By: Elizabeth Strong
Michael Ondaatje’s poem “‘The gate in his head’” is dedicated to Victor Coleman, a well-known Canadian poet and the first editor at the Toronto-based Coach House Press publishing company. Coleman is known for his innovative and experimental style of writing. Ondaatje writes “The gate in his head” as a tribute to both Coleman and the postmodern style he helped inspire. This poem praises the plural, shifting quality of postmodern writing, rejecting clarity and convention. It also explores curious scenes where the objects described appear to be decaying and neglected. Yet Ondaatje doesn’t describe these peculiar scenes of “busted trees” and “melted tires” as being unsightly; instead, he portrays these scenes as things of beauty. Ondaatje rejects traditional definitions of beauty as something symmetrical, harmonized, or clear, overturning this definition and, instead, depicting beauty in “‘The gate in his head’” as something blurred, broken, and shifting – much like postmodern writing itself.
From the outset, the dedication of this poem situates it in relation to Canada’s literary history, since Victor Coleman was the first editor at Coach House Press from 1966 to 1975. Known for advancing experimental Canadian writing, Coach House Press was one of the primary publishers of Ondaatje’s poetry. The Canadian centennial in 1967 led to a substantial increase in funding for the Canada Council for the Arts, which in turn stimulated literary production. Coach House Press, founded in 1965, was established just in time to witness and benefit from this boom in Canadian literary production. This house reframed experimental writing in Canada by helping launch the careers of esteemed Canadian authors like Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and of course, Ondaatje himself. Ondaatje found inspiration for his own experimental, postmodern style in Victor Coleman’s work; the title of the poem, “The gate in his head,” is taken from a line from one of Coleman’s poems, “Day 20.” Postmodern writing is based on an anti-mimetic model (Lecker). Mimetic art strives to reflect and imitate the world from which it draws inspiration. In mimetic theory, the beauty of a work is judged by how accurately it reflects the external world; anti-mimetic theory does not conform to this traditional model and instead praises that which is asymmetrical, broken, or decaying. This postmodern perspective forces the viewer to reconsider preconceived notions of what it means for something to be “beautiful.”
“‘The gate in his head’” is not only written in a postmodern style—it also explicitly praises postmodern writing. Ondaatje establishes the value of the relativity of postmodern writing and thought over the stringency of more traditional writing in praising “not clarity but the sense of shift” Ondaatje perceives in Coleman’s “shy mind” (Ondaatje 1). In mimetic art, clarity is the goal the artist strives for. To Ondaatje, however, beauty and critically “good” art are not found in that which is clear and static; it is found in that which is dynamic and shifting. Ondaatje conveys his appreciation of the relative and of the shifting in his description of a photograph of a seagull. Here, he also begins to challenge the reader’s mimetic definition of “beauty”: “with a blurred photograph of a gull. / Caught vision. The stunning white bird / an unclear stir” (Ondaatje 20-22). The seagull in this photograph is not crisply defined: it’s a mere blur. A conventional, mimetic definition of beauty would demand that the bird be clear and richly detailed, as mimesis requires that art reflect the outside world as clearly and accurately as possible. Ondaatje rejects this perspective and in fact praises the murkiness of the image. In the photograph, the bird’s status as “an unclear stir” makes it “stunning” (Ondaatje 21-22). The other imagery Ondaatje uses employs similarly unconventional depictions of beauty: “Landscape of busted trees / the melted tires in the sun” (Ondaatje 6-7). Here, the scene Ondaatje describes is decrepit. Decomposition and fragmentation dominate the imagery of this passage. Traditional standards of beauty and art reject the broken and decayed, instead praising things that are complete and “perfect”(Lecker). Ondaatje, however, describes the scenes of these half-formed objects as a “landscape,” a style of art used to capture natural phenomena and beauty (Ondaatje 6). By drawing this comparison, Ondaatje equates this unusual image with that of a stunning natural landscape, upending the traditional notion of what qualifies as beautiful enough to be captured permanently in art.
