Margaret Avison Avison, Margaret (Vol. 97) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

History of Ontario (history) 1951
Winter Sun (poetry) 1960
The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary 1930–1956 [translator with Ilona Duczynska and Karl Polanyi] (anthology) 1963
The Dumbfounding (poetry) 1966
Acta Sanctorum and Other Tales [translator with Duczynska] (short stories) 1970
sunblue (poetry) 1978
Winter Sun/The Dumbfounding: Poems 1940–1966 (poetry) 1982
No Time (poetry) 1989
Selected Poems (poetry) 1992

Brewster Ghiselin (review date September 1947)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Architecture of Vision," in Poetry, Vol. LXX, No. 6, September, 1947, pp. 324-28.

[Ghiselin is an American educator, poet, essayist, and critic. Below, he reviews Five Poems—a collection of poems that were first published in Poetry in September, 1947—commenting on theme and execution.]

The central concern of all the poems of this group [Five Poems] by Miss Avison is the order by which men live. Very markedly this is a poetry of ideas. Explicit argument and exposition are prominent in much of it, particularly in passages dealing with the use of certain constructs of our vision and with the means by which new ones are created....

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Milton Wilson (essay date Autumn 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Margaret Avison," in Canadian Literature, No. 2, Autumn, 1959, pp. 47-58.

[In the following essay, Wilson surveys Avison's poetry, remarking on the poet's themes and style and noting her interest in space and perspective.]

For most readers of Canadian poetry, Margaret Avison seems to be less a poet than a kind of negative legend. One of the first critics to mention her in print simply regretted her absence from an anthology; one of the last wondered ironically if she had ever published anything but "The Butterfly". This negative emphasis can be misleading. Miss Avison has published about forty-five poems in the last twenty years, and over half of...

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William H. New (essay date July 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mind's Eyes [I's] [Ice]: The Poetry of Margaret Avison," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 16, No. 3, July, 1970, pp. 185-202.

[New is a Canadian educator, critic, and poet. In the essay below, he discusses theme and style in Avison's poetry, focusing on ambiguity, identity, sense, and perception.]

Even with all the intelligence that hindsight allows, it is hard to see in Margaret Avison's earliest poems the poet she was later to become. "Gatineau," published in December 1939, reads this way:

There is a rock at the river-edge
Girt by the chain of a boom;
The yellow wind trickles...

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George Bowering (essay date Autumn 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Avison's Imitation of Christ the Artist," in Canadian Literature, No. 54, Autumn, 1972, pp. 56-69.

[Bowering is a Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following essay, he discusses theme and the image of Christ and the artist presented in Avison's poetry.]

In a review article about The Dumbfounding (in Canadian Literature 38), Lawrence M. Jones makes reference to an unpublished essay that Margaret Avison composed about her relationship with Christ and its effect upon her work. Looking back on her early poetry, she announces "how grievously I cut off his way by honouring the artist" during her "long wilful detour into...

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Daniel W. Doerksen (essay date Spring 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Search and Discovery: Margaret Avison's Poetry," Canadian Literature, No. 60, Spring, 1974, pp. 7-20.

[In the following essay, Doerksen focuses on religious and spiritual themes in Avison's work, which he describes as a poetry of "spiritual quest and discovery."]

In "Love (III)", the poem which concludes his "picture of many spiritual Conflicts", George Herbert portrays the culmination of the religious quest in unexpected discovery. Unaware that she herself will one day describe such experience, the Margaret Avison of Winter Sun feels intrigued into envious comment. Having probed about in a world of Heraclitean flux and materialistic preoccupation, she...

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J. M. Zezulka (essay date Fall-Winter 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Refusing the Sweet Surrender: Margaret Avison's 'Dispersed Titles'," in Canadian Poetry; Studies, Documents, Reviews, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1977, pp. 44-53.

[In the essay below, Zezulka provides a thematic analysis of "Dispersed Titles," noting Avison's concern with nature, modern technology, and humankind's place in the world.]

For Margaret Avison, a poem is a vehicle of discovery, an imaginative "jailbreak / And recreation" which can lead to "that other kind of lighting up / That shows the terrain comprehended." Before this can happen, however, the reader must grapple with shifts in perspective, close verbal textures, and an eclecticism in thought that has few...

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Francis Zichy (essay date Summer 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Each in His Prison I Thinking of the Key': Images of Confinement and Liberation in Margaret Avison," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 232-43.

[In the following essay, Zichy examines style and imagery in several of Avison's poems, focusing on the relationship between confinement and liberation.]

My immediate subject is a group of poems by Margaret Avison in which images of confinement and liberation are insistently present, and present in a special relation. In these poems confinement and liberation are related dialectically: a sense of confinement makes an effort at liberation essential: efforts at liberation enforce yet...

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J. M. Kertzer (essay date Fall 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Margaret Avison's Portrait of a Lady: 'The Agnes Cleves Papers'," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, 1979, pp. 17-24.

[In the essay below, Kertzer provides a thematic analysis of "The Agnes Cleves Papers," focusing on the protagonist's search for meaning.]

In a letter [to Cid Corman] of March, 1961 [printed in Origin (January 1962)], Margaret Avison declared that the poet "must listen painfully & long to the experience of living," an attentiveness possible only when he attains the proper "self-effacement." She herself achieves these aims most successfully in "The Agnes Cleves Papers," her longest and perhaps most painful poem, by adopting...

