Margaret Atwood Poetry: British Analysis
Margaret Atwood’s poetry deals essentially with paradox and struggle in both art and life. Her first (and now generally inaccessible) chapbook of poetry, Double Persephone, contains the components of her vision, which she elucidates in her next nine poetry collections with more depth, conviction, and stylistic maturity, but whose elements she changes little. An overview of Atwood’s poetry reveals patterns expressed through mythological and biblical allusion and recurring imagery relating to mutability, metamorphosis, near annihilation, and, ultimately, adaptation and definition. References to eyes, water, mirrors, glass, photographs, maps, and charts abound. The archetypal journey/quest motif is a vital component of Atwood’s vision. It is worked out metaphorically in the historical context of European exploration and settlement of the Canadian wilderness, the pioneer’s battle with alienation, loneliness, and the struggle to articulate a new self in a new world. If the pioneer masters the new “language,” he or she will survive; his or her divided self will become whole. This life-and-death struggle is also carried out in the psychological arena of sexual politics. Much of Atwood’s poetry (especially Procedures for Underground and Power Politics) explores—at first with anger, later with resignation, always with irony—the damage that men and women inflict on one another despite their interdependence. In Atwood’s poetry, chaos is perceived as the center of things; it is the individual’s quest, as both artist and natural being, to define order, meaning, and purpose—to survive.
The Circle Game, Atwood’s first major poetry collection, represents the outset of an artistic and personal journey. The artist-poet (whose voice is personal, ironic, and female) struggles to shape chaos into order through language, whose enigmatic symbols she must master and control. Language is a set of tools, the key component of the poet’s bag of tricks, packed for the (metaphoric) journey undertaken, for example, in The Circle Game’s “Evening Trainstation Before Departure”:
Here I am ina pause in spacehunched on the edgeof a tense suitcase.
Language, however, is duplicitous; it is a weapon that can rebound against the poet herself. She is engaged in a constant struggle to interpret and communicate without being subsumed, as suggested in “The Sybil”: “she calls to me with the many/ voices of the children/ not I want to die/ but You must die.”
In life, chaos comprises process, flux, and the temporal; the struggle for the individual is both to understand his or her own nature and to reconcile himself or herself to the processes of nature, history, and culture. The external, natural world mirrors the self; it speaks the siren language of the primitive and lies in wait to ambush with casual cruelty human beings’ fragile civility. Through recognition, struggle, and reconciliation, the individual can transcend his or her destructive self, mirrored in the natural world. Throughout The Circle Game, the self, both artistic and psychological, struggles to be born. The creative impulse is strong, the instinct for survival great, but The Circle Game’s “Journey to the Interior” says that the individual does not yet understand the ambiguous messages of either art or life and is in danger: “and words here are as pointless/ as calling in a vacant/ wilderness.”
The opening poem, “This Is a Photograph of Me ,” presents a paradox. In the photograph, the speaker’s image is barely discernible, suspended as if in a watery grave, yet awaiting redefinition, new birth: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.” In “Camera,” the artist is reviled for the impulse to capture life in a static form when the impulse to the kinesis, the process of life, is so compelling: “Camera man/ how can I love your glass eye? . . . that small black speck/ travelling towards the horizon/ at almost the...
(The entire section is 4,569 words.)