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Unit 3 Ondaattje Lecture

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Western University
English 2060E

Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943) Biography Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and educated in England before coming to Canada at the age of 20 to pursue post-secondary education at Bishops, U of T, and Queens, from which he obtained an MA in 1967. He later taught creative writing at both the University of Western Ontario and now York Universitys Glendon campus. His fascination with film and alternative media in addition to poetry are evident in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, for which he won a Governor Generals Award in 1970, alongside bp Nichol for his The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid. Ondaatje began his biographical film, Sons of Captain Poetry, about Nichol in that same year (a film I would like you to view, by the way!) Since this period, Ondaatje has become better known for his poetic novels including In the Skin of a Lion (1987), The English Patient (1992), Anils Ghost (2000), and Divisidero (2007), but he has continued to put out award-winning volumes of poetry too. See the internet links for Canadian film-maker, Don McKellars interpretation of Elimination Dance for more of Ondaajes genre-bending irreverence. All of Ondaatjes works have come under scrutiny for his sometimes unsettling combination of aesthetic beauty and physical violence. Ondaatje has also done important editorial work in his collection of short stories The Monkey King and his work central to this units subject matter, The Long Poem Anthology (1979). Ondaatje writes at this point, before the influx of criticism in the last twenty years, it is a form or a size or a structure that has been politely ignored by anthologists, schools, and the general reading public even though it is, as Ondaatje asserts, a concentrated forum for innovative and experimental poetry, important because it was personal, transitional, and local. They went their own way sliding along on the character of the speaker; they were poems (in Bowerings phrase) which did not seem to be peering thru a crenel at the passing show. Instead, these were poems engaged in their own processes of composition without an eye to readers reactions. Ondaatje argues that when he chose the poems for his anthology (including Steveston and Seed Catalogue) he chose them due to their step, their process (11). And, he goes on to argue, these poems offer private explorations of place and self that are more important to a national literature than any flag- waving efforts of conscious cultural nationalism. By all report one former prime minister, John Diefenbaker, would have preferred a more overt nationalism at the time of Ondaatjes first Governor Generals Award (hes won four): what does an American folk hero outlaw have to do with Canada, after all?! Form and the Documentary Ondaatje has called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (hereafter referred to as CWBK) the film that he couldnt afford to make. Sam Solecki asks if it is a script in search of a film, and Manina Jones reads the text as a docudrama in That Art of Difference. Lets pursue this matter of the documentary. One of the hallmarks of the late 60s and early 70s was an anti- authoritarianism that attempted to thwart expectations, societal, literary, and cultural. Thus Ondaatje thwarts the didactic impulse, the impulse to teach both a moral and historical lesson, that is often part of the documentary. If youre unsure what I mean, think back to your own high school days and the films you viewed in classes. When you read the initials NFB or hear the words National Film Board, what words leap to mind? The National Film Board may have a long and illustrious history of expository non-fiction filmmaking (Jones 3) with one of its important contributors, John Grierson, coining the term documentary in 1926, but generations of Canadian school children have also cringed at the prospect of some of the NFBs contributions to our historical, scientific, or (the worst for many) sexual health educations! Ondaatje abandons the directive over-voice in his docudrama, a monologic voice, which directs not only the action but how viewers interpret that action, to put the burden directly on the reader. As Jones argues, the documentary goes underground in the literary text (69), even if Ondaatje simultaneously foregrounds the multiple materials that comprise the archives from which documents are usually drawn with his inclusion of newspaper clippings and photographs. Billy the Kid becomes a subject of interest because he was known to so many during the 60s and 70s, but as a popular legend, the rumours and stories that circulated around this figure, and which in turn kept him in circulation, were conflicting. Conflicting testimonials about him as both monster and saint, and public awareness of this, allowed Ondaatje to re-introduce Billy to readers as the place where problems of documentation are enacted (Jones 70). Ondaatjes language put Billy the Kid onto a stage where the long poem becomes indeed a drama of documents or play of texts, offering multiple points of view from which to witness Billys acts of violence, friendship, and poetry. As Ondaatje writes, many of the events and reminiscences come from Walter Noble Burns The Saga of Billy the Kid. But Ondaatjes credits dont clue readers in as to exactly when Ondaatje is editing, rephrasing and slightly reworking, in his terms, the originals and when, as with the character of Angie, he creates his own fictions. Readers need to leave their desire to categorize fact/fiction, poetry/prose, real/unreal, alive/dead behind when they open the book.Some examples of thwarted expectations: - the dividing line between author and text is not maintained the photograph that ends the work is a photograph of Ondaatje as a small child - photographs do not necessarily relate to the preceding text, as we who are used to the conventions of storybook illustration might expect - the list of the dead toward the beginning of CWBK includes Billy himself though he is a primary speaker throughout - we expect Billy the Kid to be either hero or villain the convention of Westerns, and of narratives more generally but he is both and neither Who Was Billy the Kid? In a way, the answer to this question does not matter; in fact, the reality that there is no definitive or accessible answer is precisely the point for Ondaatjes collage. However, for those who want more historical background, go to Robert H. Utleys article, Who was Billy the Kid? that Ive appended to the site. Ondaatjes initial audience for the book would have known Billy as a pop cultural icon, but that was before our world was flooded by them. Billy the Kid has appeared in Hollywood films from the 1930s to the present day. His story was first fictionalized by his putative killer, the sheriff Pat Garrett in The Authentic Life of Bi
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