Letters and Other Worlds by Michael Ondaatje: Summary and Critical Analysis

The poem Letters and Other Worlds is an examination of the last years that the poet's father lived the turbulent and mind-breaking life of alcoholism and neurosis caused by family strife and addiction. The 'other' world is the world of poetry and letters in which his father lived for the last few years of his life.

Michael Ondaatje (Born in 1943)

The poet is sympathetic towards his dead father, and thought he never explicitly criticizes his mother, he has disfavored her as one of the causes of the father’s troubled life. In fact, it seems that the father is meant to symbolize the peaceful east (his father was a mixed SriLankan) and his mother seems to represent the west, its divorce and disharmony between spouses beyond a few years.

The poem tells the whole story of his father’s life during the last few years. His father had given to drinking heavily, and he was also used to hiding in his room for long periods apparently doing nothing. After the death of the man the son found a lot of letters and poems that his father had written. In the letters and poems (letters mean literature in the archaic sense), he finds that there was peace, equilibrium and repose. The poem narrates the story in a not very simple manner, it includes rather surrealistic images. Besides the personal and local references (which abound in the poem) also complicate the reading to some extent.

This is a nostalgic poem based on the history of the persona’s family father being the central figure. There are several instances of geographical, autobiographical and historical events that initiate poem in a personal tone and make it drift away into a common theme of reminiscence, attachment to family roots and a sense of cultural fragmentation. As is evident in Ondaatje’s other works, his father is portrayed as a drunkard, an eccentric and angry man in the initial part of the poem. The persona may be Ondaatje himself narrating his feelings and experiences in his cross cultural childhood. The persona’s father is presented as fearful, angry, and mysterious yet full of feelings reflected in his seldom written letters. There is an abundance of several expressions leading readers into ambiguities and incoherence.

The attachment of the speaker to his father is marked by the closeness of geographical territories: the ‘globe of fear’ of the first stanza shrinks in ‘town of fear’. The third stanza jumps immediately into the dead state of the speaker’s father i.e. drunk, lying flat in an enclosed room with the use of stream of consciousness technique; the poet switches on to another episode of his father’s early life of romance punctuated by divorces from the wife. Bored by the intermittent divorces, he used to go away by trains, then again used to return to Ceylonese town, Perhara to join religious rituals and drinking. The multidimensional personality of his father is explicit as he is shown as an activist for the independence of Ceylon in 1948.

Different bits and pieces of impressions are attached together, though they apparently lack coherence. An episode of the speaker’s mother also finds a place. She was bad at driving and so was attached by villagers when she was seen driving. The 14 years of his parents conjured life was tense, prone to any miss happening. Once, the father pretended to away by swimming after a ship while the mother acted as if that event did not affect her. Another stone in their married life fell when the eccentric father filed a paper of divorce, but immediately the mother retorted and wrote to the editor to dismiss the content of the paper arguing that he was drunk. Followed by all these events, the speaker’s father moved to liquor and enclosed himself in his room where he produced several pieces of art mingled with realistic impulses like speeches, dreams, apologies and letters. His write-ups contain a neat description of flowers; schemes for household works and new arrangements of facilities like electric. This stanza mentions more positive and responsible part of the father. The old man even radically changed his treatments towards his children and presented himself as a loving father, started loving to be with family members till he died.

Beginning with a presentation of father as an embodiment of fear, loveliness, and the speaker ends with an overwhelming affection and attachment to his father. Different bad, notorious, unsocial character of the old man is disclosed without a tinge of hyperbole to show a facet of one’s life. Yet he is not virtually bad father, because he has equally pleased his family members with love towards his later life. These eccentricities of the old man may have sprouted from his dualistic blood and culture as a result he could neither exactly fit himself into Europeans nor into Ceylonese. Sense of cultural loss is also decipherable in the poem.

Ondaatje’s nostalgia intensifies and he wants to merge into his past life in Ceylon. Love for owning past is so powerful that bad episodes provides cheerful emotional moment to the writer and he is trying to precisely recreate the lost past which is raw, crude, but fascinating. The father had different worlds to live: drinking, traveling, politics, tense marriage, and family which showed different facets of his life which his letters were remarkably proliferating his desire to live the world of feeling and art.

This poem has long been considered one of Ondaatje’s finest poems: the control of tone, as the poem moves from comedy to deeply moving simplicity, is breathtaking. In the poem, he speaks lovingly of his father’s life as a “terrifying comedy” of alcohol and outrageous acts. Ondaatje’s first attempt to place and placate his father’s ghost or “his” “father’s” ghost –the quotation marks signaling the essential functionality of all autobiography, the fact that even memory is “a shaping” and “a making”, that it can never be an innocent representation. The poem manages to juxtapose farce with despair, the two modes of discourse clashing and contradiction, acquiring a dialogic equilibrium “my father” could not maintain, finally. Its emotional power resides in the tension between the two moods.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, Kedar N. "Letters and Other Worlds by Michael Ondaatje: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 15 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/letters-and-other-worlds.html.

Related Topic

Michael Ondaatje: Biography