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Athabasca University

Margaret Atwood: The Poetry

by Manijeh Mannani

Best known for her novels, Margaret Atwood is recognized as one of Canada’s most prominent and prolific contemporary writers. Atwood’s fame, however, also rests on her voluminous contributions to the genres of poetry and short story. Moreover, as a critical analyst, historian, and essayist, Atwood’s writings have appeared in a wide range of scholarly material spanning from college and university textbooks to important literary journals and anthologies. Her international reputation began with the publication of her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone in 1961. Ever since then Atwood has successively contributed to all the main genres of literature making her the most productive writer of her time in Canada. Atwood’s fiction has been widely translated into different languages, adding to her international reputation.

Atwood was born to Carl and Margaret Killam Atwood in 1939 in Ottawa. The occupation of her father as a prominent entomological researcher had a drastic effect on the eventual career of his daughter. Margaret Atwood discovered her interest in nature and natural phenomena at a very early age due to the site of her father’s research which was often the woods in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec where the family mostly spent its summers. Of the other major influences on Atwood’s literary career was the work of the Romantic poet, William Blake, whom she took an interest in through her teacher, the renowned critic and literary scholar Northrop Frye at the time she was doing undergraduate work at University of Toronto.

The influence of William Blake marks Atwood’s first collection of verse, Double Persephone (1961) which also sets the tone and theme for the rest of her poetry. Not as conspicuous in the treatment of environmental and socio-cultural issues as most of her later poetry is, the poems in this collection almost unanimously highlight the perpetual contrast and the inherent conflict between nature and the ways adopted by mankind to dominate it. The Circle Game (1966), for which Atwood received the prestigious Governor General award in 1967, brought the poet to the attention of the literary world and developed the theme of contrast between man and nature to the fullest. Conflict, in general, constitutes the backbone of most of Atwood’s poetry and in The Circle Game it extends to the contention that exists between genders, art and nature, and Canadians as a distinct nation vis-à-vis other people among other binary oppositions. The highly metaphoric use of language in most of the poems in this collection, but most notably in poems like "Playing Cards" and "An Attempted Solution for Chess Problems" highlight the limitations mankind sets for himself in his interaction with the world in the same way laws and regulations governing children’s games are restricted to the games and not applicable to the real world, outside. By juxtaposing the artificiality of language and the constructive quality of art in general with nature Atwood comments on the arbitrariness of man’s life in regards to such genuine concepts as love and literature.

Atwood’s next collection of poems, The Animals in That Country (1968) carries on the theme of conflict between man and nature with a particular emphasis on environmental issues. The title poem in this collection, "The Animals in that Country," contrasts nature and history with the way man has recognized them. The opposition metaphorically addresses how different animals hold distinct positions in different cultures; hence "the fox run / politely to earth, [and] the huntsmen / standing around him, fixed / in their tapestry of manners" refer to the importance of the fox to the British people. In a similar way in the Spanish culture, "the bull, embroidered / with blood and given / an elegant death, trumpets, his name / stamped in him, heraldic brand" is different from its counterpart in Canada: "In this country the animals / have the faces of / animals" and "Their deaths are not elegant."

Although most of the poems in this collection address the more general issues of environment and the discrepancies between man and nature, some of the poems in The Animals in that Country deal with more specific subjects like the alienation of mankind in a non-feeling environment as suggested by these lines from "What happened": "No wires tender even as nerves / can transmit the impact of / our seasons, our catastrophes / while we are closed inside them." There is certainly a large gap, according to Atwood, distancing mankind from his fellow men, but he has, undoubtedly, also traveled afar from his true nature as the following lines from "What Happened" highlight:

Meanwhile on several
areas of my skin, strange bruises glow
and fade, and I can’t remember
what accidents I had, whether I was
badly hurt, how long ago.

Leaving one’s country behind, immigrating to a country like Canada with all the physical hardship it bears for an early settler, as well as the recurrent themes of the impossibility of thorough communication between men and the growing alienation they experience find their way in The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) which captures the struggles of Susanna Moodie, as a pioneer woman. The conflict within the persona in remaining attached to the old ways of city life and the actual circumstances of living in the prairies is a dominant theme, not only in this collection of verse but also in many of Atwood’s other writings including short stories and novels. The internal conflict within the persona is best portrayed in the poem titled "The Two Fires" where the speaker announces that two kinds of fire "in-form" her, while "(each refuge fails / us; each danger / becomes a haven)" and where each "left charred marks / now around which / I try to grow." Moreover, the paintings accompanying the poems in this collection carry the struggle of the woman settler to its fullest. Imagery associated with natural phenomena like fire and water are accentuated through drawings accompanying the poems and contrasted, at the same time, with images pertaining to architecture, art, and design as aspects of civilization. Simultaneously, in this collection of poems, forces of nature and the unconscious giving rise to creative arts are being perpetually juxtaposed with the clearly defined, logical images arising from man’s approaches in conquering nature.

