Thursday, June 23, 2011

Robert Kroetsch, R.I.P.

Robert Kroetsch—one of the most important Canadian writers of his generation—has died in a car accident at the age of 84.  I had the privilege of knowing him a little when I was an undergraduate.  Though I never took a course with him, he was a presence on the campus and on the local literary scene, and a few times I found myself having a drink with him after Dennis Cooley’s evening seminars on contemporary literature let out.

He was a novelist, and something of a critic, and one of the founders of the journal boundary 2, but for me he’ll always be two things: a poet, and a benign godfather of a movement in Canadian literature that suffers the fate of all movements in Canadian literature: utter invisibility in the non-Canadian world.  But it was a real movement, with its own journals and presses and contretemps and aspirations, and it made a difference where it wanted to make a difference, in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.  One might think of it as a prairie school, and of Kroetsch as its éminence grise.

As a poet, Kroetsch was many things.  Sometimes he was a proceduralist, foregrounding the artificiality of writing, and the agility of the poet, by adopting an arbitrary restriction, Oulipo-style, and forcing himself to work within its constraints.  In The Sad Phoenician, for example, Kroetsch writes a long meditation in which new lines of poetry begin, alternately, with “and” and “but,” making for an ode-like snaking-through of strophe and antistrophe.  At other times Kroetsch was a master of found texts, writing through his family’s account books in The Ledger and through a ubiquitous document of the Canadian prairies in Seed Catalog.  In both cases, he was concerned with the way written documents were the binding agents of a collective, of family and of region.  The best way I can describe the effects of reading these poems is to say that it’s like encountering a secularized version of scribal commentary on religious texts.  What a poet like Norman Finkelstein does with the Jewish textual tradition in a book like Scribe, Kroetsch did with the ordinary found texts that bound together his family and the rural communities of the Canadian prairies.

Kroetsch was also a serialist poet, who kept a long project called Field Notes simmering for years, adding and inserting sections in the manner of Olson’s Maximus Poems or Duncan’s Passages.  There was none of the history and grandeur of Olson, and none of the mysticism of Duncan, though.  Instead, there was a kind of constant, amused intellectual probing of the everyday.  And Kroetsch was always ready to surprise his long-time readers.  After developing a theory of the ever-incomplete, constantly-ongoing poem, and inspiring a host of other Canadian poets to begin ambitious serial projects, he suddenly called his poem to a halt, issuing his Completed Field Notes in 1989.  I remember the arguments in the student pub about whether that word, “completed,” represented a transcendence or a betrayal of Kroetsch’s project: I left in a huff, consoled by a young woman who wore even more eyeliner than I did back then.  She gave me a peck on the cheek and one of her earrings before ditching me over cappuccino.

Kroetsch was also a postmodernist.  For me, he’ll always belong to that generation of poet-professors whose natural habitat was the brutalist concrete campus office lined with books by Robert Scholes and Jonathan Culler.  I picture him now as he appeared on the cover of a 1987 issue of Border Crossings magazine: tweed jacket, beard, Remington typewriter on the desk in front of him, ready for a fresh sheet of paper and a new page of poetry composed by field in the manner of the Olsonite wing of Black Mountain.

One reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodernist was what I can only call his loving suspicion of language and of the apparent coherence of narrative truth.  Jean-François Lyotard’s distinction between the grand récit and the petit récit, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, gets at the kind of thinking that informed Kroetch’s writing.  For Lyotard, the grand récit was a kind of authoritative story that purported to offer a comprehensive explanation of the world.  When, for example, a certain right-wing imbecile who happens to be a Cardinal of the Catholic Church maintained “the Church is neither left nor right, the Church is true,” he was offering the story of Catholicism as a (or, to his mind, the) grand récit, just as certain hard-core vulgar Marxists might see Marxism as a grand récit, or how the overconfident Victorian bourgeoisie took “progress” as their grand récit.  In postmodern conditions, Lyotard claims, such comprehensive stories become unsustainable, and instead we have a proliferation of smaller, more fragmentary, more localized, more tentative explanatory stories.  In postmodernism, one lets a thousand petit récits bloom.

Kroetsch was very much a man of the petit récit.  He would write paratactic, self-reflective works like those collected in his Field Notes, bend the conventions of narrative in his fiction, or hesitate at the brink of narrative, as in his first book of poetry, The Stone Hammer Poems.  Here, he begins with an artifact, a stone hammer found on the prairies.  The poem starts this way:

This stone
becomes a hammer
of stone


The rawhide loops
are gone, the
hand is gone, the buffalo’s skull
is gone;

the stone is
shaped like the skull
of a child.

We begin with the sense that the explanation of the artifact is a matter of framing: the stone, when literally framed with an apparatus of wood and rawhide, becomes a hammer.  It has since been many things, entering other narrative frames.  But the literal history of the stone, speculative and ultimately unknowable, isn’t the only frame.  As the last stanza above indicates, the stone can also enter a metaphorical frame: its shape and size allows it to become a metaphor for a child’s skull, for birth and for death.

