Ragas of Longing

Ragas of Longing: The Poetry of Michael Ondaatje

SAM SOLECKI
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442678989
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  • Book Info
    Ragas of Longing
    Book Description:

    InRagas of Longing, Sam Solecki offers the first book-length study of Michael Ondaatje's poetry and its place in his body of work. Relating the poetry to various poetic traditions from classical Tamil to postmodern, Solecki presents a chronological critical reading of Ondaatje's six volumes of poems. Among the study's concerns are the relationship between the poet's life and work, his poetic debts and development, his theory of poetry, and his central themes. Also present are close readings of Ondaatje's monographs on Leonard Cohen and Edwin Muir, the Scots' poet and critic.

    Solecki suggests that Ondaatje's poetry can be seen as constituting a relatively unified personal canon that has evolved with each book building on its predecessor while simultaneously preparing the groundwork for the following volume. The author argues that Ondaatje's writing has a narrative unity and trajectory - a figure in the carpet - determined by crucial events in his life, especially the early breakup of his family and his subsequent exile from his father and place of birth. The result is a body of major poetry whose vision is post-Christian, postmodern and, despite an often humourous tone, fundamentally tragic.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7898-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction: ′the slight silver key′
    (pp. 3-24)

    According to the proverb, each book has its history. This one began or, perhaps more accurately, took on momentum because of what might be called two non-events: the relative lack of attention to poetry in the special Ondaatje issue ofEssays on Canadian Writing(Summer 1994) and, four years later, the relative silence in 1998 in Canada and abroad surrounding the publication ofHandwriting, to my mind one of the decade′s most original books of English poetry. Given the warm critical reception of the early poetry and the international success ofThe English Patientas novel and film, I find...

  6. The Dainty Monsters: The Poetry of Myth and Evasion
    (pp. 25-54)

    Like its successor,the man with seven toes,The Dainty Monstersis an impressive apprentice work. Though none of the poems are of the standard of Ondaatje′s best later work (′We′re at the graveyard,′ ′White Dwarfs,′ ′Light,′ ′The Cinnamon Peeler,′ ′To a Sad Daughter′), and while ′the language Ondaatje uses is the language of conventional late-twentieth-century discourse′ (J.E. Chamberlin),² one can′t miss the presence of a technically adroit new voice with a supple range, an often violent verbal expressiveness, and a fully realized imaginative world. Also impressive, especially in a poet with an MA in English, is the relative absence...

  7. COVERS
    (pp. 55-57)

    Ondaatje′s long association with Coach House Press put him in touch with poets at the cutting edge of contemporary poetics as well as with book designers such as Stan Bevington who made him attentive to every aspect of book production. His sensitivity to the book as an aesthetic artefact is evident in his comment, in an interview in 1984, that ′it′s so important to me how a book looks – the quality of the paper, the way the words look on the page, the cover. I really feel that the writer is responsible for this as well as for the...

  8. the man with seven toes: Point Blank
    (pp. 58-71)

    After the publication ofThe Collected Works of Billy the Kid(1970),the man with seven toes(1969) became something of a critical orphan in Ondaatje′s corpus. This outcome is unfortunate because this long sequence, though minor, is a problematic apprentice work, interesting in its own right, and a pivotal transitional book in his development. Its continuity with the books that surround it is obvious from some of the poet′s signature characteristics, though it reveals less of a felt autobiographical pressure. Ondaatje mentions in an interview that withthe man with seven toes′there was a jump from the self...

  9. TITLES
    (pp. 72-74)

    If because of some natural or historical disaster, only Ondaatje′s titles survived, the future could follow the curve of his poetic development by reading them in sequence. Their survival would also be enough to hint that he was a magician with titles. Though he hasn′t read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the titles of his books and poems show him in fundamental agreement with the German writer′s comment that ′a title should not be a recipe. The less it reveals about the contents, the better it is.′¹ Adorno paraphrases this as saying that ′the work′s substance should on no account, on pain...

  10. Rat Jelly: ′right to the end of an experience′
    (pp. 75-112)

    IfThe Collected Works of Billy the Kid(1969) established Ondaatje as a writer to watch,Rat Jelly(1973) confirmed the promise he had shown inThe Dainty Monsters(1967) as a lyric poet. Its finest lyrics demonstrate not only the figurative flair, wit, and surreal imagination of his early work but an ambition in theme as well as a poise and maturity only hinted at a decade earlier. The first two sections of this closely organized collection – ′Families′ and ′Live Bait′ – develop situations and concerns similar to those in the earlier lyrics, but often display a range...

