Write a personal essay, short story, or poem using material suggested by one of the following sentences:

  • I sure blew that one!
  • He/She never learns!
  • That was a day when I should have stayed in bed.
  1. The title of this poem establishes its theme: the essential separation between the two worlds that the narrator’s father lived in – the world of his writings and the world of his unhappy daily life. (The word “letters” here is probably used to mean written materials.) What kind of world was the world of his writings?
  2. Ondaatje says that the father “hid that he had been where we were going.” What do you think he means by this? What was the relationship between father and son?
  3. “His early life was a terrifying comedy.” To whom was it terrifying? Himself? His wife? His family? To whom was it a comedy?
  4. What characteristic is suggested by the metaphor “He would rush into tunnels magnetized/by the white eye of trains”?
  5. What was the father’s occupation? Ondaatje suggests two incidents that were instrumental in bringing about Home Rule in Ceylon. How serious is he?
  6. What is the narrator’s attitude to his father. Does he condemn him? Is he sympathetic? Analytical?
  7. Can you explain what it was in the character and mentality of the father that led to his tragic life and death?
  1. In what way is the concept of Shakespeare like the idea of “God” or “Death” or “the start of the world”?
  2. The poem is divided into four stanzas. Can you briefly summarize the idea that is expressed in each stanza?
  3. How many of the quotations from Shakespeare can you identify?
  4. Layton sees Shakespeare as the poet’s “unclimbable mountain.” Can you suggest individuals who might be “unclimbable mountains” in other lines of endeavor? Are there any in your life?
  5. Do such unclimbable mountains tend to discourage or inspire people? Discuss.
  6. What is the tone of the poem? Is Layton angry? Amused? Discouraged? Envious? What reaction does he expect from the reader? Amusement? Sympathy?
  1. From whose point of view is this poem written? What is it about the fugitive that the hunters cannot forgive?
  2. The specific events of the manhunt are suggested in a very compressed form. How many of the events can you list? Compare you list with the events as they appear from reading of “The Naming of Albert Johnson” on page 504
  3. Kroetsch relies on diction and unexpected juxtaposition of words for much of his effect. What is suggested by “blood reason”? “red authority”? “baited their pride”?
  4. Examine the phrase “the brave running/by which he will become poet of survival/to our suburban pain/” What combinations of ideas are suggested? The word “survival” is obviously appropriate to Johnson’s flight. In what sense might he be a poet? Might his skill in eluding his pursuers be considered artistic?
  5. What is suggested by the words “suburban pain”? Is Kroetsch suggesting that the hunters, dependent on the city for survival, are out of place and less at home in the north than Johnson is? Is he suggesting that the general public, safe in their suburban homes, find the circumstances of the hunt painful? What were the odds against Johnson? What is the natural human reaction to the underdog? What was there in Johnson’s performance to inspire admiration?
  6. How is the incident in parenthesis at the end of the poem used to influence our attitude to the posse?
  7. In what way might Johnson be considered “the poet of our survival”? Is Kroetsch perhaps suggesting that the life of every individual is a fight for survival?
  1. What contrasts does Avison suggest between nature and the structures placed upon it by the circumstances of life in a city?
  2. The title of the poem suggests that the man on the park bench is unemployed. How has “progress” contributed to his unemployment? Would he have something to do if he lived in a more primitive society?
  3. The astronaut in the newspaper story is separated from the world, disoriented, confined within a man-made structure, bound by his relation with the scientific world. How does this parallel the situation of the unemployed man?
  4. What is suggested by the quotation marks around the final word “smiling”?
  5. What do you think the theme of the poem is? Does it have something to do with what we call “progress,” and its effect on the freedom of the individual and the quality of human life?
  1. In the first stanza of this poem why does Acorn refer to a “gillettes width” rather than a razor’s width? How do the connotations differ? Which suggests the more personal image?
  2. Explain the phrase “a rude brush-cut to the chin/tucks on brain safe under another.” (Note that the word “rude” here means rough or simple, rather than impolite.) How does this add to the impression of the fighter as a human being?
  3. Throughout the poem Acorn is concerned with the effect of the fights on the mind inside the boxer’s target – the human being inside the trained fighter. How does the contrast between the TV picture and the actual fight contribute to this idea?
  4. In the first stanza Acorn likens the brain of the fighter to a coconut set up as a target in a carnival game. Who has the best chance of winning in a carnival game? The player? The promoter? The coconut? Do the players have a fair chance? How does this parallel his concept of the fights in stanza three?
  5. Acorn pictures the fighter, finally, as a jerky bum/humming with a gentleness less than human.” Is this another way of suggesting that boxing is a brutalizing sport? Would the effect have been the same if Acorn had used the term “brutalizing”?
  6. “We need something of its nature, but not this,” Acorn concludes. What aspect of the fights is he suggesting that we need?


From The Idea of a Poem: an Interview with Milton Acorn

Respondent: A favourite quotation of mine—I don’t know where it’s from—is “There are no boundaries in nature; nevertheless, you must make boundaries”.

Interviewer: How does this apply to the poem?

Respondent: Well, how could you distinguish between the dancer and the dance? In a very wide sense, all of life is a dance; a person’s life is a dance. So where is the dancer and where is the dance? How can you distinguish between the two? Well, anyway, I have always found myself in that dilemma: in the end you can’t distinguish, but you must. That is, you say all is one: this is true. All is but one universe. However, it is not a very good approach to analyze the universe. But in analyzing the universe, you must consider the universe as one. There must be, along with all your analysis of stars and quasars, galaxies and metagalaxies, black holes and the void, a recognition that the universe is one. But of course “all is one” is no answer. My favourite illustration is to go back to the statement “There are no boundaries in nature; nevertheless, we must make boundiares”. Where is the boundary between the sea and the land? It changes twice in more or less twenty-four hours. Does the tide ever stop at the same place? No. What’s the high tide mark? I used to mark it by the wreckage, but that doesn’t always work. Where is the low tide mark? The lowest mark amidst the wreckage? No. The tide has risen farther in the past and will rise farther again in the future. So will it fall lower.

Interviewer: How do you apply this to a poem? If the poem is like nature, it has no boundaries, yet we have to make some boundaries. Do you have that in mind when you are writing poems?

Respondent: I have in mind one thing, one idea. What am I to you? In the context of a poem, I am my voice. Here there is a centre—one of the centres. It’s me. My voice reaches out and inspires my brain. My voice reaches out and strikes common or close to the centres of your brain. What you are hearing is literally me. At the same time, in another sense, it’s literally you. My poems are one long varitoned shout to reach you and get an echo. All this has got to be incorporated in the idea of a poem, the end of a fantasy. I have spoken. Amen.

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