The Essential Margaret Avison by Margaret Avison and Robyn Sarah
The Essential Margaret Avison showcases the development of one of Canada’s most brilliant and original poets, twice winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry. Margaret Avison’s vibrant life work is distilled here into a selection that is illuminating, generous and richly varied.
The sixth volume of the Porcupine Quill’s acclaimed series of ‘Essential Poets,’ this collection provides an excellent introduction to this prominent Canadian poet and the evolution of her work. Robyn Sarah’s selections amply celebrate Avison’s diverse styles and forms, and reveal Avison’s unique perspective on and response to her world.
Here, one can experience Avison’s dazzling diction (‘‘a saucepantilt of water,’’ ‘‘birds clotted in big trees’’), her metaphoric and tonal complexities, and her quiet examination of the world in which she lived. The Essential Margaret Avison also traces her movement from skeptical intellectual to committed Christian. Though some scholars have dismissed her later religious poetry as simplistic and inferior to her earlier work, the truth is more complex, and the line between what is religious and what is not in Avison’s poetry is difficult to draw. Robyn Sarah describes how Avison’s work became ‘‘more and more a poetry of inquiry, an inner pondering of her daily givens,’’ in which her experience of the worldly and the transcendent are inextricably tied.
Margaret Avison, honoured by the Griffin Prize and twice by the Governor-General’s Award, was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1985, and died, at the age of 89, in 2007. This singular poet’s legacy is well represented in Robyn Sarah’s thoughtfully chosen selection.
2015—CBC classic poetry collections every Canadian should read,
Table of contents
From Elsewhere in Always Now: The Collected Poems (Volume 1)
Jonathan, O Jonathan
The World Still Needs
All Fool’s Eve
New Year’s Poem
The Swimmer’s Moment
Mordent for a Melody
From Elsewhere in Always Now: The Collected Poems (Volume 1)
The Typographer’s Ornate Symbol at the End of a Chapter or Story
In a Season of Unemployment
A Nameless One
Many as Two
Cement Worker on a Hot Day
Not Yet but Still
Lit Sky and Foundered Earth
Concrete and Wild Carrot
Too Towards Tomorrow: New Poems, in Always Now: The Collected Poems (Volume 3)
Finished When Unfinished
Prayer of Anticipation
Safe but Shaky
Recollect 1960: a time when many artists were courting Eastern thought and deconstructing western literary formalism. Enter Margaret Avison, a poet’s poet, a metaphysical poet, perhaps an academic poet lauded for her sometimes difficult but indelibly rich and intricately woven language. That year her first book, Winter Sun, was awarded the Governor’s General Award. Then, in 1963, she became a devout Christian following a conversion experience. Margaret Avison published seven additional collections, the last following her death, in 2007, at eighty-nine. While not an exceptionally prolific writer, and one who certainly swam against the tides of prevailing artistic metaphysical thought (or lack thereof), Avison is considered to be an important Canadian poet, one of the first to bring modernity to Canadian poetry,
and singular among poets for her particular diction, imagism, and rich use of word compounds and synaesthesia. Consider, ‘Smell a saucepantilt of water / On the coal-ash in your grate.’ (from ‘Thaw’, Winter Sun, 1960) The Essential Margaret Avison selected by Canadian poet Robyn Sarah attempts to cull a lifetime of work into a mere fifty pages of poetry text and is rewarding in its success.
Though Sarah has arranged Avison’s collection in chronological order of publication, an argument might be made that readers new to Avison may find it helpful to read the book in reverse order, back to front, then back again. Avison was aware that many found her early work ‘difficult’, and worked towards greater simplicity and clarity later in life. This is not to say that the late work is overly simplistic or lacking in the imagistic and linguistic riches of the earlier, but it is more immediately accessible. Moreover, themes in the early work are echoed later, such that entrance to the early work is widened after familiarity with the late.
Avison’s virtuosity harkens back to seemingly disparate poets in her own distinct timbre; in formal consciousness, and resonance with a deep metaphysical stillness, T.S. Eliot may
come to mind. Again, from the poem ‘Thaw’, the opening quatrain: ‘Sticky inside their
winter suits / the Sunday children stare at pools / In pavement and black ice where roots /
Of sky in moodier sky dissolve.’ Richly imagistic and occasionally colloquial, particularly in the later poems, echoes of Eliot’s foe William Carlos Williams may also be heard, as in the poems ‘Cement Worker on a Hot Day’ and ‘Scar-face’. One thing is certain, no matter the reader’s religious persuasion, there are riches to be had for whoever devotes time to The Essential Margaret Avison.
—Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, ForeWord Magazine
‘Avison delighted in the word, its tender incarnation, its capacity for playfulness and epiphany. Her language could shock the reader in the manner of the Metaphysicals; it could envelop the reader in the lush rhythms of a Dylan Thomas; it could bathe the reader in the agapeic beauty of the psalms. ... The ‘‘essential Margaret Avison’’ -- to the degree that one can speak of the essential anyone without bold blasphemy -- can be exquisitely tasted in this exquisitely fashioned book.’
—Michael W. Higgins, Telegraph-Journal
There is but one complaint about this excellent collection - its brevity. Avison published more than 450 poems in her lifetime, and Sarah says that she was limited to 49 pages [...] Robyn Sarah has chosen well. The poems included in this far too brief encounter with Avison enable the reader to get a good overview of what made her poetry unique and memorable. For the reader new to her, this is an excellent introductory collection. For avid Avison junkies (of whom there are many), this is a back-pocket book, one to carry around with you to obtain your momentary fix.
—John Herbert Cunningham, Prariefire, Vol. 10, No. 4
In a secular culture, there can be no more insurgent a figure than that of a professing Christian. Avison abided with her faith to the end, and kept it central to her poems, even as they grew more and more spare, her thought paradoxically deepened by increasing simplicity. In the end, she was indisputably the paraclete of a sophisticated poetry, and always eloquent in the articulation of her longing.
—Roger Sauls, The Rover
‘Not for careless readers, the poetry of Margaret Avison is challenging. Meanings tend to gradually emerge after multiple readings, due to her unusual sentence structure and leaps of association. [...] this [is] an excellent addition for those who have some of Margaret’s recent books.
Avison is not merely respected by Christians. In fact, she’s better known in the academic community, having won numerous honours including the Governor General’s Award (twice!) and the Order of Canada.’
—D.S. Martin, Faith Today, July/August 2011
‘Sarah’s selection includes well-known poems ("The Butterfly", "The Swimmer’s Moment", "Watershed") and less familiar works from Avison’s last collections, Momentary Dark
(2006) and the posthumous Listening
(2009). ... [Her] slim selection clarifies Avison’s distinctive accomplishments and her idiosyncratic vision.’
—Nicholas Bradley, Canadian Literature
Previous review quote
‘If beauty, as Alfred North Whitehead defines it, is ‘a quality which finds its exemplification in actual occasions,’ and if beauty is more completely exemplified in ‘imperfection and discord’ than in the ‘perfection of harmony,’ then Margaret Avison’s Concrete and Wild Carrot is an occasion of beauty. Avison’s poetry is also alive in its sublimity and its humility: ‘wonder, readiness, simplicity’ -- the gifts of perception Avison attributes to her Christian faith -- imbue every poem in this book with a rare spirit of disorderly love. Margaret Avison is a national treasure. For many decades she has forged a way to write, against the grain, some of the most humane, sweet and profound poetry of our time.’
—Griffin Prize Judges’ Citation
During her last years Margaret Avison wrote an autobiography, published posthumously under the title I Am Here and Not Not-There. The self-portrait that emerges is very much that of a woman who knew who she was and where she was, and could affirm it without recourse to explaining who and where she wasn’t. The title formulation came to Avison during a panel discussion at the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963. It remained an artistic credo for her, but on the evidence of the autobiography, was not limited to that. A calm consciousness of her own position seems to have prevailed in all areas of her life, along with a willingness to accept where others were.
Avison was born in 1918 in Galt, Ontario, third and youngest child of Mabel (Kirkland) and H. Wilson Avison, a Methodist minister. The family moved to Regina in 1920 and to Calgary in 1924 before settling in Toronto when Margaret was eleven. She recalls her early childhood as a happy time: her mother played piano, her father sang baritone; there were automobile trips to Banff and further west; she loved the wide-open prairie sky. Margaret’s maternal grandfather, joining the household after his wife died, regaled his youngest grandchild with family tales and brought Bible stories to life for her.