  11. EPIGRAPHS
    (pp. 113-116)

    With the exception ofthe man with seven toes, all Ondaatje′s books of poetry have epigraphs introducing the volume, the individual sections, or the poems. And while he rarely revises his lyrics – ′Billboards′ and ′Spider Blues′ are important exceptions – he has changed book and section epigraphs when reprinting selections fromThe Dainty MonstersandRat JellyinThere′s a Trick with a Knife I′m Learning to DoandThe Cinnamon Peeler. Because epigraphs are so common in Ondaatje – even his master′s thesis has two – we tend to forget while reading him that, once we get past...

  12. There′s a Trick with a Knife I′m Learning to Do: Transition
    (pp. 117-135)

    There′s a Trick with a Knife I′m Learning to Do: Poems 1963–1978² contains both old work and new; it summarizes where Ondaatje has been – the title alone is an effective trope for the old – and in its Sri Lankan poems announces the shift in his poetics that will make possible the poems inRunning in the FamilyandHandwriting. There are few surprises among the selections fromThe Dainty MonstersandRat Jelly; of the ones included, I have never been impressed with ′Breaking Green′ or ′Sullivan and the iguana,′ neither of which strikes me as fine...

  13. CANON I
    (pp. 136-138)

    I predicted in an over-exuberant essay written nearly twenty years ago, ′Two generations from now all postmodernist fiction/writing will be read as autobiography.′¹ What I think I meant was that Ondaatje′s work seemed to me to be shaping itself into a coherent, often self-reflecting narrative which, among other things, could be read as a sometimes oblique, sometimes direct commentary on his life in a way that the work of, say, Margaret Atwood couldn′t. From the perspective of the millennium, this reading seems to me even truer than it did then. As I have argued, Ondaatje′s vision of life, though it...

  14. Secular Love: It Runs in the Family
    (pp. 139-161)

    Few readers would claim that the poetry Ondaatje published beforeSecular Love(1984) has much in common with confessional writing. If anything, most of his earlier work stands opposed to that school′s constitutive assumptions, and even when his lyrics are personal, they are rarely intimate. The speaker in most of them seems to be Ondaatje, but he′s rarely interested in dealing directly with his most personal and most problematic emotions and situations: the voice is too laconic, the tone too detached, and the attitude to the self is ironic, on occasion even self-mocking. Yet we often sense that the artifice...

  15. CANON II
    (pp. 162-164)

    One of the more interesting moments in Ondaatje′s interview with Eleanor Wachtel occurs in the following exchange:

    ew: You don′t write much about Canada, except for your last novel and some of your poetry. Does that say something about your sense of self here?

    mo: I think I write quite a lot about Canada. I don′t write essays or portraits of Canada, but a lot of what I felt about the country went intoIn the Skin of a Lion, and most of my poetry is about the landscape around me, the people and emotions around me. I don′t sense...

  16. Handwriting: The Poetry of Return
    (pp. 165-187)

    Fourteen years separateSecular LoveandHandwriting, and it would be difficult to name two volumes of poetry published in succession by the same author that differ as obviously and as much as these do.Handwritingshows that Ondaatje has wrestled with his early figuratively congested style to produce lyrics that are as spare, short, and lapidary as Sanskrit love poems or the Sigiri Graffiti. The difference is as dramatic as that between early and late Montale or Merwin. WhereSecular Lovehas obvious affinities with the tradition of poetry in English, its successor alludes, from the opaque title of...

  17. LAST WORD: ONDAATJE ON POETRY
    (pp. 188-194)

    [The Dainty Monsters] wasn′t written in that order, much more mixed up. Tho ′Peter′ was, if I remember, the last poem written. The poem in that book which I wrote first was either ′Sows′ or ′Song to Hitchcock and Wilkinson.′ The section and the order of the poems was something very carefully structured when I was getting the book together. That was and still is very important to me. (20)

    The recent fashion of drawing journalistic morals out of literature is I think done by people who don′t love literature or who are not capable of allowing its full scope...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 195-206)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-214)
  20. Index
    (pp. 215-219)