Articles & Reviews

Two Modern Writers: Gustafson and Kroetsch

Reviewed in this article:
Ralph Gustafson, Gradations of Grandeur
Robert Kroetsch, The Ledger
By Stephen Morrissey, CVII, vol. 5, no. 1, Autumn 1980.

In his important work, Irrational Man, William Barren writes that art has replaced religion as man's way of discovering the truth of his existence. Art is a form of spiritual discovery in a society that hardly recognizes that the spiritual exists. Indeed, art is one of man's most important ways of escaping the feeling of triviality and the meaninglessness of life. Ralph Gustafson and Robert Kroetsch are two dissimilar writers and both articulate thought and feeling that emphasizes values that transcend the temporary and life denying.

For Ralph Gustafson all of life is an experience of "grandeur"; however, as the title of his book-length poem tells us, there are Gradations of Grandeur. Gustafson, in a sense, is attempting to articulate a set of values through which one can understand life. He seems to be saying: These are some of the things I've learned that are important to me. Then he proceeds to set them out for us in sixty-four orderly sections, divided into the first and, central poem "Gradations of Grandeur", followed by "Inter-mission" which completes the book.

Art, music, poetry, sculpture, science: all give order to the apparent chaos of existence. The Old and New Testa-ments, the art of Kandinsky and Beethoven, all are evidence of the higher "gradations of grandeur" where "the function of art is to represent God". For "Art is man's revenge on a hostile/ Universe". Art orders the universe and has taken the place of the old religions for Western man — and yet there is the suggestion that the beauty of the old religions, of Judaism and Christianity, was always that they too were great works of art; their ordering function was what enthralled and created whole civili-zations. Indeed, Gustafson suggests that God is order, the "neatness of completion"; art is a manifestation of man's desire, for order and meaning.

Style is action shaped, structure—
Done, the form without waste,
And time, ordered, to the rightness come.

Finally, the order of God is also found in the music of Bach and Liszt, and it is also expressed by the robin who sings every evening. There is a quality of life-affirmation in Gustafson's poem that reminds me of Dostoyevsky's character Alyosha who says, "I think everyone should love life above everything else in the world." Nevertheless, the poem is also in touch with the shadow side of man's being, the urge to destroy as it manifested itself in Belsen and the Nazi regime. Gustafson's attitude is that art created out of love gives perfect order; it is then an expression of a perfect harmony and goodness in life.

Gradations of Grandeur suffers, in places, from what A.J.M. Smith has referred to in Gustafson's work as "knotty syntax" and this' sometimes detracts from the overall gracefulness of the poem. The first section of the poem also suffers from too many ideas — one recalls immediately W.C. Williams' dictum "No ideas but in things" — but the second half of the book, "Intermission", presents the reader with the "things" rather than merely the ideas. "Intermission" is lyrical, direct, and imagistic.

Smith has also written of "the secret many of (Gustafson's) cryptic poems shout" arid this "secret" is an ars poetica of love. Gradations of Grandeur presents this ars poetica and life vision of love. This is, on the whole, a finely crafted poem which has moments of great peace and beauty. Despite its. preoccupation with art as an historical achievement of man, I am sure that Gustafson would place nature as an equal source of beauty, for a kind of mystical apprehension of nature exists in the poem zMd u is in its meditative calm,

Gradations of grandeur descend And all is reality, sitting here
In the sun ...

There is an energy to proper nouns, to lists of objects, dates, names of people and places, and this energy comes across in Robert Kroetsch's long poem The Kroetsch writes,

EVERYTHING I. WRITE I SAID, IS A SEARCH ' (is debit, is credit)
Every thing' you write
my wife, my daughters, said
is a search for the dead

The Ledger, then, is also part of this search for the meaning and purpose of existence, a way out of the triviality of the present moment. Unlike Gustafson, Kroetsch is not dealing with man's great artistic achievements, he is not seeking meaning at the cosmic and global level but through the immediate past, through the documents of his ancestors; he then proceeds to use the ledger as a means of illuminating the present.

