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Critical Review by Dave Smith
SOURCE: "Formal Allegiances: Selected Poems × 6," in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 127-46.
In the excerpt below, Smith offers a mixed review of Atwood's Selected Poems II.
Among American readers Margaret Atwood is Canadian literature. She has published a book annually for more than two decades, deploying a strong historical consciousness, a rich narrative imagination, and a willingness to use formal literary expression to confront whatever wrongs human dignity and freedom. Her accomplishments have been manifest in best-selling fiction, in literary criticism (the often cited Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature suggests her range), and in ten books of poetry beginning with The Circle Game in 1966. Many readers consider her foremost a poet. The simultaneous republication of her 1978 volume Selected Poems 1965–1975 with her 1987 Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976–1986 may do more than confuse readers with over-lapping titles. It may raise questions about how often Margaret Atwood has written successful poetry.
An Atwood poem is an intense sermonic in shortish, spare lines that whip domestic dramas and wilderness imagery down the page. Deliberately unliterary, its righteousness puts a finger in the middle of your chest. The results are predictable: a mixture of exhilaration, irritation, and boredom. A style meant to simulate no-bullshit veracity, this language has studied biology, current affairs, and recent movies. Even the belligerent tone of "A Woman's Issue" asserts blunt authenticity: "You'll notice that what they have in common / is between the legs."
Political or issue-centered poetry claims us by shock or argument, while most other poetry works through accumulation of specific image or the clear tug of narrative. Atwood's poems often slacken anecdotally or slide into mission chatter, oddly both the curse of the poetry-writing fictioneer and Emily Dickinson, mechanical lineation being a grid, not form. It's actually a pseudo-poem as in "The Words Continue Their Journey":
Do poets really suffer more
than other people? Isn't it only
that they get their pictures taken
and are seen to do it?
The loony bins are full of those
who never wrote a poem.
Most suicides are not
poets: a good statistic.
Margaret Atwood's imagination, which sees the world as plastic, is metaphoric and metamorphic. She is extraordinarily receptive to places and moments resonant with apocalyptic significance, and is equally willing to render words stiffened by moral indignation. As she says, "my passive eyes transmute / everything I look at to the pocked / black and white of a war photo." For Atwood the poem frees the muted voice; it's poetry as liberation, as therapeutic function. Can art make anything happen?
Atwood suggests poetry is the happening, its language the public psychiatric process of exposure, rehearsal, correction. Metaphor (poetry = sight / sight = metamorphosis) is enactment. Her preferred form is the lyrical monologue, sincerity and diagnosis at once. It's good form for fiction, but why is the following poetry, if it is?
:moles dream of darkness and delicate
frogs dream of green and golden
sparkling like wet suns
among the lilies
"Dreams of the Animals"
Merely personal, perhaps trivial, this world is a papiermâché background. Such writing trots along in the self-absorption of idealism that strains credulity with childish personification, melodramatic effects, and the gimmicks of standup persuaders. Banality replaces profundity:
though we knew we had never
been there before
we knew we had been there before.
Atwood's discomfort with the demands and resources of lyric form encouraged her to employ her strengths: fictional coherence, dramatic immediacy, the arresting strangeness and authority of tale. In Procedures for Underground (1970) she echoed the mythic journey of psychoanalysis (and Dostoyevski) which leads to spiritual rebirth. With Power Politics (1971) she dramatized sexual struggles and revelations. Both books searched for large, coherent form in theme. In 1976, with The Journals of Susanna Moodie she joined in a segmented long poem a witnessing character, story, and historical veracity to testify to "Those who went ahead / of us in the forest" and thereby evoked the archetypal society and memory which is poetry's trade. Fiction gave her a form of coherence she had been unable to achieve with lyric.
From The Journals of Susanna Moodie Atwood moved to poems in sequences of numbered sections or signaling repetitions of place, subject, or title. What might be called "sequentialing form" dominated Two-Headed Poems (1978) and Interlunar (1981), but Atwood also encountered some old troubles, as evidenced in a stanza about pain and poetry:
This is the place
you would rather not know about,
this is the place that will inhabit you,
this is the place you cannot imagine,
this is the place that will finally defeat you
where the word why shrivels and empties
itself. This is famine.
"Notes towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written"
This is less poetry than merely evasive language. Nothing offered necessarily defines famine any more than it defines Cleveland.
But with rare energy and an acute eye, Atwood has created passages remarkable for density of particulars and rhythmic prowess. Her preacherly imagination is also pastoral: she celebrates unspoiled worlds, landscapes which now mirror the fouled human enterprise. Her view in "A Sunday Drive" reveals "a beach reeking of shit" and a "maze / of condemned flesh without beginning or end." As priestess of the revolutionary spirit, she makes arrowed accusations of poems. While her animistic identity with wild creatures may verge on comic book simplemindedness, as does Ted Hughes's, her wolves, crabs, and vultures leap from inert words to real beasts. Even in "Mushrooms" there is the powerful acknowledgment of lives utterly apart from and yet ancestral to one's own: "They taste / of rotten meat or cloves / or cooking steak bruised / lips or new snow." And in "Marsh, Hawk" the inward echoing of the scene provides the lyric form her passion has needed:
Diseased or unwanted
trees, cut into pieces, thrown
away here, damp and soft in the run, rotting and half
covered with sand, burst truck
tires, abandoned, bottles and cans hit
with rocks or bullets, a mass grave,
someone made it, spreads on the
land like a bruise and we stand on it, vantage
point, looking out over the marsh.
Atwood's particulars compose a landscape-medallion of ultimate knowledge, while controlled cadence and perspective establish emotional congruity. The voice "feels" with the eye from object to object—as the body would move, with cumulative jarrings—drawing us into the metaphor rather than pressing its grid upon us. Poetry is discovered and released, not commanded. A life of sores—seen instead of explained—leads not to strident opinion but to record and conviction, the voice of human will.
Although certain permutations of form are obvious in Atwood's two selecteds, she remains the same poet early and late. She is a naturalist, a traveler, but a woman ill-suited to the urban world. One finds little humor, less joy in her. Surprisingly, her best poems concern love: tenderness for ancestors, yearning for individual belonging, erotic gratification. To Atwood love defines us all: "those who think they have love / and those who think they are without it." In the fifteen new poems in Selected Poems II, Atwood, now a year shy of her fiftieth birthday, seems to try to work beyond characteristic anger, bitter portraits of harmed women, and blunt-tongued raking of those less pure-hearted than herself. She seeks "Some form of cheering. / There is pain but no arrival at anything." Still, she shows greater tolerance, an understanding, is occasionally bemused. Among all that takes the edge off revolutionary fervor, nothing beats age. Atwood's poems, now tighter, are not serene, but they approach the grace of love through understanding. Maybe she speaks for us all—a little—in a parable of maturing:
Amazingly young beautiful women poets
with a lot of hair falling down around
their faces like a bad ballet,
their eyes oblique over their cheekbones;
they write poems like blood in a dead person
that comes out black, or at least deep
purple, like smashed grapes.
Perhaps I was one of them once.
Too late to remember
the details, the veils.
If I were a man I would want to console them,
and would not succeed.
"Aging Female Reads Little Magazines"
This section contains 1,314 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)