John Robert Colombo,Teller of Ghost Stories, Anthologist … and, above all, Poet
A Review Contributed by Simson R. Najovits / December 3, 2005
It is now nearly two years since John Robert Colombo’s three-volume All the Poems of John Robert Colombo has been published, and the surprise – or is it a surprise? – is how little attention this major work has attracted.
John Robert Colombo is certainly the most prolific Canadian writer and probably one of the most prolific in the world – more than 180 titles over 45 years published by more than 30 publishers. But it is his just published 900-page All the Poems of John Robert Colombo which underscores his splendid achievement as a poet – and as probably the most prolific Canadian poet – rather than his fame as a compiler of Canadiana facts – 1000 Questions about Canada – , a teller of ghost stories who doesn’t believe in ghosts, but is “interested in them” – More True Canadian Ghost Stories – , the insatiable compiler of quotations – The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations – , the anthologist of jokes – The Penguin Book of Canadian Jokes, or a scholarly critic – O Rare Denis Saurat.
Now, it’s easy enough to ask how two such seemingly contradictory roads can ever meet. And it’s even pertinent to conclude that Colombo’s poetic opus just doesn’t fit into the label of a popular writer, or even a scholarly critic, that’s attached to him. And it’s certainly pertinent to ask why ask why craft so many tens and tens of thousands of words of poetry in an age when prose has long since had the taste and the favor of the quasi-totality of the reading public … and Colombo himself laments the small audience for poetry, but quickly adds, “Poetry powerfully moves the few.”
In All the Poems of JRC, we get the answers in no uncertain terms, that is we get the answers if we’re willing to detach the label of commercial writer or scholar of obscure subjects which sticks to Colombo. And the answer is startling and poignant. Colombo, renewing with no less a great than Walt Whitman, is the poet of the everyday and the commonplace. All of the everyday and all of the commonplace. And like Whitman, the frontier between poetry and prose has been abolished. The poetic and the narrative and the conversational have been welded together.
Colombo is the affectionate singer of the everyday and the commonplace in an eerie kind of poetic and monumental diary he names “daybook, yearbook, scrapbook, diary,” covering years and years of daily life. Unlike that other great diarist Anaïs Nin, he is somebody frequently and strangely reticent about revealing himself – “I suggest, I don’t tell” – and yet when you read him, it’s like he’s there right in front of you, talking to you, shuffling and dealing everyday cards, quirky cards and wild cards. He is bewitched by the occult and religion and esotericism, in love with mythology, and of course, ghosts and monsters too, bewildered by the galaxies and cosmology, enchanted by the doings and sayings of great people, healthily interested in politics, literature, art and philosophy and world-wide travel, appalled by man’s inevitable ignorance, his own included.
The sweetness of life, while being galled by its horrors, including our own horrors, and yet forever questing and forever seeking what is simply the decent thing to do, not cheating, is Colombo’s fundamental frame. Nowhere, does Colombo mention Kafka, but a good dose of the Kafka, who was obsessed by doing the decent thing, by not cheating, despite the disaster of a foggy, incomprehensible world, is sprinkled throughout his work. And while the esoteric teacher G.I. Gurdjieff is only sparsely mentioned, the influence of Gurdjieff is strongly and consistently implicit, notably the idea of an innate, specific essence, or acorn of an essence, that sometimes develops and sometimes atrophies.
“Species history is being scribbled in our times and place.”
“For some time, at the end of one’s lifetime (my own, your own, their own), we inquire: / So what good did we do? What good did it do? Is there any good?”
“But he remembers her, and loves her. And so long as one of them loves the other, it is enough.”
“Perhaps I am making a virtue of necessity. Perhaps the two of us are making mountains out of molehills.”
“He was not at ease with the world … Desserts too dry, mountains too high, etc.”
“A Canadian Is Somebody Who Thinks he knows how to make love in a canoe … and possesses a sound sense of the possible.”
“It would be good for us to believe in reincarnation, / Some form of karma, instead of samsara … / It would be good for us to disbelieve, but amid the doubt / To hold forth the possibility of this and that … “
Those are some of Colombo’s lines, poetry that can’t fail to question and to irritate and to uplift.
And what is striking, and even astounding, is that everything, or almost everything, was there right from the beginning of Colombo’s vocation as a poet – all his basic themes, all his quirks, all his quest. The evolution which took place over forty-five years has been one more of style and ability to metamorphose and communicate; with one notable exception – despite his innate reticence, which is seemingly incorrigible – age and experience have finally produced an odd, oblique frankness … and while this new candidness will probably never become what he avoids and disparagingly labels “letting things hang-out” – civilized Colombo will never be a raucous Allen Ginsberg – during these last several years, he has let his hair down and we can now see more than a bit of the tailpiece of his shirt, even if his shirt remains as neatly ironed as were Kafka’s shirts.
