Condensed Archive of Canadian Achievement



Department of Poetics


vol. 31


Secular Ruin


(an introduction)





   All excerpts here have been excised from the corpse-book Secular Love, scribbled by Michael Ondaatje and unfortunately published (and accompanied by a cover evidently designed to match the banality of the writing) by Norton in 1984.





   For this book, the word love has been replaced wherever it was found in Secular Love and replaced with the word ruin. This was not done to salvage the work, or to demonstrate something valuable in something worthless. The act of replacement is intended to remind readers that what was being presented in Secular Love as something intimate (Sharon Olds), utterly individual (W.S. Merwin), and generously disposed (Robert Creeley), is only a ruin… something fit for tourists and not for habitation.





   Why this book, why Secular Love? why Michael Ondaatje? First of all, let me remind you of the mandate of CACA— all instances of Canadian underachievement which are held up as being achievements must be archived. Archivists are encouraged, whenever possible, to condense the material in a way which might clearly demonstrate the shortcomings of the work in question. As I am in the Department of Poetics, a particularly overburdened and understaffed department of CACA, it is my job to archive Secular Love by Michael Ondaatje, for the simple reason that it is a failed poetic effort.



   Should you need proof of the shortcomings of this book (which you should not since I am the professional here, not you and you should trust my judgment) I will indulge you. In my extensive training and through my decades of experience I have become adept at spotting those places where a poet, or a would-be-poet, reveals its inability to penetrate into poetry. One place where this occurs is in the habit of relying on weak or lazy verbs (go, sit, fall, etc.). Another instance, and the example which I am going to show you is of this type, occurs when a poet, or would-be-poet, decides that it is time for some profundity, usually in the form of dazzling imagery. In incompetent hands this gesture always results in surreal or grotesque images where a sublime beauty was desired; or, it results in pedestrian truisms where an audacious insight was intended. In any case, something unintelligible and embarrassing is the effect of this desire for profundity which, when it appears in a poet who is a would-be-poet, is analogous to the sweat on the palms of adolescents who are walking hand in hand and unsure of who is going to kiss who first — and it is that profound — something excreted in an instinctual reaction of incomprehensibility before something which is common knowledge to most of the planet. As an example, take this nimble moment (from the poem Tin Roof , page 43):


As at night we remember the colour

of the dogwood growing

like a woman’s sex outside the window.

I wanted poetry to be walnuts



(And to make matters worse, in this passage one can hear the training wheels of every would-be-poet rattling in the simile.)



   I hope this has been informative.





from CACA vol.31: Secular Ruin (Opacity Series # 2) Mike Schertzer, 2003