Introduction or preface
Introduction to the First (1984) Edition
This little book contains the two lectures delivered as the annual Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in February 1993. Blaise Pascal (1623-62), the seventeenth-century French academic and Christian, is remembered today as a forerunner of Newton in his establishment of the calculus, and as author of his Christian meditations, Les Pensées. Members of the University of Waterloo, wishing to establish a forum for the presentation of Christian issues in an academic environment, have chosen to commemorate the life of Pascal by this annual event.
The Pascal Lectures bring to the University of Waterloo outstanding individuals of international repute who have distinguished themselves in both scholarly endeavour and Christian thought or life. These individuals discourse with the university community on some aspect of its own world, its theories, its research, its leadership role in our society, challenging the university to search for truth through personal faith and intellectual inquiry which focus on Jesus Christ.
Margaret Avison has twice been honoured with the Governor General of Canada’s award for poetry. The first award was for Winter Sun, published in 1960; the second, for No Time, published in 1989. Betweentimes she testifies to having become a Christian on January 4th, 1963. Although she was brought up in a minister’s family, she describes herself as having been a rebel on ‘a long wilful journey into darkness,’ preferring her own idea of Jesus as an ethical person to ‘the priority, Christ’s pervasive presence.’ One year earlier in January of 1962, she had written to Cid Corman, ‘There is some corner I have to turn yet, some confronting I have to do -- as you would instantly agree, I think, it must come about at the deepest levels in order to find free singing voice.’ Then she added, ‘Somewhere in this effort, a wrong self-effacement has taken place in me. I can feel the blindfold, the straitjacket -- but cannot so far discover where the knots and hooks are to undo them.’
A few months later, she says, someone came and untied the straitjacket’s hooks and knots for her, took off the blindfold, and turned on the light. Or as she says in poetry,
We didn’t know you Jesus,
You came out in the night
And poked around the side streets
To give us your light.
The impact on Margaret is everywhere evident in her poetry, as for example in the title poem of the volume The Dumbfounding (1966). Of the encounter she says, ‘I would not want to have missed what he gave then: the astounding delight of his making himself known at last, sovereign, forgiving, forceful of life.’ Her poetry at this point reminds us of so many recording a similar encounter: Francis Thompson in ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ T. S. Eliot in ‘Journey of the Magi,’ S. T. Coleridge in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ e. e. cummings in ‘i thank You God for most this amazing,’ even Shakespeare’s character Bottom, the ass who, discovering himself beloved by Titania, Queen of the air, and singing of ‘his most rare vision,’ is marvelled at by his fellows as ‘a very paramour for a sweet voice.’
That same year, Margaret says, ‘it became centrally important to me to see that nothing, nothing at all, could be excluded from the total relevance of the person, Jesus.’ So in the autumn of 1963 she returned to graduate school at the University of Toronto. There, twenty-three years after having obtained her B.A., she began to write her M.A. thesis on Lord Byron, finding the conversational style of his poetry refreshing. (We see echoes of Byron’s style in her own poetry now). Yet she soon developed a growing malaise in moving between the church and the secular (especially the university) world.
Much of these two lectures is an exploration of that malaise, leading to the conclusion that it may have begun by her ‘rushing too much’ in testing undigested truths, such as the truth that ‘anywhere with Jesus I can safely go,’ but was also caused by the counter-Christian assumptions and standards of the university, as well as by the temptations of her traffic with secular society. One instance she offered, in answer to a student’s question at the end of her first lecture, was when a close friend said to her one day in tears, ‘But Margaret, that is a lie!’ Seeing the cost of this confronting of her by her friend, Miss Avison said, she faced afresh the Truth, the Word, who confronts us to bless. One result of this kind of facing was that she left the university and began to work at the Queen Street at Portland inner city mission. Many of her poems are her records of her experiences -- her malaise -- there.
The malaise never ends, she says: it is how we work out our salvation.
Her comings and goings with the university community continued after she left graduate school at the University of Toronto. Earlier she had worked for the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, then in 1954 had attended the University of Indiana Summer School of Letters. In 1956-57 she took up a Guggenheim Fellowship at the University of Chicago Poetry Centre, and in 1972-73 was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario. Meanwhile she had published a children’s history text, History of Ontario (1951), had translated Hungarian poetry for The Plough and the Pen, and published The Research Compendium, consisting of abstracts of theses at the at the Toronto School of Social Work. These professional associations with the university were accompanied by formal links through her local church, Knox Presbyterian in Toronto, which has many of the university community among its congregation.
