amongst books

amongst books

Saturday, April 05, 2008

experiencing Robert Kroetsch’s poetry in a fever

i knew of Kroetsch, had heard references to him all the time, which is no surprise given his status as an influential and well-known Canadian writer, but I’d never read his work. Recently, I stumbled upon “Completed Field Notes, The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch” (the University of Alberta Press, 2000).

I don’t know about you, but for me there are so many writers I hear about who I mean to get around reading some day. Robert Kroetsch was like that for me, and when I finally did get around to him, I was blown away.

I love his wit, his double entendres, his easygoing style. I felt, in part, like I was home, like I’d found an influence. I couldn’t help but write a poem of my own, inspired by “The Sad Phoenician.” I read Kroetsch in a fever (literally, due to a flu, I had a 100 degree temperature) and I wrote “The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman” (above/ground press, 2008) in a fever too over three days and three nights. I really did feel a quickening and a shiver as I read

This stone
becomes a hammer
of stone, this maul

is the colour
of bone (no,
bone is the colour
of this stone maul).

The rawhide loops
are gone, the
hand is gone, the
buffalo’s skull
is gone;

the stone is
shaped like the skull
of a child.

[I from Stone Hammer Poem, Prologue and reprinted as part of the Stone Hammer Poems in 1975 by Oolichan Books]

that was the first poem of Kroetsch’s i ever read, and i had to read more; i’ve never been so glad that i had a whole thick book of long poems to discover. we were in the middle of that crazy snow storm where the snow kept falling and falling and falling, I was sick and couldn’t go anywhere. and i didn’t want to.

in his author’s note at the back of the book, Kroetsch explains that the Completed Field Notes represents a body of work which appeared over a period of fifteen years, each long poem published individually over the years and later together as “Field Notes”(General Store Publishing, 1981), then by McClelland and Stewart as Completed Field Notes in 1989 and when that was almost out of print, reprinted by the University of Alberta Press in 2000 with an introduction by Kroetsch’s long time friend and another renowned Canadian writer, Fred Wah.

in the author’s note, Kroetsch writes “Since the eloquence of failure may be the only eloquence remaining in this our time, I let these poems stand as the enunciation of how I came to a poet’s silence. And I like to believe that the sequence of poems, announced in media res as continuing, is, in its acceptance of its own impossibilities, completed.”

i think this idea of failure, the poetics of failure is what draws me to Robert Kroetsch’s writing. i have always been intimidated by writing that seems to come from a voice on high from writers who, deliberately or not, portray themselves as having the answers. writers like Kroetsch (and there is really no one like him,) don’t promise answers.

in his introduction, Fred Wah talks about how Kroetsch’s poem “Mile Zero” “attempts to avoid design, to occupy an unresolved transition. The poem as field becomes a translucent white surface of trajectory, a field of particles that, above all else, seeks constant motion and resists rest.” and later...

“Think of ‘field notes’ as temporary, as momentary gestures that interpolate possibility. Perhaps even as investigations into the potential for narrative. Or at least the poem’s capacity for narrative. Then think of narrative not as a predictable line of action and consequence but as a maze of sudden twists, obstacles, impossibilities, possibilities.
Kroetsch’s Field notes are not only lessons in the naïveté of completion, lessons, in fact, on being lost, there are also a manual of field note technique.”

rob mclennan (& perhaps others) has talked about the long poem as a poetics of delay, which is one of the techniques apparent in Kroetsch’s poems, especially “the Sad Phoenician.” i loved the way he used the conjunctions “and” & “but” to cause a disjunction in the narrative and at times to misdirect the flow of the narrative, putting a rock in the river to change the tempo and movement of the water.

what other pieces in the book did I enjoy? all of them, all of them. i can’t give highlights or tell you about what fun i had in “The Winnipeg Zoo” or talk more about the contrasts in tone from one long poem to another. the whole book was one of the most joyful and mind opening experiences with poetry that i have experienced since i began to study contemporary poetry in earnest only three short years ago.

and just when i thought i couldn’t be more excited by Kroetsch’s poetry, when, after my fever broke, i continued to read his works, i discovered “the Hornbooks of Rita K.” (the University of Alberta Press, 2001). the book is written in the voice of Raymond, the intimate friend of the aptly initialled poet Rita Kleinhart, who disappeared from the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, or so Raymond tells us. i loved the way Kroetsch plays with reality here, and the sense of play all the way through.

as a rank beginner to poetry, i learn by example (actually i’ll always be a beginner and i always hope to learn by reading). i’m only just understanding, thanks to writers like Kroetsch, that it’s possible to write in a voice other than one’s own. the voice(s) in this book open up all kinds of possibilities for what can be done in a poem. same thing with the Snowbird Poems (the University of Alberta Press, 2004). these voices allow the writer to get away with things, he might not otherwise be able to, such as parodies in rhyme form.

what Robert Kroetsch has done for me is that he has given me a gift:

he has opened up my writing to endless possibility of play;

he has made me rethink my recalcitrant perspective on narrative poetry and find a way to write poetry using devices that i previously thought were only acceptable for fiction;

he has made me want to read other long poems, mentioned and discussed in his brilliant essay “For Play and Entrance: the Canadian Contemporary Long Poem in “The Lovely Treachery of Words, Essays Selected and New (Oxford University Press, 1989);
he has made me want to write more.

and i haven’t even started reading his fiction yet...

ps...rob mclennan has an excellent entry on Kroetsch's poetry here

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