Poetry and Maturing Poetics

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Author: Douglas Barbour
Editors: Anna Sheets Nesbitt and Susan Salas
Date: 2000
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 28. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 15,934 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Barbour traces Ondaatje's poetic development from his first collection through There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do. Barbour discovers a trend in Ondaatje's writing toward more experimental and personal poetry.]

An edition of selected poems, especially when published by major presses in a poet's own country, the United States, and the United Kingdom, signifies both achievement and recognition. For Ondaatje, the Governor General's Award-winning There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979) also provided an opportunity, again especially for the larger international audience that knew him most for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, to pare away some of the perceived chaff in his oeuvre and thus present a particular overview of the maturing of a poet. The poems dropped from The Dainty Monsters section appear more modernist and given to closure or too dependent upon a dictionary of mythology than his later practice allows. The selection from Rat Jelly1 is larger, as befits a more mature collection, yet the poems kept, aside from the central series of poems about art and artists, tend to foreground questions of ordinary life, friendship, and family love. If, as so many critics have pointed out, Ondaatje seems obsessed with figures who violently and often self-destructively immerse themselves in the chaotic world of the senses, the choice of poems in Trick with a Knife reveals another and equally powerful obsession: the need and desire to "deviously [think] out plots / across the character of his friends" (RJ, 56; TK, 58). In the context of the selections from the first two books, this other obsession is best imaged in the delicate yet tough recognition of communion among friends in "We're at the Graveyard," a poem I now see as central in Ondaatje's work. The "shift" of friends' "minds and bodies... to each other" (RJ, 51; TK, 47), with all its implications about community, communication, and communion, is the emerging theme of Ondaatje's work as he matures from romantic young poet-hero to more complex and subtle poet-survivor. The new poems in the third part, "Pig Glass," with their increased insistence on the necessary and complex intimacy with family and friends, reveal how carefully Ondaatje has selected and reordered the earlier poems in terms of this emerging theme. Not that Trick with a Knife denies the other aspects of Ondaatje's work; rather, it newly contextualizes them in an emerging order that emphasizes a greater complexity of response within its various speakers and a more profound and difficult vision than that of romantic egoism.

Ondaatje wrote the poems of Rat Jelly "before during and after two longer works--the man with seven toes and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid--when the right hand thought it knew what the left hand was doing" (RJ, [72]). Many of its poems deal with the question of art's relation to life, which is why critics continue to study them as central statements on...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420032691