Comment on the distinctive qualities of Margaret Atwood as a poet with special reference to the poems, 'This Is a Photograph of Me' and 'Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer'. (A detailed answer...

Comment on the distinctive qualities of Margaret Atwood as a poet with special reference to the poems, 'This Is a Photograph of Me' and 'Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer'. (A detailed answer would be much appreciated).

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In her poetry Margaret Atwood juxtaposes civilization with the wilderness that "clamors" without. As a Canadian, she is well aware of the primordial conditions of the natural world; Atwood feels that "cosmetic improvements" to the natural world make little difference and do not conceal the savagery which came before human intervention.  

In "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer," for instance, the pioneer enters the wilderness and attempts to fence off land and build his home. However, 

Things refused to name themselves, refused
to let him name them.

Connoting the intrusion of the pioneer upon the pristine land, Atwood writes,

He dug the soil in rows,
imposed himself with shovels
He asserted into the furrows. I
am not random

To these impositions,

The ground replied with aphorisms:
A tree-sprout, a nameless
weed, words he couldn't understand

Clearly, the main tension of this poem is man's attempt to fence in and control nature which resists fences and furrows and structures. Doing this to the land is like "enticing whales with a bent pin"; it is impossible. Atwood employs metaphors of water to suggest that there are no real boundaries to land, either. While the man believes "land is solid," he is forced to watch his foot "sink down through stone up to the knee." Like the sea, the land cannot be tamed. Further, she mixes this metaphor of sea with the land in order to impose the boundless impermeability of any structure that man can construct:

The wolves hunted
outside
On his beaches, his clearings
by the surf of undergrowth
breaking [like waves] at his feet, he
foresaw disintegration....

In her poem "This is a Photograph of Me," Atwood manipulates the theme of Appearance vs. Reality as the photograph obscures her identity rather than revealing it. She describes the lake, a tree, and a house, which are apparent. Then in parentheses, she writes that she, too, is in the photograph:

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or how small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion....)

By first mentioning the structures of the house and property, then using parentheses as though what is within can be omitted without losing meaning, Atwood suggests the insignificance of the "I" who is a woman. This description is meant to direct the reader to the position of the woman with respect to the property. She is in a mere supplementary position to all else.

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