Now, if a strange flat note must be sounded, it is evidently an overdose, an excessive influence on Colombo of Dadaism and Surrealism, the Dadaism of Duchamp and the Surrealism of Breton and Tzara. Yet one wonders if these quasi-compulsory, fashionable influences didn’t bend one of his best qualities – singing the everyday and the commonplace. When Colombo practices what he calls “found poetry” (as Duchamp practised “ready-mades”) – literally taking the words of political speeches, advertising slogans, or newspaper articles and transforming them into poetry – he adds something curious to poetry, but when he writes dozens and dozens of what he calls “effects,” or “impromptus,” frequently fooling around with single words, or acrostics, one is forced to speculate whether he is pampering himself with personal pleasure rather than communicating his deep, basic stance of the song of the everyday.
Of course, one can put Colombo’s Dadaism and Surrealism in another context and come up with another vision, another stratum. One can say that, just as Freud when he was unravelling dreams and the unconscious obviously didn’t have Dadaism and Surrealism in mind, he nevertheless made Dadaism and Surrealism possible, and Colombo, when he doesn’t directly write Dadaist and Surrealistic, frequently uses them in an inverted expression of his reticent essence, as in “Battle in Bed.”
“I come armed / You come open-armed. / I come / You come too.”
And now what? John Robert Colombo has been blessed with many, many honors and much praise – he is a C.M. and an Honorary Doctor of Literature and a First Class member of the Order of Cyril & Methodius; Marcel Marceau, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton have lauded him … and yet I’m tempted to think that what awaits him at seventy years old may yet be his greatest adventure – if he seizes it – he has all the cards in his hand to unite the full house of all his observations and aphorisms and situations and all his personae and his inverted Dadaism and even his dubious Dadaism and maybe a few of his “Ghosts of the Future” who tell us “It is like nothing you know” … and paradoxically … write a novel … a novel based on All the Poems of John Robert Colombo … and, of course, it’s easy enough to see that even if he writes that novel, it won’t stop him from continuing to be Canada’s most prolific poet.
All the Poems of John Robert Colombo (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box Shelburne, Ontario), 2005, three volumes, folio, 924 pages, $125. 
Simson Najovits is a Canadian writer and journalist. He is the author of Egypt, Trunk of the Tree (N.Y.: Algora, two volumes), a winner of Canadian Arts Council and Quebec Arts Councils awards, and a former Editor-in-Chief of Radio France Internationale in Paris.
The Other “John” by Richard Kostelanetz
This short, positive review was written by Richard Kostelanetz, the New York editor, critic, poet, and innovative artist. It appeared as “The Other ‘John,’” The Small Press Review, March-April 2006.
All the Poems of John Robert Colombo
3 volumes, $100 (U.S.); $125 (CAN)
Now that all of us have been publishing for forty years, it has become clear to me that the two greatest North American experimental poets of my generation have been John M. Bennett and John Robert Colombo, the former working in Columbus, OH, the latter forever in Toronto. One quality they courageously share is working in a wide variety of radical alternatives, Colombo’s principal innovative move being the “found poem,” where he draws upon pre-existing texts.
Even with his own words, Colombo wrote classic poems, such as “Millennium,” which opens:
When the time has finally come
No word needs be spoken.
Nothing need be said
Yet no thought will go unsaid.
Everything will be known as if
It had always been known.
As Colombo’s sixty-ninth birthday present to himself, collecting all his previous books plus a few not seen before, All the Poems appears as not one book but three, folio-sized, double-columned, reasonably priced at a hundred bucks (U.S.), indeed representing the sum of a very productive poetic life (which co-existed in his own case with his other lives as an anthologist mostly of Canadiana and a translator). Anyone studying them for weeks will not exhaust the wealth of his poetic adventures.
My very favourite text here is the one that I “found” to appreciate, though Colombo probably thought it only Information, which is simply all the titles in the “Contents” that run for five full pages as continuous prose plus numbers in each volume, these fifteen large pages achieving in sum a density unprecedented for any Collected Poems; for in my considered opinion, no doubt reflecting Colombo’s influence, these rich Contents can stand by themselves as a symbol, to use an epithet popular in poetry criticism when we were growing up, of Colombo’s monumental achievement.
