Margaret Atwood Essay - Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 3)

Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 3)

Atwood, Margaret 1939–

Ms. Atwood is an award-winning Canadian poet, novelist, and critic.

Power Politics looks at the relationship between man and woman from only one angle, and perhaps even from the point of view of one particular relationship, and maybe through the kind of telephoto close-ups achieved by keeping a long distance away from the subject. This is fine; other poets are free to examine the same subject from another angle, or from the point of view of a different kind of relationship, or by jamming their cameras right down their subject's throat. Margaret Atwood might do this herself in another book, but in Power Politics she does it this way and she does it well. Her book is controlled, intelligent, incisive and revealing, and it is totally free of stridency, self-pity, or any other kind of vulgarity of the mind….

Power Politics—perhaps with a few of its images reversed—could have been written by any mature and accomplished poet. This of course means that it could have been written only by a very few men or women besides Margaret Atwood.

George Jonas, "Cool Sounds in a Minor Key," in Saturday Night, May, 1971, pp. 30-1.

Critics and reviewers have tended to link the names of Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath. The resemblances, though superficial, are hard to avoid; they fit the easiest human categories; each author is young, modern in voice (nothing to read with a box of chocolates) and, of course, female. Those who read running cannot escape the parallels. But this is unjust and inaccurate….

There are comparisons that help understand Atwood, but they are all rugged and "masculine." She is a pioneer, she is Huck Finn on the raft, she is Hemingway in darkest Africa; she is not a Smith young lady, fetching up her marks and prizes to fuel the gas oven.

The beauty of [Surfacing] is that it saves everything. All the themes Atwood has been brooding over for years (successfully! in five volumes of verse and a less-noticed novel) are here tied together and made into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. The title is better than accurate; it is a well-developed metaphor. She knows the difference, looking into black bright water, between the shadow and the reflection. She is sharp-sensed, tutored, and physically strong. The novel picks up themes brooded over in the poetry, and knits them together coherently….

The novel will be read by liberationists as an Uncle Tom's Cabin, a tract against the horrors attendant on a bisexual world: unhappy marriage, lost child, backstairs abortion. It will be read by nationalists and separationsists of all persuasions however they want to read it.

Margaret Wimsatt, "The Lady as Humphrey Bogart," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), July 9, 1973, pp. 483-84.

The central problem with Margaret Atwood's second novel [Surfacing] is its utter transparency. It presents so simplistic a thesis about women in capitalistic society that the book loses any impact it might otherwise have.

Ms. Atwood apparently has yet to learn that good literature does not result from disguised political statements. At every turn her characters are sacrificed to her ideas. Eventually the plot is twisted out of shape altogether, and the novel's considerable lyric power is subverted—reduced to trite symbolism. Moreover, not satisfied with imitating Sylvia Plath in her first work, The Edible Woman, Ms. Atwood has now absconded with the very image of the bell jar itself: "I believe that an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of his mother's stomach, like a frog in a jar." The picture of a fetus enclosed in glass, once taken up, is driven into the ground….

If anything comes to the surface in this thoroughly unconvincing novel, it is probably the need for those at the fore-front of the Women's Movement to reassess their roles in respect to those for whom they would speak. No longer the butt of jokes told by third-rate comics, feminists such as Ms. Atwood are in danger of being absorbed by the very society they (to quote the narrator) "refuse to be a victim" of. By repeating the same tired phrases, by sketching the same stereotypes in lieu of convictions, they risk serving neither their art nor women, only themselves.

David Gleicher, "Female Chauvinism," in The New Leader, September 3, 1973, pp. 20-1.

Love in [Power Politics] is collision, obsession, disaster, wreckage. Love is surreal, and language in order to perform up to it has always to be making and unmaking itself. Much of the book is fragmentary, some of it pretentious, but one gets the distinct feeling that Margaret Atwood knows what she is talking about, that her poems, like Eliot's, truly germinate in an "obscure impulse" and have no choice but to work themselves out. The poetry does not matter.

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973, pp. 586-87.

Margaret Atwood is an extraordinarily good writer who has produced widely different books: so far, two novels, five books of poetry, and a critical guide to Canadian literature. She possesses an unusual combination of wit and satiric edge, a fine critical intelligence, and an ability to go deep into the irrational earth of the psyche. Her books are varied in genre yet through every one of them run victor/victim and quest for self themes, a set of symbols, and a developing underlay of theory. Some themes she shares with other Canadians, and others are characteristic of our developing women's culture. All are vital and juicy. Technique she has in plenty….

In Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Atwood finds throughout a preoccupation with survival….