The poem goes on, trying to locate the stone in a narrative, and failing to find much authoritative purchase on the truth of things.  A few sections later in the poem, for example, we find this:

Grey, two-headed
the pemmican maul

fell from the travois or
a boy playing    lost it in
the prairie wool or
a woman     left it in
the brain of a buffalo or

it is a million years older than
the hand that
chipped stone or
raised slough
water (or blood) or

The section ends there, with “or,” a gesture much like Olson’s opening of a parenthesis that never closes: it’s a sign of indetermination, of the impossibility of grand récit.  The poem goes on to trace the losing and finding of the stone in many histories, some imagined (Kroetsch imagines it moved in the last ice age by “the retreating ice,” then moved much later by “the retreating buffalo” and later still by “the retreating Indians) some grounded in family stories of how this same stone was lost by his grandfather and found again by his father plowing in a field.

There’s another reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodern poet, rather than a modern one, a reason having to do with tone.  While the generalization I’m about to make has the flaw of all generalizations (i.e., that it is full of holes and therefore untrue), I’m still making it: modernism is more serious and less funny than postmodernism.  I grant all your objections regarding specific texts, and yet I return to the generalization.  Wry as he can be, T.S. Eliot is more grave and less funny than Frank O’Hara.  While he’s not above jokes, Ezra Pound is more often dead serious than is John Ashbery.  And when Robert Kroetsch is meditating on the perspectival nature of truth, he’s less sublime, and funnier, than Wallace Stevens when he does something similar.  I’m sure the model for Kroetsch’s “Sketches of a Lemon” is Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but the tone is entirely different.  Here’s Stevens’ opening stanza:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Is the eye of a blackbird.

This is straight-up Kantian sublimity: the little living eye comprehends the huge, rugged world that so exceeds it in scale and in grandeur that it renders the bird’s eye insignificant—except for the fact that the little eye comprehends the vastness.  Here, by contrast, is the opening of Kroetsch’s series of lemon sketches:

A lemon is almost round.
Some lemons are almost round.
A lemon is not round.

So much for that.

There’s a skepticism about our ability to intellectually frame the world here (it’s The Stone Hammer Poems again, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), but there’s also a kind of philosophical pratfall.  The poem is full of this sort of thing: it's a self-deflating comic text that also has something serious to say about how intellectual frames fail, or about how narratives and descriptions end up mutating into something other than what they were initially meant to be.  Something like that happens in the following passage (“Smaro” is the name of the poet’s wife):

Sketches, I reminded myself,
not of a pear,
nor of an apple,
nor of a peach,
nor of a banana
(though the colour
raises questions)
nor of a nectarine,
nor, for that matter,
of a pomegranate,
nor of three cherries,
their stems joined,
nor of a plum,
nor of an apricot,
nor of the usual
bunch of grapes,
fresh from the vine,
just harvested,
glistening with dew—

Smaro, I called,
I’m hungry.

What began as a kind of attempt at negative definition (doomed to a seemingly infinite series of specifications) warps, suddenly, and we see that all along, without our knowledge, the list or catalog had been functioning in ways we hadn’t suspected, inciting the appetites rather than providing definition.  A hidden subordinate function becomes, suddenly, the dominant function of the list, and the sentence lurches jarringly in a new direction.  I like that: I remember reading this poem to the woman who would become my wife, and how she liked it too.  But it wasn’t her favorite section.  This was:

poem for a child who has just bit into
a halved lemon that has just been squeezed

see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you,
see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you

One could, of course, go on.

If straight-up sublimity lies a bit beyond Kroetsch’s range, something like this lies a bit beyond Wallace Stevens, and I think the difference is generational, modern vs. postmodern.

It’s poems like “Sketches of a Lemon” that first attracted me to Kroetsch’s work, but I knew of him in his capacity as the godfather of a literary movement before I’d read him.  He was a kind of benevolent, presiding presence for whole generations of aspiring writers in the Canadian west, and a great intellectual sponsor for a regionalist/postmodernist movement in the poetry produced on the Canadian prairies.  The point of the movement, I think, was a kind of mild intellectual and literary decolonization.  The western provinces have, in the minds of many of their inhabitants and more of their intellectuals, always been the resentful pseudo-colonies of the bankers and politicians of Toronto and Ottawa.  Ignored by a Canadian cultural establishment that was itself marginal and barely visible in the wider world, many of the writers of the west needed a good, strong dose of William Carlos Williams-style local pride, and Kroetsch, by writing out of western experience, provided exactly that.  And he was one of a group of writers and academics who built a regional literary infrastructure where none had been.  The journal Prairie Fire, Turnstone Press, Grain, Open Letter, a number of critical books, a bunch of reading venues: Kroetsch was one of the leaders in building something outside of the established literary networks.  I remember, in particular, one moment of Kroetschian direct action in the establishing of local literary institutions: a group of student poets were trying to launch a magazine called Ca(n)non (it was the eighties, and journal titles were filled with parentheses, backslashes, and other signs that the language was plural and unstable and self-deconstructing, etc.).  They approached Kroetsch as he was heading for the elevator outside his office, and asked if he could help them out.  He opened his wallet, hauled out a wad of bills, including a couple of the old red Canadian fifties with their Mounties on horseback, and handed it over.  “Wait,” he said, taking back a ten, “I need this for lunch.”  Not a lot of professors would have been so unhesitating with a crowd of scruffy and callow young poets.  It’s an image that’s stayed with me, and the image with which I’d like to end on the sad occasion of Kroetsch’s passing.