British poets have never been comfortable with vers libre in the way American poets are; we still consider it to be somehow improper, and, with the exception of Lawrence, there has been no-one here with the stature of, say, William Carlos Williams or Alan Ginsberg, both of whom firmly rejected traditional forms of verse patterning. Considering that Pound and Eliot flowered over here, neither the Cantos nor the Wasteland have borne widespread seed, except in precocious school magazines or the mordant type of creative writing student. Charles Olson’s theories about content dictating form, with all those typographical complexities he optimistically believed would make rhythms clearer, have no equivalent in the suburban, common-sense air of Britain, where Larkin still presides like some owlish animus. (The one notable exception is David Jones’s Anathemata, the most underrated poem in the language, written in the ’50s.) The nearest, I would say, we get to that American gung-ho spirit is in Ted Hughes, our Poet Laureate, whose lines have exactly that Whitman power which led Olson, via the French Symbolists, to call a poem a ‘high energy construct.’ You’ve got to go for it with free verse – a line has to sing or else it flops. My own theory is that Americans like the sound of their own voice; most free verse is best read aloud, and it is no coincidence that, in all the awfulness of British poets mumbling embarrassedly away, Ted Hughes comes from somewhere else. Ten minutes of him and the hairs stand up at the back of the neck. He has a shamanic presence, Yorkshire-style.
This is all a preamble to discussing Michael Ondaatje’s Selected Poems. There is not a single traditional form, or semblance of metre, anywhere in the book. Ondaatje is a Sinhalese-Canadian, living in Toronto, best known for his extraordinary novels (In the Skin of a Lion, etc). These are Symbolist prose-poems that adhere to Wallace Stevens’s dictum that a work should wake the reader up, present new ways of seeing a too-familiar world. Ondaatje (to rhyme with Hitachi) presents, in this volume, a more intense, fragmentary version of his prose, and the poems are without that heightened kind of rhythm one associates with the best of vers libre. This is not to say that they don’t work; they do, because, perhaps following the Beat poets’ example as well as Olson’s, they have an integrity of tone about them, as if the poet is talking, even rambling, aloud, and is not much bothered if we understand or not. What is important is to experience shifts, to go with him on his private, weird, often beautiful journeys, whether around his family (‘When I thought of daughters/I wasn’t expecting this/but I like this more’), or landscapes, or imagined lives. ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’ is the best poem in the book:
‘If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.’
Here love is made astonishingly immediate and sensually illicit – ‘Your breasts