The country of Kroetsch's ancestors and their ledger of everyday financial matters is elevated from the mundane and historic to become something we can all relate to. In this, the original ledger loses its significance — what is important is that it is a part of the history of all people. Kroetsch moves through a variety of meanings for the word "ledger", all framed by the central metaphor which is the actual ledger kept by his ancestors, The ledger is the history of all people because While we North Americans may have gained materially we are all the ultimate losers when one considers the destruction of nature, the price we have paid for our rapid industrialization.

arrivals: the sailing ship
the axe
the almighty dollar
departures: the trout stream
the passenger pigeon . the pristine forest

The poem moves from the concreteness of the, ledger to memories of Kroetsch's ancestors — and then it enters the psyche of the reader,

you must see
the confusion again
the chaos again
the original forest

The recurring image that something primeval still exists that one must enter ("You must. Marry the Terror"), a daimonic area of our homogenized North American existence that must be passed through, this sense of the daimonic which runs as an undercurrent through the poem- is juxtaposed beside the historical. The result is a poem that'lives-on in the consciousness of the reader long after he has read the poem; it lives because the ledger of our daily life "does 'not balance" and must eventually be entered in the celestial city of debits and profits . ..

A comparisons may be made between Kroetsch's The Ledger and Margaret Atwood's The Journals of /Susanna Moodie. In brief, Kroetsch's poem is the more . easily accessible while also being structural ly more experi-mental. Both deal with our collective ancestors, a history that is more accurate and truthful than any in the history books because what is revealed by Kroetsch and Atwood is the truth of pOetie'vision. Kroetsch's poem suggests the influence of'Charles Olson; I feel it would also read well as a poem for voices if this hasn't been done already.

Brick/Nairn Press of Ilderton, Ontario, have produced a highly attractive edition of The Ledger which was first issued in 1975 by Applegarth Follies. Another kind of ledger is the diary, a balancing not merely of dollars and cents, gains and losses, but of everyday events that make up our lives. Robert Kroetsch writes in His Author's Note that The Crow Journals "is only sort of a book/a not-quite-a-book book. It came into being as an accumulating heap of notes in a shoe box..."

At one level this is the Journal for Kroetsch's novel What the Crow Said. We see the beginning of the novel materialize and take form. We also see the author's life change: he opens the Journal with the ending of his marriage ("Separation. Endings before Beginnings."), his departure from Binghamton, New York, where he was a teacher, and then the beginning of new relationships and new teaching assignments. This is especially seen in Kroetsch's productive affiliation with the Saskatchewan School of the Arts as well as with the different writers he mentions throughout -the Journal. This theme of departure and arrival is found throughout the book.

There is a feeling, however, that the Journal isn't complete, .that it really is a "not-quite-a-book book". Kroetsch at one point writes: "Now I can begin (in Kroetsch's novel-in-progress) what -Joyce called the 'layering': the exploration of implication, the play with design." One feels that this is just what is absent in The Crow Journals; this is the skeleton of what might have been a more substantial book. An instance of this is in the brief note of "a wonderful lying contest" between Al Purdy and W.O. Mitchell which might have been more fully developed. As I read The Crow Journals I kept wanting Kroetsch to go more fully into things, to say more, to be a story-teller, to give the reader more depth. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen very often in the first half of the book.

While The Crow Journals is generally accessible, to squeeze five years of Kroetsch's life into less than 86 pages seems a bit on the sparse side — and this isn't rectified by adding photographs of the author or a list of the names of people who are. "close to Kroetsch". I also question the necessity of Douglas Barbour's Introduction which is laudatory in the extreme; these are incidentals which only help show the thinness of the Journal as a whole. Barbour's editing is good but the book still needs to be fleshed out.

Copyright © 2007 The author