“It Takes a Lifetime to Write a Poem”

Reviewed by Robert Thacker

I met and came to know Kroetsch himself at the University of Manitoba during the late 1970s, just when he had come back from SUNY Binghamton and was joining the faculty; I was a new PhD student; I never had a class from him, but we often talked about my ongoing prairie-fiction project, on which he was a reader once it became a thesis. In that connection, the paper Kroetsch presented in April 1978 at the Crossing Frontiers conference in Banff, “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space,” was probably the most personally significant academic paper I have myself ever heard; it sparked outrage and a bit of awe. And from Crossing Frontiers too, a vivid memory from a session on prairie poetry, just after Kroetsch had published his Seed Catalogue (1977): he was asked why he had gone with a small Winnipeg press, Turnstone, for that book instead of a more commercial publisher—he replied that publishing a book of poems was basically “an insane act” commercially, so the poet ought to have some fun while having some say in the shape of the book.

Sometime during those years, of a Saturday morning with few people around the English department offices, I ran into an MA student who was then doing a reading course with Kroetsch on all the great world literature everyone should know; he had just emerged from a session. The fellow was a bit wild-eyed. I asked how the course was going, and he immediately replied, emphatically, “You know sometimes I come out of that office convinced that Bob is the most brilliant man on earth; other times, I think he’s the dumbest.” “So much for that.” Or better, “A likely story.”

Robert Kroetsch: Essayist, Novelist, Poet is the latest in the University of Ottawa’s excellent Reappraisals: Canadian Writers series, “the longest-running book series dedicated to the study of Canadian literary subjects,” each volume (now numbering well over thirty and dating back to 1974) derived from an annual Canadian literature symposium sponsored by the English department. Over the years I’ve attended many of these gatherings, spoken at several, and certainly often saw Bob Kroetsch there. A unique and important institution in Canadian writing, one that needs ever to be noted and celebrated.

The Kroetsch Symposium was held in April 2017. Owing to Bob’s death in a June 2011 car accident, when he was travelling home from a writers’ gathering in Canmore after receiving the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s highest award in Calgary, there is an appropriately elegiac tone through some of the writing here. But more than that, and overwhelming ruefulness, there is ongoing delight in and celebration of just who Kroetsch was as a man, as a relentlessly productive writer, and as a force for Canadian writing. His long-time close friend Rudy Wiebe—they met in 1967—begins his essay by writing of the “delights, the revelations of his brilliant, questing imagination” seen in the writing, but he prefers to concentrate on “the person I knew: Bob Kroetsch, that immensely complex, imaginative, warm and gentle man.” Wiebe writes of their frequent travels all about Alberta together, the places they stopped, the land they contemplated. He highlights a 2007 session they did together in Winnipeg when they were asked about their shared “fifty years writing so many books” and Kroetsch “evaded the question entirely by shifting it to me—‘What do you think?’” he asked. Wiebe also evaded some himself, but then “Bob finished the whole conversation with the perfect response: ‘It takes a lifetime to write a poem.’”

David Eso begins the volume with a canny biographical analysis of Kroetsch’s time at SUNY Binghamton, and especially his editorial work as co-founding editor of boundary 2, arguing that his “[e]xperience abroad helped clarify for Kroetsch the Canadian aversion to self-promotional bombast.” While Kroetsch the essayist and novelist is evident in the critical analyses offered here—Robert David Stacey writes an especially good reading of What the Crow Said—most of the attention is on the poetry.

There, Albert Braz offers a niggling and ultimately unconvincing account of the fate of Kroetsch’s “Poem of Albert Johnson” (1975), but the rest of the poetic analyses are of an exceptionally high order, some even brilliant: Phil Hall on “Poem for My Dead Sister” as masterpiece and Dennis Cooley on the travel poems are certainly that, while Jennifer Baker on The Ledger and Jason Wiens on Kroetsch’s epistolary poetics are not far behind. Wiens’ paper is deeply rooted in the Kroetsch archive, and complementing that necessary work is Cameron Anstee’s detailed account of the complex textual history of Seed Catalogue, most significantly the important role played by the Turnstone designer, Eva Fritsch. Looking at Kroetsch’s reliance on fragments in his chapbook poetry, and arguing convincingly that (with Brian McHale) he thought autobiography “a fallacy, an optical illusion,” Nicole Markotić makes an excellent case.

Two of the more personal essays, by Laurie Ricou and Aritha van Herk, need highlighting. Ricou, in “Sketches of a Layman,” dissects Kroetsch’s influence: not “whom he influenced, but how he influenced”: “Bob the generous teacher, unaware, teaching by declining to teach.” Citing his own students’ responses to Kroetsch’s presence and writing in some detail, Ricou in this deeply heartfelt, apt, and beautiful essay asserts that he was a “beloved, willing man.” “Bob wrote his life all his life long in a way that invited his reader to come back with her own stories.” For her part, van Herk offers vivid, often funny, accounts of driving about Alberta with Kroetsch riding shotgun, accounts connected to the texts he produced: the “urge, then, to drive, to travel, to journey, becomes a chronic itch in the textual presence of a fidgeting writer, his eternal restlessness belied by the silent poet role that he pretended to play.” In Kroetsch, she writes finally,

both space and place sculpt an imagination so completely unique that our grief and joy at its rereading can only retrace the journeys that he instigated in his readers, in his friends, and in his words themselves.

More than a likely story, a wonderful one.

This review ““It Takes a Lifetime to Write a Poem”” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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