Friday, December 23, 2011

Ondaatje, Debolt and ‘The Story’ in “Handwriting / poems”

A few years ago Daisy Debolt told me that she would not be trying any lyrics from me as she was back working with Michael Ondaatje.  So now, after her death,  I went looking at what I had on my shelves and in stacks of paperbacks of recent work by Ondaatje.

I found myself reading ‘The Story’ from his “Handwriting”.

One problem of being a great writer is knowing when to rely on a good editor: this piece is surely jarring for anyone who has both close ties to philosophy of psychology and poetry and who has been present at the birth of children.

The poem begins with ‘a child’ but then falls into ‘Some are born screaming’.

I can attest that some are born furious, angry and, moments later, are loud.  But I know the sound of screaming — the badly injured child, screaming. You forget neither. It is not what is heard at childbirth. Some ER nurses say they know the ‘ectopic’ scream of women at dire risk.  Some are born as others hear the screams of a mother - or as others hear the scream of a father as efforts to resuscitate a mother cease.  Some were carried by mothers who screamed and what was heard was nothing as compared to what was felt.

But matters are immediately worse: ‘some full of introspective wandering’.

I stumble, reading ‘wondering’ — from what we know of reading, I am not alone.

‘introspective’ is one of those words that has a casual meaning and a valued meaning and should be used with care — it is a foreign word at great distance from our ‘wander’.  There is no need to read Husserl and Heidegger to know this.

Was he aware of just how flawed the piece is when he chose the title of the poem as prose?  We ignore an initial flaw: this passage was not annotated as ‘i’ when the next is ‘ii’. (The publisher is Random House.)  We ignore the flaws, wanting to get on with the story?

The notes say it is dedicated to persons (perhaps in Sri Lanka.)  But the note is appended to the book (my edition has it page 77.)

I believe that as lines of a song, both phrases would not escape edits by a singer: so my question is whether they both passed muster for a poetry editor or editors?

Who is really concerned about the poems of a great novelist?  A flawed poem is not so serious a matter as a flawed novel?

And we do sing flawed songs — some anthems take decades to find imperfect corrections.

One Tagore translator has said not to translate songs.  Nor are all poems lyrics.  But it is worth asking: how well would that sing?

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