Thoughts on My Own Poetry
The habit of discussing my own poetry is not a habit that I have yet to acquire. I feel uneasy doing it. There are a couple of reasons why this is so. One reason is that most poets sound like pompous and pretentious bores when doing so, but the main one is that I am seldom asked any questions at all about my poetry. Despite this, from time to time, I do ponder the composition of the oeuvre and the raison dtre behind it. All poets do the same thing to greater or lesser extents.
I began to compose poems in the late 1950s and have never ceased to do so. Some of the work has been experimental or innovative in nature found poems, surrealistic sequences, single-word poems, even aphorisms. Collections of these have been published intermittently. In the 1980s, like many other literary writers, I found that the readership and to a lesser extent the listenership was slowly migrating elsewhere. I had never suffered writer’s block but I began to experience publisher’s block. As well, even when a book or chapbook was published, I found meagre by any measure or standard to be its critical reception and commercial compensation. So, with the long-overdue founding of Colombo & Company, a personal publishing imprint, I began to issue new books in 1994, some of them volumes of poems, alongside reissued older books of popular or scholarly interest. Most of these volumes appeared in the newly minted QuasiBook Format, a form of print-on-demand. This took a lot of work and a degree of organization bewildering to the casual reader. Here is an overview of the packaging of the works and the methodology of the Muse: schematic and chronological.
Selections and Collections
Black Moss Press issued a uniform edition of Selected Poems (1982) and Selected Translations (1982). The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box published One Hundred Poems (2003), a highly selected collection. Then the same publishing house produced an omnium gatherum in three volumes of double-columned pages, a “complete works” titled All the Poems of John Robert Colombo (2005). This set reprints in their entirety all the earlier volumes, including the selected poems and translations, as well as the texts of very early private-press ephemera.
Specimens of found poetry may be found in most if not all of my collections. Two early books, The Mackenzie Poems and John Toronto, consist in their entirety of found works, or “redeemed prose.” A later collection entitled, ingeniously, Foundlings (2002), could be considered a volume of “selected founds.”
Poems inspired by science fiction, fantasy fiction, and weird fiction, as well as by the panoramas of space and time, appeared as Mostly Monsters and Space Poems (2005).
The aphoristic expressions and observations that were written since the 1960 have appeared in six collections: Uncommon Knowledge (1996), Semi-Certainties (1998), Open Secrets (2000), Briefs (2001), Personal Effects (2003), and A Is for Aphorism (2006). The Battered Silicon Dispatch box collected these in a handsome volume titled All the Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo (2006). In the works is another collection, this one called Indifferences.
Here I consider my “one word poems.” The extremely brief “poems or effects” that I have been writing, composing, constructing, or assembling over the years I refer to as “rewords.” There were four collections of these “rewords” plus an unpublished fifth collection: One Thousand Poems (1993), Rewords: One Thousand More Poems (1997), Impromptus: One Thousand Poems (2000), Ones: One Thousand Poems (2003), plus “Uncollected Rewords” (2007). The products of this undertaking appeared in the “selected” volume issued by TBSDB titled One Word Poems (2007).
I am not aware that there is any other poet who is issuing his own “poetry annuals.” The practice relieves the pressure of having “the poems sitting in the drawer” (though these days the cause of the discontent is likely to be “the computer’s data on the hard-drive”). Here are the titles and years of publication since the appearance of All the Poems of the “annuals” to date. In passing I note that the arrangement of the “poems and effects” is chronological, so each volume is best seen as an ondulation in a fleuve as in a roman fleuve: Luna Park (1994), Earlier Lives (1995), Contrails (1996), Ether (1997), What Is What (1998), Interspaces (1999), Half a World Away (2000), Far Star (2001), Half Life (2002), More or Less (2003), Yes and No (2004), To Take from Life (2005), Parts of a World (2006), Autumn in August (2007), End Notes (2008), A Far Stary (2009). In recent years there was a format change. The 2008 volume, which collects the “poems with effects” of the previous year, is the first in this series to appear in regular trade paperback format (print-on-demand) rather than in QuasiBook Format (cerlox-bound instant-printed pages).
Continuing Process and Procedure
To recap: I have been issuing a volume of new poems every year since the mid-1990s. Each year’s volume collects all the poems composed during the previous calendar year and appears in late January of the following year, creating, in effect, an on-going “poetry annual.” Since each “poem or effect” is dated and they are arranged in the order in the order of their composition or arrival each collection, willy-nilly, constitutes part of an ongoing “poetry diary” or “poetic journal” of continuing aims, interests, and experiences.
April 2008 – November 2009