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A. J. M. Smith (review date Winter 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Critical Improvisations on Margaret Avison's Winter Sun," in The Tamarack Review, No. 18, Winter, 1981, pp. 81-6.

[Smith was a Canadian educator and poet. Below, he offers a favorable review of Winter Sun, concluding: "rarely has a poet so compactly and richly identified sensation and thought."]

In the beginning was the Word.

Let us begin then with the word. Start with discrete particles. Look at the bricks.

My house, she says, is made of old newspapers.

But newspapers, like poems are made of words. Let us look at the words.

Epithets are significant in poetry....

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Keith Garebian (review date March 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prayers and Sermons," in Books in Canada, Vol. 12, No. 3, March, 1983, pp. 19-20.

[Garebian is a Canadian educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he favorably reviews Winter Sun/The Dumbfounding: Poems 1940–1966.]

Margaret Avison can be so coolly cerebral, so subtly technical in her verse that she might well seem to be purely for the library. However, her poetry's difficulty is brightened by witty particulars that show her to be (like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wallace Stevens) a metaphysician in love with this world or, at least, those parts of it that she can order into an understanding of being. There are no terrifying northern landscapes in her...

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Jon Kertzer (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Margaret Avison and the Place of Meaning," in "Lighting up the Terrain": The Poetry of Margaret Avison, edited by David Kent, ECW Press, 1987, pp. 7-26.

[In the following essay, Kertzer examines language and meaning in Avison's poetry.]

Surveying the literary scene in 1959, Margaret Avison wrote: "Any Canadian writer, for example, is aware of a scuffle to find his own words, his own idiom…. In trying to find his language-level, then, a Canadian poet is trying to assert both an identity and an aesthetic" ["Poets in Canada," Poetry (June 1959)]. It is tempting to apply these remarks to her own work: to praise a gradual refinement of style that permits...

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Margaret Avison (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Muse of Danger," in "Lighting up the Terrain": The Poetry of Margaret Avison, edited by David Kent, ECW Press, 1987, pp. 144-49.

[In the essay below, Avison discusses poetry writing, focusing on language, form, and religion.]

The impulse to write a poem occurs in human context—and can be a pulsation in darkness or in light. Poetry in itself is neither "evil" nor "good," in other words.

No fool-proof formula exists for using a poetic impulse to God's glory. The child of God claims the victory of Christ, and yet lives embattled from moment to moment, falling often and constantly knowing no power except through forgiveness. Even so the...

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Gary Lenhart (review date August-September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, August-September, 1992, pp. 16, 29.

[In the excerpt below, Lenhart suggests similarities between Avison's work and that of the 17th-century metaphysical and meditational poets.]

I was attracted to Margaret Avison's book [Selected Poems] by the blurb that instructs readers that Avison's "roots (are) in the 17th-Century traditions of metaphysical and meditational poetry." It is a tradition that has always attracted me by its dense line, concentrated attention, baroque and often far-fetched conceits, resistance to paraphrase, and profoundly unsettled tone. Dr. Johnson described...

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George Bowering (review date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Curious Encounter," in Canadian Literature, No. 134, Autumn, 1992, pp. 105-07.

[In the following review of Selected Poems, Bowering remarks on Avison's place in Canadian literature and the subjects of her poetry.]

Margaret Avison's poems were anthologized in A. J. M. Smith's The Book of Canadian Poetry in 1943. It was not until 1960, when she was forty-two, that her first book was published. Six years later her second book (reprinting many poems from the first) came out—in the United States. In the following years publishers large or literary petitioned for a manuscript to no avail until 1978, when an unknown publisher in rural Nova Scotia...

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Margaret Calverley (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Reconsideration of Margaret Avison's 'Dispersed Titles'," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 47, Fall, 1992, pp. 163-80.

[In the following essay, Calverly provides a detailed reading of "Dispersed Titles."]

Margaret Avison likes to challenge her audience with riddling ambiguities. After an initial reading, one might close her first—and most difficult—volume, Winter Sun, with a sigh, and wonder if she could perhaps have been a little less covert. But one of the key lines in the opening poem, "The Apex Animal," does make a clear and direct appeal to the reader's imagination. The poet, searching for some ultimate being, speaks of the enigmatic "Head...

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Margaret Calverley (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Service Is Joy': Margaret Avison's Sonnet Sequence in Winter Sun," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 50, Fall, 1993, pp. 210-30.

[In the essay below, Calverley argues that "Snow," "Tennis," "Unbroken Lineage," and "Butterfly Bones" form a sonnet sequence and that Avison's purpose is a celebration of "the liberating force of traditional patterns."]

Much critical debate has been generated by Margaret Avison's "Snow." "Butterfly Bones: Or, Sonnet against Sonnets," as well, has received close attention. No one has examined, however, the possibility that these poems together with "Tennis" and "Unbroken Lineage," the four sonnets in Winter Sun, form...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Mansbridge, Francis. "Margaret Avison: A Checklist." Canadian Library Journal 34, No. 6 (December 1977): 431-36.

Includes brief descriptions of Avison's major works as well as a bibliography of her uncollected poems and criticism on her works.


Carruth, Hayden. "In Spite of Artifice." Hudson Review XIX, No. 4 (Winter 1966–67): 689-98, 700.

Comments briefly on The Dumbfounding.

Kent, David A. "Wholehearted Poetry; Halfhearted Criticism." Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 44...

(The entire section is 158 words.)