Margaret Avison Essay - Critical Essays

Avison, Margaret (Vol. 2)

Avison, Margaret 1918–

Highly respected Canadian poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Margaret Avison's poems are closepacked. The mind's eye stings and sings with so much crowded in and brought so close. Her debt to Hopkins, clearly acknowledged by allusion, is not one of manner and certainly not of mannerism, but of purpose. She, like him, is concerned with haecceitas, the thisness of experience, and her efforts bend like his toward total comprehension….

Robert Gibbs, in Fiddlehead, Winter, 1967, p. 70.

Margaret Avison, in The Dumbfounding, vacillates between private and public knowledge, between an organic form and a more regular form, without settling into any clearly defined style of her own.

Samuel French Morse, in Contemporary Literature (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1968.

Of all our poets, Margaret Avison is the most artfully daring…. In her later poems written about and to Christ, Miss Avison insists on an active reader. She makes lines that snap off all over the page and off it, threatening to destroy the poem in favour of something else. She wants no passive reader, for the poetry or for the worlds of the God she lives with. She knows the paradox known by John Donne and G. M. Hopkins: if the poem would lead your heart to God, it must evaporate on the trail to his language. That is impossible, but it is the ideal that the most serious poet must try to make real. Success must be foregone from the outset, but success would be the reward and source of pride….

Christ, and his works, cannot be explained. The dogma of 2000 years ago and that of today are futile attempts to get control of history. Something like the futility is applicable in the consideration of poetry. Conventional minds always want to speak of the poet's "success" or "failure" in terms of how much control he has over his material. Margaret Avison says that the poet, reader, poem, should participate, not dominate, should be used by things even as we use them….

Music is part of the received order the poet participates in. Music, as Carlyle said, is at the heart of all things and does not have to be applied to them. The depth of the artist's vision reveals music. It exposes form, never imposes it. Like Hopkins, and for similar reasons, Margaret Avison sings whenever she sees something of surpassing beauty. In fact the singing aids the eye….

A few years ago, in hip circles, there was an invocation going around: May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind. In Margaret Avison's experience it is an artist Christ who does that job. "The Dumbfounding" is the central Christian poem in her work, and as usual her work there is saturated with meanings at all points…. As usual, the title of the poem combines several senses of the word found there. Often in her poems Miss Avison has mentioned the desperate failure of human chattering, and speaking of her own visitation by Jesus, she said that the telling of stories about him became nonsense for her afterwards. She was dumbfounded, made speechless by surprise. In this poem the reader is moved from an apostle's story of the life into an awareness that the framing of such story makes no sense if the main character is still among us, experiencing all stages of his life and our own at all moments. The present participle of the title is not lost in a noun. The founding has to continue while the eternal heat of the forge remains, while there are still those who remain lost, those prodigals.

George Bowering, "Avison's Imitation of Christ the Artist," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1972, pp. 56-69.