The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems – Michael Ondaatje (1970)


The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems is a verse novel by Michael Ondaatje, published in 1970. It chronicles and interprets important events in the life of William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, and his conflict with Sheriff Pat Garrett. The book presents a series of poems not necessarily in chronological order which fictionalize and relate Bonney’s more famous exploits, after the end of the Lincoln County War. The narrative includes his relationship with John and Sallie Chisum, his formation of a gang with Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, his standoff with Garrett in Stinking Springs, his arrest and escape from Lincoln, New Mexico, his escape and the ensuing murder of James Bell and Robert Olinger, and finally his death at the hands of Garrett. Technical and stylistic elements: Makes use of free verse vignettes, mostly from Bonney’s perspective, to tell the story. The imagery and language is generally dark and compressed, evocative of the suspense and violence that characterizes Bonney’s story. Ondaatje is quoted as saying: ‘I didn’t want a book that explained him, that was a kind of sociological study of this cowboy or this killer.’ He achieves this goal by writing much of the book in the first person perspective, from Billy’s point of view – this forces the reader to identify, and possibly even empathize with, Bonney’s actions and emotions. Ondaatje has stated that he first became interested in Westerns as a child in his home country of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His characterization of Billy the Kid is largely a reaction against the clichéd ‘comic book’ western heroes he read at the time. … On its release, the volume received largely positive reviews. Most notably, it received the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1970 from the Canadian Arts Council. Karyl Roosevelt also praised the book in the New York Times, calling it ‘a good little book, carefully crafted and thoroughly literate.’ …”
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