The move to Toronto coincided with the crash of 1929. Though the Avisons had security and status, the poverty and gloom of the Depression made themselves felt. During high school, Margaret studied piano and joined the Poetry Club, under the tutelage of a well-loved teacher who famously advised her to eschew the first person singular in her poems for ten years. A three-month hospitalization for anorexia nervosa, on a 30-bed ward of the old Toronto General, awakened ‘populist sympathies’, a compassion for the poor and a passion for social justice that would find expression in Avison’s poetry and life alike. In 1936 she entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto and took a B.A. in English, then worked, through the war years and after, as a file clerk, proofreader, librarian, research assistant, freelance writer and editor. Early on, she had begun submitting poems to The Canadian Forum, and attracted the attention of A.J.M. Smith, who included her in his 1943 Canadian poetry anthology.
Avison consciously eschewed a career: short-term or part-time contracts gave her more freedom to pursue her own writing. Commissions included a seventh grade textbook (History of Ontario, 1951), a ghostwritten autobiography of Dr. A. I. Wolinsky (A Doctor’s Memoirs, 1960) and co-translations of Hungarian poetry and prose with Ilona Duczynska (The Plough and the Pen, 1963, and Acta Sanctorum and other tales by Josef Lengyel, 1966). She never married; she alludes briefly, in the autobiography, to a romantic disappointment, but her deeper regret was not having children. From 1955 to 1956 she worked as nursemaid for a couple with four children, grateful for this window on family life. In 1956-57, a Guggenheim Foundation grant allowed Avison to spend eight months in Chicago working on her poetry. She returned with the manuscript of Winter Sun, but had no luck finding a publisher until 1960, when a former employer with connections in England placed it there for her. In Canada, the book was immediately acclaimed with a Governor General’s Award.
The year 1963 was momentous for Avison. Early in January came the mystical experience that reconnected her with Christianity. While the Bible had always nourished her, she had drifted from churchgoing and fallen into the skepticism of fellow intellectuals. Initially afraid that her new-found faith would displace poetry, she instead found herself brimming with creativity. Eight months later, the Vancouver Poetry Conference brought her together with American poets Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov (who later, as editor of a new poetry line at Norton, asked her for the manuscript of The Dumbfounding). The conference was still in session when news came of her father’s death. Shortly afterward, her mother moved in with her, an arrangement that would last until the former’s death in 1985.
Avison’s later years included university graduate studies, a two-year teaching stint at Scarborough College, five years of social work at Evangel Hall (a Presbyterian store front mission), eight months as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario, five years with the CBC Radio Archives, and eight more as secretary for the Mustard Seed Mission before she retired. Her poetry remained the private but compelling interest it always had been. On the urging of longtime friend Joan Eichner, who became Avison’s valued editorial assistant, sunblue was published in 1978. No fewer than five collections followed, two of them subsequent to the three-volume Collected Poems. No Time won Avison a second Governor General’s Award, and Concrete and Wild Carrot, the more lavish Griffin Prize. Her involuntary words on accepting the award (‘This is ridiculous!’) sum up how incongruous she found worldly success for the art she had pursued with quiet dedication amid other interests and activities.
Named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1985, Margaret Avison died in 2007 at the age of 89.
Excerpt from book
All Fools’ Eve
From rooming-house to rooming-house
The toasted evening spells
City to hayrick, warming and bewildering
A million motes. From gilded tiers,
Balconies, and sombre rows,
Women see gopher-hawks, and rolling flaxen hills;
Smell a lost childhood’s homely supper.
Men lean with folded newspapers,
Touched by a mushroom and root-cellar
Coolness. The wind flows,
Ruffles, unquickens. Crumbling ash
Leaves the west chill. The Sticks-&-Stones, this City,
Lies funeral bare.
Over its gaping arches stares
That haunt, the mirror mineral.
In cribs, or propped at plastic tablecloths,
Children are roundeyed, caught by a cold magic,
Fading of glory. In their dim
Cement-floored garden the zoo monkeys shiver.
Doors slam. Lights snap, restore
The night’s right prose.
All but the lovers’ ghostly windows close.