In Procedures for Underground (1970) the power of the unconscious to shape the persona is taken to an unprecedented level. In a general sense, all Atwood’s poems deal with a search for identity in different levels and in this collection, the nature of the supernatural connection between man and nature and "the artist as a shamanistic figure" (Hönnighausen 105) give further rise to this quest. This subtle connection between man and nature can be seen in the following lines from the title poem: "the trees and rocks are the same / as they are here, but shifted. / Those who live there are always hungry." Moreover, as the poem continues, it is eventually "from them [that] you can learn / wisdom and great power, / if you can descend and return safely.”

As its title suggests, in her next collection of verse, Power Politics (1971), Atwood commits herself primarily to the elucidation of the nature of relationship between the sexes and the definitions of roles pertaining to men and women, in both the personal and public realms of interaction. Atwood’s belligerent yet witty tone is prevalent throughout this collection of verse; in "He is a strange biological phenomenon," while addressing the male partner, the persona states that "Like eggs and snails [he has] a shell" to suggest the addressee’s inaccessibility in reaching out to and in communicating with and continues with an even harsher tone by stating, "You are widespread / and bad for the garden, / hard to eradicate." In "They eat out" the persona presents a similar objection, arguing:

I raise the magic fork
over the plate of beef fried rice
and plunge it into your heart.
There is a faint pop, a sizzle
and through your own split head
you rise up glowing.

The poems in You are Happy (1974) continue the same thread of feminist concerns with only the concluding poems of the collection reflecting the optimistic connotation inherent in the title. Thus in "Late August" the moment of joy is invited to linger and "there is no hurry" as "The air is still / warm, flesh moves over flesh." The irony of the title, however, becomes evident in the title poem, "You Are Happy”:

When you are this
cold you think about
nothing but the cold, the images
hitting into your eyes
like needles, crystals, you are happy.

Contrary to the poems of the previous collection, the poems in Two-Headed Poems (1978) capture the idea of two-sidedness as an inherent duality existing in all of us, personally and nationally. The title of the collection, however, refers more specifically to the dual, irreconcilable state of being a woman and a writer at the same time. The duality is best alluded to in the title piece, "Two-Headed Poems” where "The heads speak sometimes singly, sometimes / together, sometimes alternately within a poem. / Like all Siamese twins, they dream of separation." These poems also deal with the theme of victimization of women in a patriarchal society through the subtle juxtaposition of the plight of the fair sex with the relative freedom of its male counterpart.

True Stories (1981) carries on the theme of duality to its fullest with the ironic title of the collection defying the assumption that there is any truth in the stories narrated. Many of the poems in the collection transcend the feminist concerns of Atwood’s previous works and deal with politics, issues of Amnesty International and the injustice and abuse human beings in general are subject to. As stated by Linda Wagner-Martin, in these later poems as in other poetry collections that followed, Atwood has actively become a spokesperson for human rights (72). The themes of the poems included in this collection reappear in Murder in the Dark (1983) written in a prose closely resembling poetry and dealing, at the same time, with the mechanical processes involved in both writing and reading. The same style of writing gives rise to other collections that followed, leading to its peak in Morning in the Burned House (1995).

Morning in the Burned House is divided into five parts, each part dealing specifically with one aspect of the narrator’s past. Also intricately highlighted by its title, the poems in this collection deal with both the past and the future, as metaphorically referred to by "the Burned House" and "Morning." The collection emphatically reflects a more mature Atwood remembering the past and addressing the same topics of interest, but in a more tolerant fashion.

(This essay appeared in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry, 2006)

Selected Primary Sources:

Atwood, Margaret, Double Persephone (Toronto: Hawkshead Press, 1961)

____, The Circle Game, Toronto: Anansi, 1998)

____, The Animals in That Country (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968)

____, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1970)

____, Procedures for Underground (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970)

____, Power Politics (Toronto: Anansi, 1971)

____, You Are Happy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974)

____, Two-Headed Poems (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978)

____, True Stories (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981)

____, Murder in the Dark (Toronto: Coach house Press, 1983)

____, Morning in the Burned House (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995)

Selected Secondary Sources:

Davey, Frank, Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984)

Hollis, Hilda, "Between the Scylla of Essentialism and the Charybdis of Deconstruction: Margaret Atwood’s True Stories," Various Atwoods: Essays on the Later Poems, Short Fiction, and Novels, ed. Lorraine M. York (Toronto: Anansi, 1995)

Hönninghausen, Lothar, "Margaret Atwood’s Poetry 1966-1995," Margaret Atwood: Works & Impact, ed. Reingard M. Nischik (Toronto: Anansi, 2000, 97-119)

Sullivan, Rosemary, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (Toronto: Harper Flamingo, 1998)

Wagner-Martin, Linda, "‘Giving Way to Bedrock’: Atwood’s Later Poems," Various Atwoods: Essays on the Later Poems, Short Fiction, and Novels, ed. Lorraine M. York (Toronto: Anansi, 1995).

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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