Avison, Margaret (Vol. 4)
Avison, Margaret 1918–
Ms Avison, a masterful Canadian poet, has forged a unique and complex diction for her poems. Closepacked, allusive, artful, her language strains toward perfect expression of her peculiarly visual sensibility. Her recent work, Christian mystical poetry, has reminded critics of Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Eliot. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
[Some] of [Avison's] finest poems … are cryptic, but what she experiences is 'mysterious', and easy writing is not possible.
Under the scrutiny of her intellect the world sometimes becomes austere, but the poems are never unfeeling. 'Thought' becomes 'feeling', and Romanticism is thus inverted—not to find its values valueless, or to praise the social world as the best of all possible, but to find another expression for a metaphysical sensibility by which 'that' world of understanding and 'this' one of perception can be brought together. The brief moment for which this may be possible is still stable, and by being, it becomes part of the future experience, or field of vision, of the poet-perceiver. Sensitivity to word and sound is not irrelevant to this pursuit, but rather the key. The very momentariness of perceptions, and the continuous shifting in point of view, are communicated to our understanding when they are rendered in sound; the multiple meanings inherent in puns immediately suggest this flux, which is the medium in which Margaret Avison looks for a self, and for both release and illumination….
[Poems] during the 1940's and 1950's, were to explore the ambiguities raised by the question of perceiving, ambiguities of existence and response, inexactnesses which linguistic ambiguities could be employed to convey. So rhyme is largely cast aside, her verse becomes intentionally cryptic, and the pun becomes one of her main techniques for exploring not only the multiple meanings in the self and the world but also the ironies to which they in turn give rise. The pun inherent in the word sense illustrates what is going on. Images, sounds, surfaces: these are all understood both by sense perceptions and by the intellect by sense. The linguistic ambiguity (often 'offstage' in her poems, like many of her allusions) allows the two to become one; the mind 'possesses' the body then, analysing one of its perceptions and still 'perceiving' more, postulating a series of permutations that immediately clouds the issue, making the initial perception at once justifiable and suspect. The complexity and confusion of her earlier poetry—a confusion of response, consciously understood, not of poetic organization—stems from the exploration of the mind's relationship with the world. (To see her poetry strictly as "poetry of ideas," then,… is a little too narrow a view.)…
Margaret Avison's best poems … play with words to reveal what words can convey, working with them carefully to reveal their brilliance: their glitter and their meaning.
W. H. New, "The Mind's Eyes (I's) (Ice)" (originally published in Twentieth Century Literature, 1970), in his Articulating West: Essays on Purpose and Form in Modern Canadian Literature, New Press, 1972, pp. 234-58.
Miss Avison's … poetical achievement in Winter Sun (1960) and The Dumbfounding (1966) merits consideration as spiritual quest and discovery. The first of her books is marked by a continual seeking, while the second speaks of fulfilment in lyrics which have been hailed [by A. J. M. Smith] as "among the finest religious poems of our time" [Canadian Forum, 46 (1966)]. Aside from sheer literary excellence, what makes the two collections remarkable is that, far from being tacked on as a "Christian" afterthought to her previous verse, Miss Avison's later poems seem to grow out of her earlier searching ones in a sequence which if not that of simple cause and effect, is yet that of authentic experience. Search and discovery are thus like two sides of one coin, or like two main parts of that one thing Claudel declares every poet is born to say in the totality of his works….
If to be secular means to be fully engaged in the world of the "here and now", then all of Miss Avison's poetry is secular. If to be religious means to care about meaning, to have (in Tillich's language) an "ultimate concern", little of her poetry is not religious. The search for the ultimately significant in life stands out as a main feature of Winter Sun, but it is not always obtrusive….
Just as the piled-up consonants in [some of the Winter Sun poems] help convey the sense of obstruction, the prevailing complexity of surface and structure throughout Miss Avison's first book reflects the difficulties of an as yet unrewarded search….
Facing man's situation is an indispensable necessity, but, as the poet of Winter Sun realizes, what matters beyond that is how one responds to it. In these poems of search, Miss Avison explores various alternatives, but does not advocate any particular response—she is not ready yet, and the search itself, together with her hopes or fears, is all that she can share. In "Unfinished After-Portrait", a poem of mourning, the poet expresses her own dissatisfaction with the repeated frustrations of her quest….
Gradually in this first volume of Miss Avison's there begins to emerge a realization that some radical renewal, some transforming rebirth might be possible, and might, if attained, turn out to be the true goal of the search…. In "Voluptuaries and Others", a very Auden-like poem in its long lines and blend of clinical precision with casual tone, Miss Avison speaks of two kinds of discovery, one being like that which occasioned Archimedes' "Eureka":
The kind of lighting up of the terrain
That leaves aside the whole terrain, really,
But signalizes, and compels, and advance in it.
The accumulation of human experience "makes the spontaneous jubilation at such moments" of scientific discovery "less and less likely though", since genuine significance is only to be found in that "other kind of lighting up/That shows the terrain comprehended, as also its containing space." This latter illumination, then, is the object of the poet's search….
The Dumbfounding contains further poems of inner search and debate, but they may be retrospective, and in any case they give the impression that the period of spiritual gestation has come to a close. "The Two Selves" pictures two opposing aspects of the poet discussing the "birds in the sky," which somehow stand for spiritual realities…. The response to the sceptical self reveals a maturing confidence. The "Two Mayday Selves" … are more mutually in harmony, yet the more hesitating one is urged to respond wholly to the new experience…. It is the voice of a true finder speaking, one who can call for an end to talk and self-centred questioning, and in the simplest, most forthright language invite to participation in a new joy, a release. In "Many As Two," reminiscent of Christina Rossetti's "Uphill" or of Marvell's dialogue poems, the objections are now external to the new Christian, serving both to challenge and to define his life of discovery….
Having become fully taken up in the new life, Miss Avison can look back at the first moment of discovery, and attempt to picture the miracle of transformation. One such portrayal is given in "Ps. 19", a personal interpretation of the statement, "The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever."…
Authenticity is the keynote of [the] specifically Christian poems [in The Dumbfounding]. They have the ring of truth that comes, in part, from the genuine search experience that preceded them, which in Amos Wilder's terms might be called the poet's "baptism in the secular", her coming "face to face with the reality of the first Adam"….
Miss Avison's poems, whether of search or of discovery, cannot be dismissed as "propaganda". Their rich sensitivity to all aspects of life, amounting to a wholesome "secularity", their deep and incisive engagement in the world of thought and meaning, their full exploitation of all the modern resources of language and technique—all these mark them with the vitality which is the essence of true poetry. The poems of Christian discovery are fully contemporary and dynamic, deeply rooted in the experiential. By a union in the truly human, they manage to avoid the seeming dichotomy of Christianity and art that perturbed Auden. In and through their value as poetry they have another value, a religious one which might well be appreciated by believers and others alike: they "body forth" an answer to man's searchings that one may accept or reject, but not dismiss.
Daniel W. Doerksen, "Search and Discovery: Margaret Avison's Poetry," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1974, pp. 7-20.