A principal quality of postmodern writing is that it is never static because it changes based on the perspective of the reader (Lecker). From a postmodern perspective, the value of any work of art is relative to the viewer’s own internal reality; reality is plural and dynamic in the postmodern view. Ondaatje is praising this dynamism by saying that he prefers the “sense of shift” (Ondaatje 4). In this line, Ondaatje recognizes that the perspective from which the audience views a work shifts its meaning. Each individual’s collective experiences and identity alter and distort their view of writing. Ondaatje’s speaker subtly alludes to this distortion in referencing “Stan’s fishbowl / with a book inside” (Ondaatje 8-9). The curved glass of a fishbowl distorts the words on the pages of the book, thus changing how they appear to the individual attempting to read them through this unique lens. Writing’s meaning is relative to the individual lens of every reader. The relativity of postmodern writing is evident when Ondaatje writes, “the typeface clarity / going slow blonde in the sun full water” (Ondaatje 13-14). In these lines, the text of the book in the fishbowl is literally shifting: the printed words become relative and blurred as the sun fades them. Their multiple meaning cannot be frozen in ink on a page, but this paradox is exactly what Ondaatje is attempting in this poem.
Ondaatje crafts a fascinating paradox in “‘The gate in his head.’” Even though he praises writing as fluid, shifting, and impossible to pin down, he makes it static by writing the words down in his poem. He is trapped in a paradox. Ondaatje writes, “My mind is pouring chaos / in nets onto the page” (Ondaatje 15-16). His thoughts are free and wild but in attempting to capture them in his writing, he traps them as if in a net. A net is an especially pertinent metaphor here because a net is in itself messy and prone to getting tangled; nets don’t clearly systematize or organize but instead maintain some sense of disorder. So in saying the words are flowing like nets onto the page, Ondaatje connotes a sense of disorder even through the process of making the words static in writing. By writing down the ideas forming and reforming in his mind, he destroys their dynamism. A printed or published work does not show the reader the process that transformed it into the single version that appears in print. Ondaatje views the writing process as being equally important as the finished product because the act of writing itself is an act of revelation: “A blind lover, don’t know / what I love till I write it out” (Ondaatje 16). As a writer, he is discovering and creating knowledge through the process of writing; this knowledge does not just appear to the writer ready-made. Ondaatje is critiquing the idea of writing through his own writing; like the words he writes, he traps himself in a net with this paradox.
In “The gate in his head” Ondaatje subverts his audience’s conventional notions of beauty. Ondaatje praises the blurred, the “sense of shift” (Ondaatje 4). As he equates postmodernism with his new, unconventional definition of the beautiful, Ondaatje celebrates both for their imperfections. Ultimately, Ondaatje wants to change his audience’s perspective and teach his reader to seek beauty in unusual places and in writing that is “shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear” (Ondaatje 25-26). Ondaatje pushes his reader to question what they think they know about beauty. This poem intends to actively engage the audience in constructing their own individual perspective on that which is beautiful rather than on relying on the mimetic, mainstream definition. Ondaatje wants the reader to reject this static definition in favour of a dynamic, multiple perspective on art and its meaning. Yet Ondaatje contradicts the very point he is trying to make by writing this poem. By turning “‘The gate in his head’” into printed words, Ondaatje freezes the writing in ink. Postmodernism operates on the basis that writing is relative and meaning is plural. However, print writing loses the very dynamism Ondaatje values. He desperately wants to show his audience that what “all this writing should be then” is shifting, fluid, and unconventionally beautiful, but he cannot accomplish this goal without fixing the words in place and capturing them in one static form (Ondaatje 23). Ondaatje traps himself in the very net that strangles his writing’s postmodern values.
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Lecker, Robert. “Ondaatje and Postmodernism.” McGill University, 29 Jan 2019, Montreal, QC.
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Ondaatje, Michael. “‘The gate in his head.’” The Cinnamon Peeler, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997. Print. 40.
Photo: “Monk by the Sea,” Caspar David Friedrich