Margaret Atwood

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What is the poet's view of language and metaphor in the poem "You Begin" by Margaret Atwood?

Atwood's poem "You Begin" challenges the reader to consider how words and metaphors interact with reality. Through the child's perspective on learning language, Atwood shows how a child is able to see words as representations of both physical objects and ideas, which leads to metaphor creation. She also shows how this process can be a comfort for the child when creating new metaphors, but an unsettling experience for the adults who are learning from them.

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In Margaret Atwood's poem "You Begin," she explores the concepts of language and metaphor through the lens of teaching/learning them. The speaker of the poem seems to be talking to a young child as the child draws pictures, and it is through this child-eye-view of language that the reader is challenged to think about how words, metaphors, symbols, and reality intertwine.

Atwood's choice to frame this discussion of language learning (and teaching) through the child drawing pictures is especially significant. Before humans had language based on a written alphabet and words, we used pictures and visual representations to express our ideas. Atwood shows the way a child learning language still follows this progression to some extent, but how this overlapping of word-based language and picture-based understanding can allow for metaphor. In the line, "This is your mouth, this is an O / or a moon, whichever / you like," we see the drawn circle has the possibility of being a letter, or a representation of two different physical objects, which then pulls them into comparison with each other.

When the speaker says, "This is the world, which is fuller / and more difficult to learn than I have said," they sandwich that thought between the limited number of crayons in the child's box and their approval that the child has found out how to smudge the colors together. In learning to understand the world through what we are given (a number of colors, a certain language, a teacher's view of the world), one inevitable step is learning how to go beyond the given and create something new. Visually, this would be smudging the colors together. Linguistically, it might be combining words into new combinations as metaphors, poems, or stories. In education, it might be going beyond what the teacher says/thinks in order to form one's own views of the world.

The poem ends with the lines: "It begins, it has an end, / this is what you will / come back to, this is your hand." Here, the speaker zooms out onto life as a whole. In saying to the child that they will begin and end (be born, live, and die), and that it always comes back to "this is your hand," the speaker is saying that the great human effort is making sense of oneself and one's life through whatever means we can—language and metaphor, visual representation, the physical body.

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It has long been believed that acquiring language develops a person's ability to think more subtly, in more nuanced ways, than they could before they had the language to think in or express those thoughts. Atwood seems to subscribe to this idea. In the first stanza, for example, one's "mouth" can be "an O / or a moon, whichever / you like." Atwood points out here that when we are young we begin expressing ourselves small metaphors and simple creative ideas, but these small leaps into figurative language enable us to begin to make bigger and bigger leaps. Suddenly, a...

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world that only existed in "the colors of [...] nine crayons" becomes "fuller / and more difficult to learn . . ."

Soon, the "green" world can begin to seem red and orange, as we develop an understanding of how it might figuratively "burn." We use language as a stepping stone to get to the next level of language, where we learn there is more to learn than we realized.

Once you have learned these wordsyou will learn that there are morewords than you can ever learn.

Language opens up new vistas to us, and we learn, as we go, that there is more and more to learn, more than we could ever learn. We learn, soon, that the world "has more colors / than we can see."

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In this well-known poem, Canadian poet Margaret Atwood contemplates the development of language and how metaphor helps human beings deal with increasingly abstract concepts. The critical lines from the poem follow:

The word hand floats above your handlike a small cloud over a lake.The word hand anchorsyour hand to this table,your hand is a warm stoneI hold between two words.

Here is the core of her semiotic argument. When explaining the dynamic relationship of signified - the hand itself - and the signifier - the word hand  - the speaker first resorts to simile (the poor man's metaphor). Thus, "the word hand a small cloud" - as if to say, like an insignificant, passing thing. However, in the next line, the poet invokes the almost magical power of metaphor to create our understanding of reality. No longer is the word hand floating, it is anchoring the thing itself to its sign, though the reader perceives that the two are tethered together - they are not one and the same thing. But in the last two lines, language performs its semiotic magic act: In a wondrous exchange of meaning, the physical hand becomes a metaphor - "a warm stone" - while simultaneously retaining its status as 'word'. Thus signifier and signified, while remaining as they have been, become one, and language is born.      

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