Introduction or preface
Who was the real Margaret Avison? Regarded by some as a poet’s poet, credited as one of the first to bring modernism to Canadian poetry, considered by many a difficult poet, always a favourite of academics, Avison was from the beginning taken seriously -- her linguistically vibrant poems admired, analyzed, and much written-about. Canada honoured her first book, Winter Sun, with its highest literary award. But to the discomfiture of some readers, her embrace of Christianity in 1963 brought to her work a new preoccupation. The 1960s, when western intellectuals and artists were exploring Far Eastern spiritual traditions, was an inauspicious time to be writing faith-based Christian poetry. Some mainstream poets and critics, unable to relate to Avison’s Christian poems, dismissed them as inferior to her early work, while a new readership of co-religionists embraced her as a ‘‘Christian poet.’’
Yet this, like so many statements one could make about Avison, is an oversimplification. It is not as though, from a certain point onward, Avison wrote only on Christian themes. Her poems after conversion continued to explore a range of subjects and to reflect the same compassionate humanism, attunement to nature, keenness of observation, and questioning spirit that had characterized her earlier work. Moreover one can’t so easily separate Avison’s ‘‘Christian’’ poems from her work at large. Scriptural allusions and poems based on Bible narratives appear in many early poems. Is ‘‘The Butterfly’’, which refers to ‘‘the Voice that stilled the sea of Galilee,’’ a Christian poem? It was written a full two decades before her conversion experience. Are later poems like ‘‘Hid Life’’ and ‘‘Released Flow’’, or ‘‘Cement Worker on a Hot Day’’, Christian poems? A spiritual subtext is easily discerned, yet there is nothing specifically Christian or even overtly religious in them.
Another oversimplification links Avison with certain American poets (notably Cid Corman, with whom she corresponded for years, and the Black Mountain Poets). More has been made of this association, probably, than it warrants. Avison never considered herself part of any movement. She partook of the energy, and found validation in the interest and camaraderie offered by fellow poets, but went her own way. Still, as a singular woman poet who won the respect of a group of prominent male peers, she seems a natural descendant of Marianne Moore and Elisabeth Bishop.
Avison’s poems exhibit a range of forms and styles, yet in every mode a voice comes through that is uniquely recognizable as hers -- a response to the world that seamlessly blends the cerebral, the sensory, and the emotive. She broaches the metaphysical and theological by way of the concrete, the physical, the social and human, delineating these with almost hallucinatory attention to detail. A wide-ranging allusiveness reflects eclectic reading, but equal attention is given to the unmediated ‘‘real world’’ (primarily an urban world, rendered with haunting vividness through changes of season and times of day). The simplest poems about the weather today, or the view out the window, easily yield a metaphoric reading, yet can also satisfy as poems about the weather or the view out the window.
Most distinctive is Avison’s singular diction, often inseparable from her singularity of perception. Synesthesia (‘‘perfumes, furs, and black-and-silver/ crisscross of seasonal conversation’’), new-minted compounds (‘‘a saucepantilt of water’’), words used in unexpected ways (‘‘birds clotted in big trees’’) combine to create a density of effect that can seem almost baroque at one moment (‘‘the path-dust is nutmeg powdered and/ bird-foot embroidered’’), tautly economical at another (‘‘Horsepower crops Araby for pasture.’’) Where but in an Avison poem do ‘‘astonished cinders quake with rhizomes’’, where else will we hear named, and recognize, a faint clicking sound that might be the ‘‘conversational side-effect/ among the pigeons’’ -- or encounter the ‘‘uncontrollable beautiful/ sheepdogging skypower’’ of a sudden rainstorm?
Avison herself felt that if her early poetry was difficult, this was a shortcoming: she spoke of her process as one of growing simpler. Yet her most-quoted lines come from one of her most hermetic poems, the sonnet ‘‘Snow’’: ‘‘Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes./ The optic heart must venture: a jailbreak/ and re-creation.’’ The rest of that poem poses a huge challenge to any would-be interpreter, and has invited some wildly different readings; but the opening lines seem to speak clearly and memorably to everyone who hears them. Other early poems that have been favourites (‘‘The Swimmer’s Moment’’, ‘‘New Year’s Poem’’, ‘‘Thaw’’) share this resonant accessibility. Yet even at their most strange, Avison’s poems address the reader with a magnetic intimacy. They beguile with sharp flashes of the familiar -- tableaux and moments that we recognize, even when the meaning of the whole eludes us -- and their mysteriousness feels like the mysteriousness of life itself.
