Author: Tanja Cvetkovic
FIELD GAME POETRY: FIELD NOTES: A CONTINUING POEM 1-8 BY ROBERT KROETSCH
Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch’s collected poetry, was published originally by the title Field Notes: Collected Poems (1981), gathering his long poems between 1973 and 1981. The same year the book was published as Field Notes: A Continuing Poem 1-8 (1981) and later as Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (1989).
In Kroetsch’s poetics, a poem is a field where the poet and the reader are involved in an archaeological game. In the open field the combination of multiple possibilities comes into play while the poet and the reader perform an archaeological dig under the layers of different meanings. Kroetsch creates a godgame situation in which the poet and the reader as players are caught in an infinite number of poetic possibilities. This is the way literature functions for him.
This must be one of the functions of art: to put us into situations where we apprehend the rules only up to a point. […] We are all in games where we can’t quite perceive the rules. We are in the godgame situation; this is central to my view of the importance of fiction. And yet it would be an error to perceive the differences between life and art, just as it would be an error not to see that they are the same.1
Both in life and art, man is in a godgame situation. Being part of the game whose rules he doesn’t know well, his sole purpose is that of survival. It’s like a game of chess in the open field.
Kroetsch’s godgame situation is based on search. In his long poems, the poet searches for a home, an authentic voice, his ancestors, the past. Stone Hammer Poem, which serves as the prologue to the volume, begins the search for the original place and home. The poet associates his memories of the past to the stone and explores different meanings the object of meditation induces. The first story of the stone hammer continues into another The Ledger where the poet relates his reflections of the ledger to a sense of place again while exploring the past of his ancestors. The poet tries to order different possibilities he encounters while rendering the meaning of the ledger. What actually happens is that: “You must see/ the confusion again.”2 The poet becomes “wildly disorderly,”3 while trying to restore everything in order. “The chaos again/ the original forest”4 lead the poet to another story. In the next poem Seed Catalogue, the poet asks: “How do you grow a poet?” or “How do you make poetry?”
Seed Catalogue is about the creation of a poem and the garden through the processes of erasure and negation. The poem also rewrites one of the most popular North American myths, the story of prairie as garden. The garden is both the literal garden and the metaphorical garden, the field of his poem, where the prairie poet continues his search for his home place, a new poetic form and a new language expression.
Kroetsch’s poet is the Sad Phoenician whose sadness reflects the condition of Canadian writing at that time, characterized by belatedness, and who tries to establish himself anew as a poet. Kroetsch establishes a relation between the Phoenician’s sadness and the condition of Canadian writing:
The sadness is one of the basic sounds of Canadian writing. We experience the sadness of arriving late, and with that comes our recurring need to recover a beginning. You see, like the Americans, we see ourselves as new people, but we don’t believe what we see.5
His tendency to free the poet’s word from different cultural inheritances is embodied in the character of the Sad Phoenician. He is the Sad Phoenician of Love and on the surface the poem is a long dramatic monologue about his misadventures as a lover.
The Sad Phoenician is structured vertically by way of the alphabet and horizontally by a pattern of opposition between “and” and “but” which bring about the dynamic flow of the poem. By excluding a dialectic binary opposition between the “and” and “but”, Kroetsch assumes a dialogic relation between the conjunction and the disjunction.
The Sad Phoenician is a trader with words. The poem is pretty much about language, the recording of language, and the correspondence of the word as image and sound, the way we perceive language. The alphabet in the poem gives the readers “an exact and illogical way of perception”6 and this kind of contradiction puts the language of the poem in a kind of “a condition of civil unrest”.7 The Sad Phoenician is not concerned with the making of letters though; he is rather more concerned “with loading the words with more and more layers of meaning, all that punning”.8
The contradiction of perception makes the sad Phoenician live by resistance. He speaks against the order as “the poet must resist the poem”.9 The Sad Phoenician is mistreated and rejected by women, has a solace consolation of writing and playing with words on the field page. As a poet, he is made of words; he has no past and no future, and lives in the –ing mode: “what do you do in life: I ing”.10 The –ing form indicates indefiniteness, the poet’s compulsion to go on with writing with the endless play of signs, sounds, words.
The Sad Phoenician is continued into another long poem The Silent Poet. The silent poet’s poem is the poem “that doesn’t say what it might say, but says it anyway without words”.11 The poet, the Sad Phoenician, explores the idea of the impossibility to find right words to express his feelings:
I do have feelings, just because I’m a poet doesn’t mean
I have no feelings of my own, poets are human; I am, you
might say, a kind of Phoenician, with reference, that is,
to my trading in language, even in, to stretch a point,
ha, my being at sea.12
But instead of describing the Sad Phoenician, in the first part of The Silent Poem, the poet describes his double Eric the Red, the discoverer of Greenland, who is transformed in the text as Earache the Red. Earache asks the poet to write a line of poetry for him. As his name suggests, listening does not come natural to him and he starts covering the poet’s silence. Again the emphasis is on the importance of listening to the poem and even the poet’s silence speaks of the efforts by the readers to create the meaning of the poem.
The Winnipeg Zoo gives an image of a poet who is tired and exhausted of searching for a home, a poem, expressing the difficulties of writing and storytelling. The poet is on the verge of giving up is job, but still feels the responsibility he has for the survival of our stories:
I am here, it is quiet, I am exhausted from
moving, we must take care of our stories
we must take care of our stories, I am ex-
hausted from moving, it is quiet, I am here.13
The Winnipeg Zoo is a poem about the woman who takes her lovers to the Winnipeg Zoo but nobody sees them go out. The stories are dark, criminal stories, without an ending; they are the stories about everyday life.
The same idea of poetry, of taking everyday life and transfiguring it into extraordinary experience, with a more meditative type of writing, appears in Sketches of a Lemon and The Criminal Intensities of Love as Paradise.
Field Notes feature a poem as an open field in which the fusion of opposites and different possibilities takes place. In his poetry, Kroetsch renders his search for an authentic voice grounded in place and a radical concern with literary form itself. Voice is a distinctive feature of Kroetsch’s writing as well as the endless search for the right word. The book closes with the invocation of voice:
The closed eye
O nesting tongue
hatch the world.14
The poems making up Field Notes are considered “a continuing poems” pointing to the author’s need to keep writing and foregrounding the idea that it is a work in progress completed in the collection published in 1989 as Completed Field Notes.
1 Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch.(Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982): 68.
2 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).
3 Eli Mandel. “Preface”. in Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).
4 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).
5 Smaro Kamboureli. “A Poet Out of Love: An Interview with Robert Kroetsch on the Sad Phoenician”. Open Letter 5: 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 49.
6 Ibid., 47.
9 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).
11 Kristjana Gunnars. “Meditation on a Snowy Morning: A Conversation with Robert Kroetsch. Prairie Fire 8.4 (1987-88): 56.
12 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).