Gary Geddes: Perfect, Schmerfect

I agonize over a line that seems to have an awkward pattern of stresses. The
first few lines of Michael Ondaatje’s brilliant elegy on the death of his
father, “Letters & Other Worlds,” begins with the italicized lines: “for there was no more darkness for him and,
no doubt like Adam before the fall, he could see in the dark.”
So far, so
good, a certain mystery achieved, but this is followed by lines that have
always struck my ears as jarring, or laboured:
            My father’s body was a globe of fear
            His body was a town we never knew
            He hid that he had been where we
were going
            His letters were a room he seldom
lived in
            In them the logic of his love could
            My father’s body was a town of fear
            He was the only witness to its fear
            He hid where he had been that we
might lose him
            His letters were a room his body
not just the repetitive syntax—subject, predicate object—that jars, but what
seems a straining for significance. And then the subtly patterned line “My
father’s body was a town of fear,” with its four varied stresses and compelling
metaphor, is followed by “He was the only witness to its fear dance,” which
feels clunky and prosaic by comparison, and seems to undermine the preceding
mention these reservations about a poem I’ve always loved and have included in
two of the Oxford anthologies I’ve edited. What’s so surprising about the
strategy at work here is that Ondaatje, a very gifted free-verse poet, has
chosen to begin his elegy with what feels, by comparison, to be clunky,
clotted, expository. The point I seemed to have missed in my early reading of
the poem was that the speaker is struggling with a series of perceptions of his
father that will be explored and elaborated throughout the poem. Reversing the
pattern of W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” where the free-verse poem
eventually gives way to a very formal rhymed and metrical ending, as elegant
and formal as a funeral dirge, Ondaatje takes a chance by giving shape to the
jarring questions posed by his father’s life and death at the outset, then
moving into a profoundly moving and almost cinematic account of the beautiful
contradictions his father contained.
Michael’s “Letters & Other Worlds” in its entirety, then have a look for
his book-length poem called The Collected
Works of Billy the Kid
. You’ll learn a lot about what can be contained in a
short, Ondaatje is not afraid of surprising and challenging his readers with
the unexpected. He seems aware, as was the poet Robert Herrick, that “A sweet
disorder in the dress” can be very useful in poetry. Robert Pen Warren also
argues against a notion of pure poetry, in which there are no glitches, no
moments of apparent laxity in language or prosody; and, instead, makes the case
for a “degree of complexity” or “complication” rather than
Poetry wants to be pure, but
poems do not. At least, most of them do not want to be too pure. The poems want
to give us poetry, which is pure, and the elements of a poem, in so far as it
is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements,
taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral
towards the achieving of that end. Are we then to conclude that, because
neutral or recalcitrant elements appear in poems, even in poems called great,
these elements are simply an index to human frailty, that in a perfect world
there would be no dross in poems which would, then, be perfectly pure? No, it
does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include,
deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary. They are
not even as pure as they might be in this imperfect world. They mar themselves
with cacophonies, clichés, sterile technical terms, head work and argument,
self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism—all things which call us back
to the world of prose and imperfection.
love his distinction between the idea of poetry and the actual poem and have
come to believe that the notions of purity and perfection are bugbears that
should be viewed with considerable scepticism by poets. I once read an
interview with French novelist Patrick Grainville, who had written an epic
novel about an African dictator called Les
. The book was turned down by Gallimard, the famous publisher,
and went on to win the Prix Goncourt. An interviewer asked Grainville how it
was, in an age that valued economy and restraint, that he had written a vast,
sprawling epic with its shirttails hanging out. He said: “There’s a certain
liberation to be found in bad taste. Art, like life, is a matter of gifts, not
not refusals. That has become one of my mantras as a poet, which is why I am so
attracted to the long poem, the poem-sequence and poetic narrative. But that’s
another story.

Gary Geddes’s most recent book of selected poems is called What Does A House Want? (Red Hen Press). He will be one of the featured instructors at this year’s Tutka Bay Writers’ Retreat.

The Tutka Bay Retreat is half full. Click here for details and registration.

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