Margaret Avison 1918–
Canadian poet and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Avison's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 4.
Known primarily for her religious poems, Avison began her career writing highly intellectual, secular poetry that focused on sensory images and perception. Her first book, Winter Sun (1960), is representative of this early phase in her career. The focus of Avison's writing changed after 1963, when she embraced Christianity as the result of a religious experience. Avison's subsequent collections—The Dumbfounding (1966), sunblue (1978), and No Time (1991)—all reflect the poet's reverence and wonder for "the Jesus of Resurrection power" and her efforts to express her relation to and perceptions of God. Critics have praised the power of Avison's devotional poetry, likening her to such poets as George Herbert, John Donne, and T. S. Eliot. Her verse is also admired for its complexity, conciseness, and striking language.
Avison was born in Galt, Ontario. Her father, a Methodist minister, was transferred to parishes in Regina and, later, Calgary, during her childhood. Avison has described the impact of growing up on Canada's western prairies: "The landscape around southern Alberta permanently defined space for me." Avison became aware of the suffering of others when she witnessed the intense poverty of the Great Depression. Some critics suggest that the existence of such economic and social disparity may have caused Avison's religious faith to diminish as she grew into her older teens. While she remained active in Christian community service groups, she stopped attending church for close to twenty years. In 1931 she returned to Ontario, and in 1936 she began attending Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Her earliest poems and essays appeared in a campus publication called Acta Victoriana. In 1939 her poem "Gatineau" appeared in Canadian Poetry Magazine. Avison completed her arts degree in 1940. After graduation she held a number of temporary jobs, including file clerk, librarian, research assistant, teacher, and freelance writer. Her work was featured in the 1943 edition of A. J. M. Smith's anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry. Avison also wrote a textbook, History of Ontario (1951), for junior high school students. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956–57, which she used to travel to Chicago. There she completed her first poetry anthology, Winter Sun, which won a Governor General's Award for poetry. The turning point in Avison's career came in 1963, when she returned to the University of Toronto for further graduate studies and attended a writer's workshop at the University of British Columbia. There she worked with such American poets as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov, but the most important event of that year was a religious conversion during which Avison reclaimed Christianity with a new vigor. After completing her master of arts degree with a thesis on the poetry of Lord Byron, Avison worked as a teacher at Scarborough University and served as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. Avison continues to live and work in Toronto.
Avison is not a prolific poet; she has published only four collections of new verse during a career that has spanned over four decades. Her earliest collection, Winter Sun, explores humanity's search for meaning and significance in the modern world and examines humankind's relationship to its physical surroundings, both natural landscapes and cities. Many of these poems are short lyrics that bring together a wide variety of sensory images. One of Avison's principal concerns in Winter Sun is perception, and she consistently emphasizes looking at the familiar in new and thought-provoking ways. Ernest H. Redekop has argued that "there is a profound sense in Avison's poems that the world must not be forced into ordinary limits of sight and articulation." In the poem "Perspective," for instance, Avison attacks linear perspective, arguing "Your seeing is diseased / that cripples space." In her second collection, The Dumbfounding, Avison expresses her wonder at her own rediscovered faith. She employs many of the same poetic techniques found in Winter Sun, but the focus in this collection is on humankind's perception of and relationship to God, whom Avison depicts as immediate, personal, loving, and forgiving. In "First," Avison argues that the divine will not fit within humanity's intellectual constructs: "In the mathematics of God / there are percentages beyond one hundred." Such themes as communion, regeneration, and revelation are common in these poems, which frequently incorporate images of light and darkness. Both sunblue and No Time reconfirm Avison's commitment to her Christian faith. Fourteen of the poems from sunblue, for example, are interpretations of biblical texts. In conjunction with their Christian themes, Avison's poems often celebrate the creative power of the imagination as well as examining the concept of paradoxes and depicting people and landscapes from conflicting viewpoints.
Among those familiar with her verse, Avison has the reputation of being a cerebral poet. Her work has been characterized as "intellectual" and "deliberate"; her use of word-play, disconcerting shifts in viewpoint, complex metaphors, and literary allusions make her poetry a challenge to read. Critical response to Avison's works has generally been positive. Commentators have praised Avison's use of complex language not as an end in itself, but as a means to accurately convey her subject matter: the love and power of God. Some secularist critics have found her post-conversion poetry too dogmatic. While Avison's defenders admit that the poet's religious preference is readily apparent in her work, they claim that the purpose of Avison's poetry goes beyond that of simple religious proselytizing.