Najovits & Kostelanetz, Reviewers

Simson R. Najovits and Richard Kostelanetz offer reviews of “All the Poems.”

Simson R. Najovits Reviews All the Poems / 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 places.”

“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. Prhaps the two of us are making mountains out of molehills.”

“He was not at ease with the world …. Deserts too dry, mountains too high, etc.”

“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 honours 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. [2005]

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 Council’s awards, and a former Editor-in-Chief of Radio France Internationale in Paris.

“The Other ‘John'” by Richard Kostelanetz

This short, insightful review of “All the Poems” was written by Richard Kostelanetz, the New York editor, anthologist, critic, poet, and innovative artist. It appeared as “The Other ‘John'” in 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.

November 2010

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