Margaret Atwood Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4569

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.

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The Circle Game

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 speed of life/ is me.” Who is “me”? It is the androgynous, divided self, defined metaphorically in the powerful poem “After the Flood, We.” “We” are Deucalion and Phyrra, in Greek mythology the sole male and female survivors of the mythic flood, suspended over the misty shapelessness of the drowned old world, designated by Zeus as the only humans deserving of survival. The female speaker differentiates between “I” and “you,” “you” being an intimate who is here (as elsewhere throughout Atwood’s poetry) the male. These two are charged with creating a new world. The self-absorbed male is a casual progenitor, “tossing small pebbles/ at random over your shoulder,” but the female persona perceives horror, a Frankenstein’s monster rising up to overwhelm “the beauty of the morning.” The threat to process and growth, both artistic and personal, is the strongest of perceived evils. A sense that the artist-speaker is not yet equal to the task, has not yet found the appropriate language, is particularly strong in “The Messenger,” where “a random face/ revolving outside the window” fades into oblivion because, the poem’s ironic tone implies, the message is brought to the inappropriate recipient; the messenger shouts “desperate messages with his/ obliterated mouth/ in a silent language.”

In The Circle Game, a game motif is evident in the titles and metaphoric significance of several poems (“Playing Cards,” “An Attempted Solution for Chess Problems,” and the collection’s title poem). Intelligence, even cunning, is required. Knowing the divided self is the key to becoming the artist fit to pass on the message vital for survival. The collection’s final poem, “The Settlers,” suggests that perhaps success will come in laying the foundation for future understanding. The poet-narrator optimistically envisions a transformation through natural evolution into messages for the future, though understanding is still in doubt: “children run, with green/ smiles (not knowing/ where).” As yet the tools, the language, are lacking. The simple innocence of a children’s circle game becomes weighted with foreboding; critic Rosemary Sullivan observes, “The narcissism of the circle game claims the narrator, and confines Atwood herself in its prisoning rhythms. We have yet to see the circle effectively broken.”

The Animals in That Country

The journey of discovery continues in The Animals in That Country and is undertaken in several metaphorical arenas: the natural, the historical, the cultural, and, above all, the arena of the self. Again, the artist-self is found wanting. Several poems such as “Provisions” and “The Surveyors” suggest that the pioneer brings the wrong equipment to the new world because he or she has a faulty concept of the terrain and its natural inhabitants. Later generations distance themselves as soon as possible from the natural interrelationship of human and animals, the hunt being transformed into a ritualized game and then an irrelevance, as the collection’s title poem points out.

Self-definition in a modern cultural setting also eludes the speaker in this collection’s poems. At its writing, Atwood was on the second of her two sojourns at Harvard. Her own dislocation in American society and her distaste (expressed in letters to friends and colleagues in Canada) for American materialism and the accelerating Vietnam War are expressed in poems such as “The Landlady” and “It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers.” Her sense of alienation, from both place and people, is sadly noted in “Roominghouse, Winter”: “Tomorrow, when you come to dinner/ They will tell you I never lived here.” An ironic view emerges in an encounter with a relief map of Canada in the poem “At the Tourist Centre in Boston.” An increasingly irate narrator asks first herself and then the receptionist, “Do you see nothing/ watching you from under the water?// Was the sky ever that blue?// Who really lives there?” That series of ominous questions signals a return journey to the interior of both Canada and the still unmapped and undefined self.

The definitive exploration of people’s relationship to the natural world, to history, and to their own warring selves takes place in two of the collection’s most powerful poems, “A Night in the Royal Ontario Museum” and “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer.” In the former, the speaker is inadvertently locked in the museum, “this crazed man-made/ stone brain,” and is compelled to undergo a metaphoric journey to the beginnings of natural and human history. The worst horror to contemplate is preexistence, nondefinition: “I am dragged to the mind’s/ deadend, . . . lost/ among the mastodons.” In “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer,” this struggle to redefine the self out of chaos is explored in a metaphorical battle between a pioneer and the wilderness. In seven sections, or chapters, the story of the pioneer’s failure unfolds relentlessly, the poem’s flat and terse diction underscoring the horror of his descent into insanity and death. Seeking to impose order on the perceived chaos of his surroundings, the pioneer fails to acknowledge the necessity of adapting to the wilderness rather than subjugating it. He does not learn the language; instead, he makes a futile effort to structure, to classify. He is doomed to failure and annihilation, drowning in a metaphorical flux of Leviathan proportions.