Survival is an extremely canny and witty book, but I am using it, or misusing it, not for its insight into Canadian literature, but for what it tells us about Atwood's ideas. I find in Survival a license to apply it to her own work, as she argues that discovery of a writer's tradition may be of use, in that it makes available a conscious choice of how to deal with that body of themes. She suggests that exploring a given tradition consciously can lead to writing in new and more interesting ways. I think her work demonstrates that a consciousness of Canadian themes has enriched her ability to manipulate them….

Atwood's latest book of poetry, Power Politics, explores the area of victor, victim games, pain and loss games, the confined war in intimacy between a woman and a man. The conception of the book and individual poems are brilliant….

Between the first and the fifth book of poetry, she has gained enormously in compression, daring, shape of the poem, precision of language….

Love, in Atwood, is often an imitation of the real: an aquarium instead of the sea, in one poem. Rather than communicating her people evade each other, are absent in their presence, try to consume, manipulate, control. By saying, "in Atwood" or "her people" I'm not implying I find such behavior unusual. What she describes is dismally familiar; only the precision and the very shaped often witty anguish of the descriptions make them unusual….

Still I find both The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Procedures for Underground finally more successful as total books. Few of the poems have individual titles, and we are clearly to find Power Politics not a collection but a book. Why does the shape of the book, especially toward the end, bother me? When she says:

            In the room we will find nothing
            In the room we will find each other

why do I not believe? Perhaps the language does not change enough, the terms of the struggle deepen mythologically but do not change in any convincing way from the conventional power struggle. Some fear seems to prevent her breaking through in this book as she breaks through with her protagonist in Surfacing. To put it another way, she doesn't seem able to imagine the next stage, and a book that remains caught in its first terms while seeming to suggest that it will transcend them, is frustrating, but brilliantly so. It is still a strong and good sequence and a far more satisfying book as a book than ninety per cent of the poetry collections I read. Only in reading her work I have come to want more than that. A talent like hers needs to transcend its own categories, to integrate the preconscious and conscious materials, the imagery and ideas. Her wit can lead her into trivia; just as her passion for the omen can lead her to see the portentous in grains of sand and jam jars….

The source of integration of the self, the reservoir of insight in Atwood lie deep in a wild and holy layer of experience usually inaccessible in modern life—in how her characters make a living, how they act with each other, how they respond or fail to respond to birth, death, loss, passion, how they permit themselves to live out of touch with what they want and what they feel. The landscape of the psyche in Atwood tends to be a cabin in the Canadian woods, on a lake, on a river—the outpost of contact between straight lines (roads, houses, gardens) and natural curves (trees, deer, running water): the imposed order and the wild organic community.

Everyplace the fundamental fact of being alive is being eater or being eaten….

This strand in Atwood is an emerging theme of women's culture, I believe, for women have been forced to be closer to food, to know more of where it comes from and what it looks like raw … and where the garbage goes afterward….

The procedures for getting in touch with the power in a place that can connect you with the power in yourself in Atwood include openness to knowledge received from other living creatures, fasting and usually physical exposure, a respect for the earth, a concern with taking only what you need, respect for dream and vision as holy and instructive. In Atwood the trip to be taken is something like this: you go into the forest, the natural and wild ground that is the past inside, the deep collective mostly unconscious past not knowable with the logical controlling brain, the ground of being, food and terror, birth and death: you experience the other which is yourself, your deeper nature, your animal and god half. The experience of transcendence is the gift of the totem animal and the god who is both human and animal and something else, energy perhaps….

Atwood is a large and remarkable writer. Her concerns are nowhere petty. Her novels and poems move and engage me deeply, can matter to people who read them. As she has come to identify herself consciously, cannily, looking all ways in that tradition she has defined as literature of a victimized colony, I hope that she will also come to help consciously define another growing body to which her work in many of its themes belongs: a women's culture. With her concern with living by eating, with that quest for the self that Barbara Demming has found at the heart of major works by women from the last one hundred fifty years (Liberation, Summer 1973), with her passion for becoming conscious of one's victimization and ceasing to acquiesce, with her insistence on nature as a living whole of which we are all interdependent parts, with her respect for the irrational center of the psyche and the healing experiences beyond logical control, her insistence on joining the divided head and body, her awareness of roleplaying and how women suffocate in the narrow crevices of sexual identity, she is part of that growing women's culture already, a great quilt for which we are each stitching our own particolored blocks out of old petticoats, skirts, coats, bedsheets, blood and berry juice.

Marge Piercy, "Margaret Atwood: Beyond Victimhood," in American Poetry Review, November/December, 1973, pp. 41-4.