Ondaatje And The Plight Of Contemporary “Poetry”

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There are numerous books of modern poetry on my Self-Doctorate Reading List.  I am not going to like them.

I’ve discovered that I despise modern so-called “poetry” even more than I thought I did.  I have to figure out how to deal with this.  One obvious solution would be just to take the books off my list.  Trouble is, there are at least two reasons I hesitate to do this:  1) I want to become more educated about my contemporaries in the world of poetry, and 2) I really hate to give up on poetry across the board (though I am thisss close…).

But it just won’t do to have me whining about the state of modern poetry every time a contemporary poet’s book comes up on my syllabus.  I’ll have to come up with an approach.  But for now…

If it was my book of poetry, I’d want one of my best poems right up front, hopefully to lure-in that reader who has just picked up my book while browsing at the bookstore.  Here’s the beginning of the first poem in Handwriting, the book of poems offered us by Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient):

“The enemy was always identified in art by a lion.  And in our Book Of Victories whenever you saw a parasol on the battlefield you could identify the king within its shadow.  We began with myths and later included actual events.  There were new professors.  Cormorant Girls who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds.  Stilt-walkers.  Tightrope-walkers.  There was always the “untaught hold” by which the master defeated the pupil who challenged him.  Palanquins carried the weapons of a goddess.  Bamboo tubes cut in 17th-century Japan we used as poem holders.  We tied bells onto falcons.”

I took away the arbitrary line breaks that magically turn sentences into “poetry” in the  modern view, but otherwise that’s word for word.  Now, tell me… what about this excerpt makes it poetry?  There’s no meter or even a loose rhythm.  There are no special sonic connections or lovely expressions.  No exceptional imagery or philosophical insight.  I just don’t see it.

I don’t mean to be picking on Ondaatje here.  He just happened to be the poet next on the list.  Ondaatje’s a good writer.  It’s just that he’s sipping the same Kool Aid as everyone else and thinks he’s writing poetry when all he’s doing is hitting the return key in the middle of sentences.  (By the way, I don’t think most line breaks have any real significance in modern poetry [I’ll stop it with the quotation marks around that word]– the breaks seem to be whimsical or meaninglessly idiosyncratic) .

Now, if you’re a reader of this blog, you know I try to find something good about every work I study.  In this case, I found this section, in a piece of Ondaatje’s called “Buried 2”:

“What we lost: / The interior love poem/ the deeper levels of the self/ landscapes of daily life // dates when the abandonment/ of certain principles occurred. // The rule of courtesy– how to enter/ a temple or a forest, how to touch/ a master’s feet before lesson or performance. // The art of the drum.  The art of eye-painting./ How to cut an arrow.  Gestures between lovers./ The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin/ drawn by a monk from memory.”

I especially love those last two phrases, and that part about “how to enter a temple or a forest.”

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