The Journals of Susanna Moodie

Success in these parallel journeys both into the physical wilderness and into the self is achieved, however, by the persona who informs and narrates Atwood’s next collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie. J. W. Dunbar Moodie and his wife, Susanna, were impoverished English gentry who emigrated to Canada in 1832 and took up a land grant in the bush near what is now Peterborough, Ontario. Their seven-year sojourn in the bush before they settled in the town of Belleville was a searing experience for Susanna. Steeped in nineteenth century Romanticism and possessing to no small degree the arrogance of her class, Susanna arrived in Canada with the rosy expectations of vulnerable people unscrupulously lured from home by the promise of bountiful land, a temperate climate, congenial neighbors, and best of all, freedom from taxation. The harsh reality of life in the wilderness destroyed many; Susanna, though, was able to draw on a previously untapped toughness of spirit that eventually turned her from a homesick gentlewoman into a self-sufficient, grudgingly loyal Canadian who contributed much to a fledgling Canadian culture. She recorded her experiences in a pair of accounts entitled Roughing It in the Bush: Or, Forest Life in Canada (1852) and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853). In them, readers detect a duality of her attitude and personality that Atwood exploits to advantage in The Journals of Susanna Moodie. In her contemplation of the physical and spiritual wildernesses that confront her, Susanna’s fear and despair is evident but so, increasingly, is a testy strength and a reluctant love for her new country.

The collection is divided into three sections that treat respectively Susanna’s immigration, her sojourn in the bush, and her later years in Belleville and Toronto. Metaphorically, the “journals” chronicle the passages of Susanna’s life: the rebirth and redefinition of the self that beginning in a new land requires; the trial by fire (in Susanna’s case, literal) of life in the hostile wilderness; finally, reconciliation and death, where physical burial marks a spiritual intermingling with the new land, ironically becoming alien again through twentieth century urbanization.

In “Journal 1,” Susanna repeatedly expresses the realization of her need for a new identity; familiar psychological landmarks are now irrelevant. In “Further Arrivals” she observes, “We left behind . . . our civilized/ distinctions// and entered a large darkness.” At first, she is threatened at every level, perceiving her husband as “the wereman,” her “first neighbours” as “speaking a twisted dialect,” and the wilderness as consciously malicious. Despite the familiar human instinct to order, catalog, and impose, Susanna recognizes the need for compromise: “Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle/ . . . in this area where my damaged knowing of the language means/ prediction is forever impossible.” Susanna survives seven years of loneliness and physical hardship that transform her. She departs for Belleville with a sense that she does not yet fully understand her relationship with the wilderness. In “Departure from the Bush,” she observes, “In time the animals/ arrived to inhabit me./ . . . There was something they almost taught me/ I came away not having learned.” From the relatively civilized perspective of Belleville, Susanna contemplates the relationship between pioneer and wilderness with a mixture of bitterness and resignation. In the three “dream” poems of the “Journal 2” section, she recognizes in the natural cycle the inexorable interrelationship of life and death (often violent) of which humankind is an integral part. Her own ambivalence is expressed in “The Double Voice”: “Two voices/ took turns using my eyes”; while one saw “the rituals of seasons and rivers,” the other pointed out “a dead dog/ jubilant with maggots.” In “Journal 3,” Susanna’s reconciliation with her new self and with her harsh new land is completed; after her death, her defiant voice can still be heard over the roar of the twentieth century Toronto built over her bones. As Atwood says in the afterword to this collection, “Susanna Moodie has finally turned herself inside out, and has become the spirit of the land she once hated.”

