Margaret Atwood Questions and Answers

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Can you help me make an analysis on the poem "The Poor Women Learns To Write" by Margaret Atwood? Thank You. The poem is below: She squats, bare feet splayed out, not graceful; skirt tucked around ankles.   Her face is lined and cracked. She looks old, older than anything.   She's probably thirty. Her hands also are lined and cracked and awkward.  Her hair concealed.   She prints with a stick, laboriously in the wet grey dirt, frowning with anxiety.   Great big letters. There.  It's finished. Her first word so far.   She never thought she could do this, Not her. This was for others,       She looks up, smiles as if apologizing, but she's not.  Not this time.  She did it right.   What does the mud say? Her name.  We can't read it. But we can guess.  Look at her face:   Joyful Flower?  A Radiant One?  Sun On Water?  

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jmj616 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In her novels and poems, Margaret Atwood often addressed themes concerning the lives of Native Americans in her home country of Canada.

"The Poor Woman Learns to Write" would seem to be another example of this thread in Atwood's writing.  The woman described in the poem seems to be a Native American.

Atwood begins the poem by carefully describing the woman's appearance in simple, direct language.  Atwood summarizes this description with the phrases "not graceful" and "awkward."

Atwood then describes the woman's "writing lesson":

She prints with a stick, laboriously

in the wet grey dirt,

frowning with anxiety.

The woman is proud of her work:

She looks up, smiles

as if apologizing,

but she's not.  Not this time.  She did it right.

The poem's narrator admits that she does not understand the script in which the woman has written her name.  However, she offers three guesses regarding the meaning of the name:

 

Joyful Flower?  A Radiant One?  Sun On Water?

These names are, of course, metaphors for the poet's admiration of the woman.

The poem is written in simple, conversational language.  It includes several sentence fragments, such as "Her hair concealed," and "Great big letters." Perhaps this is meant to echo the woman's own simple, uneducated speech.

 

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assumption | Student

would u guys agree that this could possible be about margaret atwood herself in her early beginning as a poet?? she could be talking about herself using the poor woman as a symbol and of course in third person narration....i don't know for sure but these are just my thoughts...

please continue to share your thoughts

adriennedeschamps | Student

jmj616 gives a great analysis.  I would like to add that one of Atwood's main stylistic congruences throughout all of her works is the presence of wilderness.  Since she grew up in Canada, she was very exposed to the vast Canadian land and incorporates that in every work I have seen.

This one is similar in a sense, but it differs somehow from the rest of her poetry.  The "wilderness" theme is present, but not as much as usual.  It is seen in the rough, outdoors-y ways of the woman:

She prints with a stick, laboriously

in the wet grey dirt

 

Also the reader hears the echo of the wilderness aspect as well in the names suggested by the poem's speaker:

Joyful Flower?  A Radiant One?  Sun On Water?

 

Typical aboriginal-style names for women are after the forest environment in which the ancestors of the modern-day aboriginals resided.

Think also back to the title.  "The Poor Woman Learns to Write" sounds hopeful.  At the start of the poem we feel deep pathos (sympathy) for the woman, but by the end we feel hope and ecstasy that the woman has taught herself to write.  The title echoes the poem's structure.  The Poor Woman sounds sad, whereas Learns to Write gives the reader hope.

Finally, I like to break any poetry and short stories I analyze into separate pieces of rhetorical structure where I feel a shift, and then I give the sections I made titles.  Here I would do it this way...

She squats, bare feet

splayed out, not

graceful; skirt tucked around ankles.

 

Her face is lined and cracked.

She looks old,

older than anything.

 

She's probably thirty.

Her hands also are lined and cracked

and awkward.  Her hair concealed.

 

This first section I would call "Old".

 

She prints with a stick, laboriously

in the wet grey dirt,

frowning with anxiety.

 

Great big letters.

There.  It's finished.

Her first word so far.

 

The second section is called "Youth".

 

She never thought she could do this,

Not her.

This was for others,

 

This third and the shortest part I called "Doubt".

 

She looks up, smiles

as if apologizing,

but she's not.  Not this time.  She did it right.

 

What does the mud say?

Her name.  We can't read it.

But we can guess.  Look at her face:

 

Joyful Flower?  A Radiant One?  Sun On Water?

 

This last one is called "Hope".

 

Here's why:

The first segment describes her appearance.  It could also be changed to "Outward".  This is the way the world sees her and it is described with a negative tone, inflicting pathos on the reader.

The second segment entitled "Youth" could also be called "Inward", as it describes her mannerisms.  This is HOW she does things.  We continue to feel pathos.

"Doubt" is so titled because she seems to have doubted herself in the past.  Pathos is still strong.

"Hope" is where the largest shift lies.  Atwood gives us new hope.  Pathos is erased, we feel only happiness that this woman is able to write her own name.  It is a start.  The last two lines: "Look at her face... Joyful Flower?  A Radiant One?  Sun On Water?"  This shoes the happiness and pride in her face.

Hope this has been helpful... Good luck!