplied by moths and spilled coffee. This is the West Coast version of Black Mountain. It is to this genre that George Bowering's Allophanes also belongs. Bowering's poem is far and away the best thing in the volume. It began, he tells us, "with a sentence heard in the author's head. The snowball appears in Hell every morning at seven." He goes on from there letting his mind and voice perambulate freely in a brilliant display of humour and wit. Bowering's wit is rather like the early Ferlinghetti, but this poem is far more penetrating and comprehensive in its satire than anything of Ferlinghetti's. Both Blaser's and Bowering's poems are serial poems, but they depend for their unity on the speaking voice addressing itself, in Blaser's case, to an internal auditor, and in Bowering's case, to the reader. These poems, thus, are rather remote from the Paterson / Maximus model. They belong to the lyric line of Black Mountain progeny. Here the lyric is stretched and the poet observes himself (sardonically in Bowering's case) writing lyric, thus still placing the lyric in a context greater than itself.

     bp Nichol's Martyrology is also generally of this type, but his meditation is upon the language of the poem itself in the kind of lexical play which became so obsessive for Olson. Only Book IV of The Martyrology is included, and I am afraid I found it precious and unconvincing. Roy Kiyooka's The Fontainbleau Dream Machine is an intriguing departure from the other poems in the volume. It is a commentary upon a series of 18 pictorial montages. The montages and the comments upon them comprise a witty and intriguing cultural/historical essay.

     The first poem in the volume is Robert Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue. Like the earlier Stone Hammer Poems this poem is a genealogical meditation. It structures itself around an old seed catalogue which becomes a metaphor for the life of Kroetsch's family, and hence for early Canadian life, and thence for human life bound in the rite of generation, sustenance, and configuration. To build a poem upon a found document, to locate it tightly in time and place (actual, not fictional). To employ the actual and accidental as a heuristic device are all techniques deriving from the Pound / Williams / Olson nexus. But Kroetsch invokes David Jones' Anathemata. Jones is an English, Catholic poet who uses all of these devices to construct an European historical meditation. Jones does not admit any indebtedness to Pound or the other Americans even though The Anathemata was written much later than the Cantos. Of course, it is of no importance whether Jones learned his technique from Pound or not. I raise the issue simply be cause I would place Seed Catalogue in the Pound tradition. Nonetheless, Kroetsch's poem does not look or feel the least like either Pound or Jones (nor like Williams or Olson). He has taken the rhetorical idea and applied it brilliantly to indigenous documents like the seed catalogue instead of looking for Indian artifacts or explorer's records as a lesser artist might well have done.

     The Long Poem Anthology powerfully attests the current health of Canadian poetry, and the vitality of the long poem at this particular moment in our cultural history. I stress "this particular moment" because only one of the nine poems was published earlier than 1972, and that was Robin Blaser's The Moth Poem published in 1964 before he came to Canada. Apart from Blaser's poem, all of the poems were published within a period of five years. This fact does not, I think, reflect any bias on the part of the editor, but, rather reflects the marvellous vitality of Canadian poetry in the 'seventies.

     Apart from the poems, The Long Poem Anthology contains a brief introduction by Ondaatje, comments by the authors, biographical sketches by the authors (many of them more distinguished by coyness than informa tiveness), and bibliographies of the authors' works and of commentary upon them.

Leon Surette