Procedures for Underground

Having left Susanna Moodie speaking prophetically from her underground grave, Atwood made the underground the shaping metaphor of her next poetry collection, Procedures for Underground. She returns to a theme that dominated The Circle Game: the power of the artist to shape and articulate both internal and external experience. Critic Jerome Rosenberg reminds readers of Atwood’s observation that artists who experience the creative process make “a descent to the underworld”; the artist’s role is a mystical and powerful one (and perhaps subversive, the collection’s title suggests). The artist persona is set apart from ordinary human relationships, as a seer is, by the ability to interpret experience outside the literal. In the title poem, the expectations of the artist blessed (or cursed) with second sight are grimly described: “Few will seek your help/ with love, none without fear.”

The artist’s compulsion to define, shape, interpret, and preserve permeates the collection’s imagery. In “Three Desk Objects,” the writer’s tools are transformed by this purpose: “My cool machines/ . . . I am afraid to touch you/ I think you will cry out in pain// I think you will be warm, like skin.” Many of the poems describe the capturing of images, meanings, and moments through a variety of artistic media. “Woman Skating” ends with “Over all I place/ a glass bell”; “Younger Sister, Going Swimming” has her dive recorded on the poet’s paper; “Girl and Horse, 1928” and “Projected Slide of an Unknown Soldier” explore time and history through the “freeze-frame” of photography. However, the artist fails to capture or interpret the “underground” aspect of the person. Human nature remains impenetrable, a language unlearned, a primeval mystery unsolved, as the poem “A Soul, Geologically” says. “Where do the words go/ when we have said them?” is the plaintive question in “A Small Cabin.”

The most ominous note in the collection is struck by a poem that returns to the game motif of The Circle Game and makes a sad commentary on the passage from innocence to experience. In “Game After Supper,” a memory of a happy children’s game of twilight hide-and-seek turns macabre when the reader understands that the small child plays with spectral cousins long dead of diphtheria and that the seeker is a threatening, anonymous male figure. “He will be an uncle,/ if we are lucky,” comments the speaker wryly, but the sexual threat is clear, and the stage is set for the largely sexual struggle that provides the primary focus in Atwood’s next collection. From here onward, her concern is more with external relationships; it is probably fair to say that this shift in focus marks the end of her most powerful work as a poet.

Power Politics

Power Politics, written when Atwood’s first marriage was breaking up, focuses primarily on human relationships, though Atwood’s parallel concerns with humans in natural and social history and with interpreting the dual self are also strongly present. Specifically, Power Politics chronicles the destructive love-hate relationship that can exist between incompatible men and women. In this pessimistic collection, signals are missed, messages are misinterpreted, and the battle is mutually lost. The menacing, shadowy “tall man” of “Game After Supper” resolves into an aggrieved male partner; the anguished female speaker explores their inability to fulfill each other sexually, intellectually, or spiritually. The inevitable failure of the relationship is evident from the collection’s terse, vicious (and gratuitous) opening epigram: “you fit into me/ like a hook into an eye// a fish hook/ an open eye.” The poems’ titles provide an inexorable chronology of descent from love through suspicion, mutual betrayal, and accusation to sad resignation and parting. Much of the imagery is of battle; in the central, seven-section poem “They Are Hostile Nations,” battle lines are drawn despite a perceived mutual need: “Instead we are opposite, we/ touch as though attacking.” Ultimately, the speaker blames herself for bringing to bear the weight of her expectations, emotional and artistic, on a partner unable to carry them. In “Hesitation Outside the Door,” she addresses him sadly: “Get out while it is/ open, while you still can.” However, in the final poem, “He Is Last Seen,” the speaker mourns her partner’s seeming escape “towards firm ground and safety” and away from the still-unresolved conflict underlying all Atwood’s poetry thus far: that of the divided, unreconciled self.