Always she wrote poetry. So Winter Sun (University of Toronto Press: 1960) was followed by The Dumbfounding (Norton: 1966), sunblue (Lancelot Press: 1978), Winter Sun/The Dumbfounding: Poems, 1940-1966 (McClelland & Stewart: 1982), No Time (Lancelot Press, 1989), and Selected Poems (Oxford: 1991).
Some reviewers speak of Margaret Avison’s poetry in terms of its sensitivity: ‘subtle shadings of emotion,’ ‘deeply religious and vulnerable,’ ‘social concern and moral values fused by religious conviction’ are the terms of Michael Gnarowski. Others such as John Kertzer and Michael Higgins point to her use of nature imagery -- of sun, snow, winter, spring, rain as metaphors for her spirituality -- and think her as a pastoral poet. Still others speak of her poetry’s complexity, comparing her to Gerard Manley Hopkins and using such phrases as ‘intentionally cryptic’ or ‘very intellectual’ (Milton Wilson and William New). Many speak of her poetry’s importance to Canada -- ‘the most significant book of poetry in Canada since the modern movement got under way’ says A.J.M. Smith in 1966 of The Dumbfounding. The same sort of tribute is made in 1989 by the Governor General’s Award and yet again in 1985 by the Order of Canada Medal.
Robert Browning in his poem to Elizabeth, ‘One Word More,’ points out that we eagerly welcome a prose statement from an artist who normally works in the medium of poetry, for we hope thereby to get a better grasp, a more logical, discursive explanation of the truth we have reached for in the ever-enlightening yet ever-elusive word of the poetry. However, this prose of Margaret Avison, as of Milton, Donne, Coleridge, Eliot, is only scarcely-disguised poetry once again. The better for being so, presented as it is with poetic devices: as rewarding in the dense intensity of its imagery. Yet Browning concludes that we can most wholly apprehend the artist in his primary medium. Miss Avison would seem to agree, for she says:
‘When he is writing poetry, a person is at his most intense, his most clear-sighted. All his faculties are alert and fused in a single, supreme effort. And the statements he makes at that pressure point of crystallization must be relatively more valid than the conclusions he may form in his more casual, intellectual, self-conscious moments.’
-- Canadian Forum, XXIV June 1944, 67.
As quoted by Jon Ketzer in ‘Profiles in Canadian Literature,’ 1980
Nevertheless, we yearn for her prose statements. So she prepares us for Lecture One, ‘Misunderstanding is Dangerous,’ by explaining that she is giving us ‘ideas in cumulative clusters rather than logical steps.’ Here she offers ‘propositions’ with her buoyant hope and faith that ‘at the end they may have filled out and clarified for us.’ She gives us all we need for that filling out and clarifying through her own testimony, and in her pointing to the testimony of Newman, Pascal, Maritain; Boethius, Burton, Tillyard; Dryden, Milton, Klein. Above all, to Jesus Christ, a Person who ‘is not boring,’ who, ‘seen clearly, can not be rejected.’ He is, says Miss Avison, ‘God translating himself into the language of our kind of being.’
In Lecture Two Miss Avison again proposes ‘a propositional magneting of ideas’ rather than a logical order. Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation helps us understand this kind of writing when he says that ‘great scientific discoveries and artistic creations are alike in that both originate in the discovery of hidden analogies.’ She offers to the university students, those capable of ‘the panoramic insights peculiar to the young,’ those with ‘that wide-angle lens flooding one with brilliant pain and comprehension,’ some propositions. One is the possibility of ‘being here as well as not not-there.’
She says that when Christian and counter-Christian face subject matter uncongenial to both, it is the Christian, knowing the inexhaustible Word as companion, who is more likely to develop receptivity. And she observes that in her search there was a long time in which she refused the spiritual food necessary to appease her hunger.
Throughout these two conversations with us Margaret Avison testifies of the Word by observations about the etymology of words: ‘understanding’; ‘misunderstanding’; ‘damaging’; ‘danger’; and especially ‘pain’, with which she is intimate. There is a stillness in the energy of her compassion which makes the good tears start, bringing healing to the sufferer with whom she communes. Our privilege has been more than her poetry, more than these poetic-prose talks. Our privilege has been her presence.
—John North, University of Waterloo