- Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination by Leslie Mundwiler, and: bpNichol: What History Teaches by Stephen Scobie, and: Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics by Frank Davey (review)
- University of Toronto Quarterly
- University of Toronto Press
- Volume 56, Number 1, Fall 1986
- pp. 175-179
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- Additional Information
HUMANITIES 175 The letters at length show us the two poets merging into this history themselves; always fresh and inquisitive in their reading, they pass from Layton and Avison, new poets of the forties, to Macpherson in the fifties and Cohen in the sixties. On Ross silence settles early as illness (scarcely admitted) stays his hand; Gustafson moves back to Canada and into the distinguished place he now occupies among the elders of Canadian poetry. In gathering and carefully annotating their letters - now scattered in several places - Bruce Whiteman has brought to our attention one of those episodes that seem to occur at the periphery of literary history, but sharply illuminate its centre. (GERMAINE WARKENTIN) Leslie Mundwiler. Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination Talonbooks 1984. 160. $8.95 paper Stephen Scobie. bpNichol: What History Teaches Talonbooks '984. '53· ~·95 paper Frank Davey. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics Talonbooks 1984. 178. $9.95 paper Frank Davey, the editor ofTalonbooks' new critical series, New Canadian Criticism, has sought to break free from Canadian criticism's bete noire, 'thematics.' Instead of examining literature in terms of national contexts, each book in this series examines the work of one writer in terms of an international critical perspective or literary movement. Leslie Mundwiler's Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination is a book so overwhelmed by its theory that its subject, Ondaatje, is often reduced to functioning as an illustration of a critical point. For example, 'Poetry and the Imaginative Process,' the longest chapter in the book, deals with Ondaatje's work in at most seven of its thirty pages. The remainder of the chapteris a cursory history of the philosophical concept of the imagination 'leading to a phenomenological criticism of imagination.' Surprisingly, however, this 'phenomenological criticism of imagination' does not draw upon phenomenological critics such as Ingarden, Gadamer, Jauss, Iser, and Fish, or even on Riffaterre's direct examination of the place of the imagination in reading. Rather than producing a coherentliterary theory, Mundwiler gives us a narrow aesthetic from which we are to judge Ondaatje's writing. Good poetry, Mundwiler tells us, is primarilyimagistic; metaphor and the other mamstays of poetic rhetoric are rejected as distancing and artificial. Vivid imagery is that which can 'be mistaken for perception,' that is, imagery linked both to the perceiver and to the specific locus he perceives. And for Mundwiler, most of Ondaatje's poetry falls short of this criterion. Mundwiler tells us that only in the concept of The Man with Seven Toes and in the execution of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid does Ondaatje achieve any kind of coherent success. Another criterion Mundwiler brings to bear is Collingwood's distinction between 'significant' and 'amusement' art. Using these vague categories - significant works of literature raise questions that cannot be easily answered, whereas amusement art asks only pseudo-questions for which society already supplies the answers - Mundwiler is able to condemn much ofOndaatje's writing, concluding, for example, that Coming through Slaughter presents the reader with 'momentary and approximate truth ... which finally does not measure up to the complexity of existence ...' (p 111). What Mundwiler finally dislikes about Ondaatje's work is its lack of 'programmatic intention': 'Ondaatje's work belongs to a larger failure of coherence, the throes of modernism' (p 131). The need for writers to deal with the failure of the modernist vision rests at the heart of Mundwiler's book; this volume is not so much one ofcriticism orcritical theory as a tract that seeks to be a corrective to the'rationalism' of modernism on the one hand and to the fragmented' postrnodern' world ofexistential nihilism on the other. Essentially Mundwiler wants a return to Romantic aesthetics. Unfortunately Mundwiler has chosen to 'educate' his reader by devoting much of his space to summarizing and paraphrasing the arguments of others, rather than looking in depth at a contemporary Canadian writer from this neo-romantic perspective. Stephen Scobie's book bpNichol: What History Teaches is a much more coherent and useful book. Scobie had a particularly difficult task: Nichol's work is both amorphous - not fitting into even the most basic of literary categories such as novel or poem, fiction or nonfiction - and part of...