You Are Happy

In You Are Happy, progress is made toward the resolution of this conflict. The ironic, pessimistic tone of Power Politics continues in the opening section. Human relationships fail once again for both emotional and artistic reasons; they cannot withstand the double assault of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Imagery of water, ice, mirrors, eyes, and particularly cameras still prevails, as “Newsreel: Man and Firing Squad” shows: “No more of these closeups, this agony/ taken just for the record anyway.” In the collection’s middle sections, “Songs of the Transformed” and “Circe/Mud Poems,” the poet confronts the limitations of art in controlling and interpreting human nature and behavior. Through the voice of the sorceress Circe, a compelling character in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) who transformed men into swine, Atwood acknowledges the limitations of mythmaking and the attraction of accepting life as it is, with its ambivalence and vitality: “I search instead for the others,/ the ones left over,/ the ones who have escaped from these/ mythologies with barely their lives.” This positive realization is reiterated in the collection’s last section. In “Late August,” a new mood of voluptuous acceptance and fruitfulness is evident: “The air is still/ warm, flesh moves over/ flesh, there is no// hurry.”

In this collection, Atwood’s poetic skills show new direction. She intersperses her familiar spare, short poetic forms with more fluid prose poems. Indeed, the early 1970’s marked the beginning of Atwood’s shift away from poetry toward prose writing; the themes and imagery in many poems are explored more fully in novels from the same periods. There was a hiatus of four years until Two-Headed Poems appeared.

Two-Headed Poems

Interestingly, much of Two-Headed Poems relates closely in tone, theme, and imagery to The Journals of Susanna Moodie, but where the voice in the latter was objectified and dramatized as Moodie’s, the voice in Two-Headed Poems is subjective and intimate. This relationship can perhaps be partly explained by the fact that Atwood gave birth to her daughter Jess in 1976, and her experience of motherhood is strongly reflected in this first collection of poems since her daughter’s birth. There is a subtle softening of the irony of tone and vision and of terse diction, a perceptible turn toward acceptance rather than rejection. The poems in this work suggest that Atwood has experienced not only artistically, but also personally, Moodie’s sense of purpose and place in human history; Atwood too belongs to “the procession/ of old leathery mothers// passing the work from hand to hand,/ mother to daughter,// a long thread of red blood, not yet broken” (“A Red Shirt”). Poems such as “You Begin” reflect a renewed emotional and artistic purpose; “All Bread,” with its motifs of sacrifice, sacrament, and Communion, expresses on one level acknowledgment of the rhythms of life and death inherent in nature, and on a parallel level the interdependence of the sexes, which marriage sanctifies. The poet has reconciled herself to the sometimes violent paradoxes that define life: natural, human, and artistic.

True Stories

That emerging attitude of acceptance is put to the test in True Stories. This collection is Atwood’s poetic response to her increasing political commitment; its focus is even more external and marks a renewed emphasis on social themes less markedly evident in earlier collections such as The Animals in That Country. The generalized setting of many of the poems is the dusty, brutal, and brutalized countries of the Caribbean and Central America. The central group of poems in True Stories deals with political torture: The description of actual tortures is graphic and horrifying, emphasized rather than undercut by the spare, brutal, direct diction and imagery of Atwood’s poetic style. Whether the original accounts themselves are true is a question with which Atwood grapples. In the three groups of poems in the collection (including a group of prose poems, “A True Romance”), she examines the role of artist as witness-bearer, and the ironies inherent in the examination of truth and reality through art. As in Two-Headed Poems, there is a final expression of a tentative faith in and acceptance of life, for all its paradoxes. “Last Day” declares, “This egg/ in my hand is our last meal,/ you break it open and the sky/ turns orange again and the sun rises/ again and this is the last day again.” The collection’s final allusion, then, is to the egg, universal symbol of immortality and hope.


Interlunar returns to the strongly mythological themes, characters, and imagery of Atwood’s first collections of poems. From the first, the components of Atwood’s complex vision have been clear; reading her poetry in chronological order is an odyssey through the maturing and honing of her artistic skills rather than through a definition and articulation of vision.

