Robert Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue is "one of the most-studied long poems in Canadian literature" (Van Herk). First published by Turnstone Press in 1977 and included in Michael Obdaatje's Long Poem Anthology (1979), it was republished as part of Kroetsch's Completed Field Notes (McClelland & Stewart, 1989) and alone with wood engravings by Jim Westergard (Red Deer Press, 2004). The poem has been explored by a long list of critics including David Arnason, Pamela Banting, Russell Brown, Wanda Campbell, Dennis Cooley, Sue Matheson, Manina Jones, Douglas Reimer, Laurie Ricou and Aritha Van Herk (See Poetry in English).
The central model for Seed Catalogue is the Garden of Eden, which informs the text from the opening descriptions of planting to the final riddle about Adam and Eve. Responding to a 1917 seed catalogue he found in Calgary's Glenbow archives, Kroetsch set about writing a poem "of the imagined real place" that would bring together "the oral tradition and the myth of origins" (See Oral Literature in English). For Kroetsch the garden becomes a kind of sacred middle ground between the male field and the female house, and the most fertile ground for the growth of the poet, which is the central subject of the autobiographical poem. The young poet falls from the male world of the house into the ambiguous garden where his mother invites his participation in the acts of creation and naming. The energy of the poem emerges from the tension between downward and upward movement, between the seed full of explosive potential and the careful containment of the catalogue and between the "terrible symmetry" of opposites that define prairie life, including absence/presence, winter/summer, past/present, and death/life.
The poem's various voices can be distinguished on the page by different forms of text, including a flexible left-hand margin, multiple-choice, italics, and clever alterations between seed catalogue entries and poetic passages. The poem incorporates many lists, including the witty catalogue of absences that mark the home place of Heisler, Alberta. Overall, it is structured as a catechism of sorts, designed to instruct and reveal through questions and answers. However, in keeping with a postmodern resistance to closure, Kroetsch provides not one answer but many, not one method but many, not one muse but many. Having explored the beginning of his personal apprenticeship, Kroetsch outlines the struggle for poetry in a prairie literature dominated by fiction: the environment may be hostile, but Kroetsch is determined to develop a hybrid that is up to the challenge. How do you grow a poet? The best answer may be found in the poem's description of the brome grass that withstands extremes and "flourishes under absolute neglect."