Margaret Atwood

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Student Question

Could you analyze the poem "The Poor Women Learns To Write" by Margaret Atwood?

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?

Quick answer:

"The Poor Woman Learns to Write" by Margaret Atwood portrays a Native American woman's struggle and triumph in learning to write. Described as "not graceful" and "awkward," she prints her name laboriously in the dirt, feeling pride and a sense of accomplishment. The narrator cannot read the name but suggests it could mean something beautiful, reflecting admiration for the woman. The poem's simple language mirrors the woman's uneducated speech.

Expert Answers

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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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