The mysticism suggested in Interlunar’s title is confirmed in the poems themselves. They are arranged in subtitled groups, a favorite device of Atwood; the most fascinating is “Snake Poems,” which explores the symbolism of snakes throughout human cultural and religious history. This includes their association with darkness, evil, destructiveness, and the male principle, as well as with wisdom, knowledge, creativity, and the female principle. Above all, their association with resurrection (for their ability to shed their skins) is explored and viewed (especially in “Metempsychosis”) with Atwood’s customary ambivalence. Resurrection is also a central theme of the title group of poems, “Interlunar.” Intimations of mortality are seen to be on the poet’s mind in such poems as “Bedside,” “Anchorage,” and “Heart Test with an Echo Chamber”; the doubtful comfort of resurrection is ironically considered in a set of poems titled for and concerned with the mythological figures of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Persephone. In this way, Atwood’s poems and vision come full circle to her earliest poetic works, Double Persephone and The Circle Game.

The tone of the collection’s title poem, “Interlunar,” is uncharacteristically comforting and serene, the statement of a mature artist who recognizes that her odyssey toward understanding in art and life must be without end but need not be frightening: “Trust me. This darkness/ is a place you can enter and be/ as safe in as you are anywhere.”

Morning in the Burned House

Morning in the Burned House is Atwood’s first collection of new poems in a decade. It shows no falling off of skill or intensity and a continuation of all her familiar themes. The poems in this volume tend to a darker lyricism, a sharper awareness of mortality. Although it is difficult to separate the personal from the political in Atwood’s vision, the strongest newer poems seem to be those that are most intensely personal, such as the series on the death of her father. In other poems, the satiric, sardonic, and sometimes outrageously feminist Atwood is very much in evidence.

The Door

The Door is Atwood’s first book of new poems in twelve years, although before and after the publication of Morning in the Burned House, she published collections of selected poems from her earlier career—before other genres, especially the novel, began to compete so strongly for her attention. Like Thomas Hardy, Atwood may be returning to poetry now that she is a comfortably independent writer. Additionally, novels require a huge investment of time and energy, and following her “big novel” The Blind Assassin, she may have turned to writing poems, which produces the satisfaction of completion more quickly than other forms.

Concerns of time and energy are central to The Door, since a number of these poems deal with aging—no surprise coming from a poet born in 1939. The dust jacket says it all: The photograph on the front is of Atwood as a young girl, standing at her front door, while the publicity photograph of the author on the back flap reveals a woman approaching seventy. Thus, the photographs are graphic emblems of The Door and serve as an entry to the title poem. Throughout the persona’s lifetime, ironically represented in everyday language and images, the door swings open, offering glimpses of darkness within before it closes. In the end, the persona steps in, and the door closes behind her, suggesting her death.

The earlier poems in The Door often range between memories of childhood and concerns of the present. For example, the opening poem of the first section, “Gasoline,” seems to grow out of a sensory experience, allowing entry to the poet’s childhood. Among the poet’s more recent concerns are the advanced age of her parents, whose deaths will also move her toward the precipice. “My mother dwindles . . .” strikes a chord in all who have dealt with a parent’s failing body and mind.

Another section of poems focuses on being a poet, especially an older poet. The tone is often unsentimental to the point of cynicism. In one poem, “The poet has come back . . .” from years of virtue to be a poet again. In another, “Owl and Pussycat, some years later,” Pussycat reminds Owl of how they have achieved major reputations—won the prizes and written flattering blurbs about each other’s work—but wonders what this “moulting owl” and “arthritic pussycat” have actually accomplished.

These are tough poems, not in their obscurity, but in their strong impulse toward the kind of realism readers more often expect in fiction than in poetry. “Nobody cares who wins”—wars, that is—although winning is better than losing. “Saint Joan of Arc on a postcard” looks like “a boned rolled leg of lamb.” The opening line of the poem “The hurt child” ends with “will bite you.” The persona here is reminiscent of Iris, the narrator of The Blind Assassin, or Penelope, the narrator of The Penelopiad—old and experienced enough to have lost the pleasures of sentimentalism, avoided the traps of self-delusion, and decided it is too late to do anything but tell the truth.

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