Robert Kroetsch 1927–2011

From Robert Archambeau and others we learned a few weeks ago that Robert Kroetsch, the great Canadian author, was killed in a car wreck in his native Alberta, just a few days short of his 84th birthday. This sent us back to our Special Canadian Issue of Sagetrieb, guest edited by George Bowering and Ken Norris, which included Kroetsch’s “For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem.” The essay is fluid and notational, divided like a day into 24 brief sections (an homage perhaps to Zukofsky, whose example, though uncited, is well-summed in Kroetsch’s third possibility: not the short long poem or book-long poem, but the life-long poem). Reprinted from Open Letter, originally presented at the MLA in 1980, the essay is focused on the 1970s, ranging widely across that decade to consider work by some twenty poets. Less an argument than a series of inferences and suggestions, it is in some ways a sketch for a workshop, informed, it seems, by Kroetsch’s poetic practice and pedagogy as well as by his critical intuitions.

Photo by Pearl Pirie (Pesbo) by way of Flickr

Archambeau’s Samizdat Blog has a lovely tribute to Kroetsch that pays particular attention to the poetry,  (link). Sandra Martin  has a broader overview of Kroetsch’s career in the Globe and Mail (link). There she writes, “Although Kroetsch walked on two legs, he had four literary pillars: fiction, criticism, teaching and poetry.” The last three, at any rate, are well represented in his essay on the long poem.

Some sample sentences:

The long poem, by its very length, allows the exploration of the failure of system and grid. The poem of that failure is a long poem.

Homer wrote poems without stanzas. We threaten to write stanzas (fragments, pieces, journals, ‘takes,’ cantos even) that cannot become the poem.

The paradox becomes this now: that art does not quite narrate, while life, possibly, does.

My own continuing poem is called, somewhat to my dismay, Field Notes.

When the poem finally appeared under the revised title Completed Field Notes (1989), Kroetsch’s dismay was apparently matched by that of his readers. As Archambeau reports (he was a student at the time at the university where Kroetsch was a presence), “I remember the arguments in the student pub about whether that word, ‘completed,’ represented a transcendence or a betrayal of Kroetsch’s project.” Reading Fred Wah‘s introduction to the 2000 reprint (link), one can see why the arguments were had. “Kroetsch’s poem,” writes Wah, “attempts to avoid design, to occupy a position of unresolved tension.” And then, noting “our desire … to make meaning from the fragments, to see pattern and connection,” he adds:

If our reading is not [to be] directed by the need for completion, we must syncretize dissonance, seemingly unconnected particles ‘going nowhere,’ in order, by chance, to intersect with a present moment that leads, perhaps, somewhere. And that present moment, given the phenomenological status of Kroetsch’s poetics, seems to be the action of writing itself.

And here is a poem from that book, showing Kroetsch-the-novelist to advantage. It comes from the middle section, “Advice to My Friends,” and speaks directly to the desire cited by Wah:

Sounding the Name

In this poem my mother is not dead.
The phone does not ring that October
morning of my fourteenth year.
The anonymous voice on the phone

does not say, Call Arthur to the phone.
Our hired man, a neighbour’s son, quiet,
unpretentious, a man from the river hills
near our farm, does not turn from the phone,

he does not say, seeming to stress the time,
Your mother died at ten o’clock. My sister and I
do not look at each other, do not smile,
assuring each other (forever) that words are
pretenders.

In this poem my mother is not dead,
she is in the kitchen, finishing the October
canning. I am helping in the kitchen

I wash the cucumbers. My mother asks me
to go pick some dill. The ducks are migrating.
I forget to close the garden gate.

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