Robert Kroetsch | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Robert Kroetsch

Robert Kroetsch, writer, editor, teacher (born at Heisler, Alta 26 Jun 1927, died at Edmonton, 21 Jun 2011). Kroetsch grew up on his father's farm and studied at the University of Alberta and the University of Iowa.

Robert Kroetsch, writer, editor, teacher (born at Heisler, Alta 26 Jun 1927, died at Edmonton, 21 Jun 2011). Kroetsch grew up on his father's farm and studied at the University of Alberta and the University of Iowa. He taught at the State University of New York, Binghamton, until the late 1970s, meanwhile writing a series of novels set mostly in Alberta that won him a growing critical reputation.

Kroetsch's first novel, But We Are Exiles (1966), was a serious affair lacking the ribald comic energy of his later works. His major theme of Dionysian chaos versus Apollonian order was present, though he had not found the proper style to explore it. In The Words of My Roaring (1966), he began to use the tall tale rhetoric of prairie taverns. Both The Studhorse Man (1969), which won the Governor General's Literary Award, and Gone Indian (1973) call the conventions of realistic fiction hilariously into question. Badlands (1975), a comic triumph, could be called an example of feminist fiction-making because of the questions it raises about masculine conventions of behaviour and storytelling.

In 1975 Kroetsch also published his first 2 books of poetry, Stone Hammer Poems and The Ledger. The latter, along with Seed Catalogue (1977), The Sad Phoenician (1979) and Sketches of a Lemon (1981), are parts of Field Notes (1981), a "continuing poem" which interrogates problems of genre, structure and the very possibility of writing literature in the New World. Advice to My Friends (1985), the second volume of Field Notes, was followed by Excerpts From the Real World (1986) and "Spending the Morning on the Beach," which appeared in a special new edition of Seed Catalogue (1986). What the Crow Said (1977), an experiment in magic-realism, and Alibi (1983), proposed as the first volume of a trilogy, testified to his continuing commitment to fiction.

Although pieces which might be fitted into his ongoing experiments in poetry continued to appear in fugitive publications, Kroetsch declared that he had collected all his poems "under one cover, with a title to include the dread 'c' word of postmodernism" in Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (1989/2000, with an introduction by Fred Wah). Almost a decade after Alibi, The Puppeteer (1992) wonderfully subverted the usual conventions of the sequel by returning to the lives of various characters from the earlier novel, but as if the novelist had not contacted them during that period and was just catching up with what they were doing now. It signalled the author's renewed commitment to fiction, but instead of the planned third novel of the trilogy, in 1998 Kroetsch published The Man From the Creeks, a historical novel about the Klondike Gold Rush full of the expected human comedy.

Since that time, Kroetsch stuck to the explorations poetry allowed, which often included structures of fiction. The Hornbooks of Rita K (2001), a Governor General's Literary Award nominee, presents the ruminations of both the titular figure, who disappeared in Frankfurt in 1992, and the efforts of her "intimate friend," Raymond, to decode them and perhaps track her down. That the first letters of both figures' names are RK is no coincidence, and the questions about writing, living in literature, and reading that all the RKs ask can only be left open. George Bowering hits the mark when he says that The Hornbooks of Rita K "pretends to offer a list, a sequence, a narrative - and does everything it can to subvert all those reassuring codes of order." Kroetsch's language here is as comically profound as it had ever been. The Snowbird Poems (2004) seem to offer a more personal, almost lyric, view of life on vacation, living in a famous artist's house while writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary, but this "I" is as slippery as ever. It's a construct and never lets the reader forget it. Kroetsch's Too Bad (2010), subtitled "Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait," insists on the sketchiness of any attempt to write an autobiography that is not immediately and necessarily a fiction. Although these are definitely, and defiantly, poems of old age and memory, they take the comic turns that have always underwritten an almost savage if humane awareness of art's and life's inescapable ambiguities. One line, "Why can't words mean what they say?" could stand as the ultimate statement of Kroetsch's poetics.

Kroetsch was a synthesizer of new literary theory. Through interviews and essays, he encouraged critical thinking about contemporary writing. Perhaps the most extended example of his inspired creative theorizing is Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch (1982), in which he talked at length about a wide variety of topics with Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Abundance (2007) is another book-length conversation with John Lent. Open Letter published his collected criticism to that time in 1983, and a special issue devoted to his work a year later. His criticism reached a larger public in The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New (1989). In 1995 he published A Likely Story: The Writing Life, a literary autobiography of essays.

Through his teaching at the University of Calgary and University of Manitoba from the 1970s through the 1990s, and at the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts and his many writer-in-residencies, as well as through his writing, Kroetsch powerfully influenced recent writing on the Canadian prairies and elsewhere. His generosity of spirit and openness to the new showed many writers new ways to pursue their own kinds of writing. Honouring both his own writing and his contributions to Canadian culture in general, Kroetsch was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2004. In 2011, shortly before his death, he received the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award. Also honouring his work and devotion to writing, every year the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry is given to an emerging Canadian poet, and the winning manuscript is published by Snare Books.

See also: Humorous Writing in English.

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