Particularly in the early poems there’s a lot of rhyme, even where the rhythms are free. ‘‘Snow’’ is one of a series of four sonnets in Winter Sun (in one of which, not included here, Avison expresses her ambivalence about this form). Poems in rhyming quatrains appear in all her collections, and these show a surprising range of tone (note the wit of ‘‘Mordent for a Melody’’, the lyrical dreaminess of ‘‘Thaw’’, the Dickinson-like ‘‘Oughtiness Ousted’’, the conversational ‘‘Safe but Shaky’’). Formal considerations aside, the poems are diverse in what they do. Some, like ‘‘All Fool’s Eve’’, ‘‘The World Still Needs’’, ‘‘September Street’’, turn a panoramic, bird’s-eye-view lens on the world, showing us a cross-section of life in a series of sharply detailed but distanced vignettes. By contrast, ‘‘Pace’’, ‘‘Twilight’’, and ‘‘A Nameless One’’ magnify their closely observed particulars with an intense, slowed-down focus. There are poems that observe people in daily moments (‘‘In a Season of Unemployment’’, ‘‘Scar-face’’, ‘‘Cement Worker on a Hot Day’’, ‘‘Power’’); poems in which unidentified, disembodied voices are heard conversing (‘‘Pace’’, ‘‘Many as Two’’, ‘‘A Story’’); and occasional flights into lush lyricism (‘‘Jonathan, O Jonathan’’, ‘‘July Man.’’)
Avison’s overtly Christian poems display similar diversity. They include scriptural glosses, prayers, poems about the life of Jesus, poems celebrating moments on the Christian calendar, and poems of personal moral struggle. The long poem ‘‘A Story’’ represents a turning-point, the first poem after conversion. A modern-day re-telling of the parable of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13: 1-23), this poem in dialogue form is cunningly layered: story within story within story, a parable about a parable. The primary speaker tells a story about hearing a story, communicating both the story and the experience of hearing it to somebody else. In effect, the poem enacts the parable. Yet ‘‘A Story’’ feels archetypal as much as Christian. Remarkable in the recounting is the way the storyteller in the boat and the figure of the gardener in the story blend into one mysterious, numinous, benevolent presence -- prompting the second speaker’s almost reluctant, wondering question: ‘‘Where is he now?’’
Avison’s later work did become simpler -- less virtuosic in its associative leaps, less intricate in vocabulary, more conversational in tone. While many early poems begin in philosophical statement (‘‘Frivolity is out of season’’, ‘‘The world doesn’t crumble apart’’), later ones are more apt to begin in a question (‘‘Why are we/ so often not/ any different?’’) Avison’s became more and more a poetry of inquiry, an inner pondering of her daily givens, to which we are made party. Her question-mark is a straw to the wind, testing premises, language, commonly held beliefs or interpretations, familiar texts, the evidence of her own senses. And it’s our luck that her explorations include us in their process, tugging us along until they come to rest at a stopping-point that is always just that -- a stopping point, nothing so final as closure.
One of Canada’s most respected poets, Margaret Avison was born in Galt, Ontario, lived in Western Canada in her childhood, and then in Toronto. In a productive career that stretched back to the 1940s, she produced seven books of poems, including her first collection, Winter Sun (1960), which she assembled in Chicago while she was there on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and which won the Governor General’s Award. No Time (Lancelot Press), a work that focussed on her interest in spiritual discovery and moral and religious values, also won the Governor General’s Award for 1990. Avison’s published poetry up to 2002 was gathered into Always Now: the Collected Poems (Porcupine’s Quill, 2003), including Concrete and Wild Carrot which won the 2003 Griffin Prize. Her most recent book, Listening, Last Poems, was published in 2009 by McClelland & Stewart.
Margaret Avison was the recipient of many awards including the Order of Canada and three honorary doctorates.
Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents, and has lived for most of her life in Montréal. A graduate of McGill University (where she majored in philosophy and English) and of Québec’s Conservatoire de Musique et d’Art Dramatique, she is the author of seven poetry collections and one previous collection of short stories, A Nice Gazebo, published by Véhicule in 1992. The same year, Anansi published The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected, a collection of her poetry spanning twenty years. Robyn Sarah has also recently published a collection of her essays on poetry, entitled Little Eurekas.