Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood is a widely recognized literary figure, especially known for her themes of feminism. Her novels, including Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale are widely known for their feminist subject matter, and one finds the same powerful themes within her poetry. Judy Klemesrud, in her article for The New York Times, once made the wise acknowledgement that “People follow her on the streets and in stores, seeking autographs and wanting to discuss the characters in her novels- most of whom are intelligent, self-absorbed modern women searching for identity. These women also suffer greatly, and as a result, some Canadian critics have dubbed her ‘the high priestess of angst'”(March 28, 1982). Indeed, Margaret Atwood has a talent for the conscience feministic perspective, and the tone of much of her work seems to indicate her sense of political responsibility. Her poem “Spelling,” for example, is a testament to the power of words and it depicts the victimization of powerlessness of women without language. Atwood describes her daughter on the floor, learning how to spell for the first time, and then leads the reader through a history of persecuted, helpless women.

For instance, Atwood depicts “the woman caught in the war/ & in labour, her thighs tied/ together by the enemy/ so she could not give birth”(803). Such disturbing portrayals of women have earned Atwood the reputation as a daring feminist. Yet it is important to recognize that her poetry is not just about feminist themes, it is also an exploration into the depths of human consciousness and loneliness. This consciousness, paired with her curiosities about the power of language, is seen in many of her poetic themes. Atwood focuses on different literary and artistic genres in her poetry, ranging from postcards to photographs to magazine depictions of love, in order to explore human connections.

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Although much of her work may seem fearlessly feministic, in the sense that it brings explores female condition without reserve or embarrassment, Atwood’s poetry probes into a genderless consciousness to explore feelings of human connectionedness and painful separations. The first poem that will be examined in this paper is “Variations on the Word Sleep.” The narrator of the poem immediately addresses their conscience need to connect with the other person, and they also recognize the hopelessness of this goal: “I would like to watch you sleeping, / which may not happen”. The opening to the poem, as we see here, could be considered typical of Atwood’s writing in the sense that one person longs to bond with another, and recognizes the difficulty. It is this type of vulnerability that we have come to expect in Margaret Atwood’s writings, because as with many feminist writings, we are aware of the power struggle between men and women, and even between women. But this poem refrains from identifying sexes; it only discusses a deeply internal need of one person for another, who is on a journey through he dark maze of their consciousness. The first stanza evolves from a simple plea from the genderless speaker to watch their lover sleep, to a deeper, spiritual need.

Atwood chooses to remain ambiguous in this respect, which helps a wider audience identify with the work. The poem also has merit because within seven short, simplistic lines we glide from a gentle longing to a love complex and intense, with two minds merging together in a dream: “I would like to watch you, / sleeping. I would like to sleep/ with you, to enter/ your sleep as its smooth dark wave/ slides over my head.” The action of the poem continues to evolve as Atwood carries the reader through what appears to be a lover’s dream or fantasy. The narrator at first wishes only to watch their lover sleep, then they desire to enter the same sleep with them, then they envision themselves descending through the layers of consciousness. As the reader follows along with the admiring narrator and his or her companion, they become increasingly aware of the narrator’s need for transcendence.

Atwood uses words that help guide us along the action, such as “watch,” “enter,” “over,” “descend,” “follow,” and “become.” All of these words are effective in making the reader feel as if they too are stumbling along side of the narrator, desperately trying to enter the depths of their lover. Moreover, the narrator is so anxious and passionate, that they are willing to follow their lover towards their worst fear in order to protect them “from the grief at the center.” This is especially interesting in the aspect of feminism because Atwood’s female characters, especially in his novels, are usually exemplary of achievement and empowerment. If one is to assume the narrator in this poem is female, than Atwood is describing a woman chasing her man in a desperate attempt to become his center, and even to “be the air/ that inhabits you for a moment/ only. I would like to be that unnoticed/ that necessary.” The word “unnoticed” here could be seen in a couple different lights, as could the entire theme of the poem. On one hand, the narrator is reducing him or herself to being virtually invisible, by becoming the air of their lover. Given Atwood’s aptitude for dismantling the power structures between males and females in her novels, this type of clinging and desperation seems out of character with her writing.

Yet on the other hand, she has abstained from identifying sexes, and the poetry itself is painfully honest and romantic in its portrayal of sacrifice. The narrator is recognizing that the object of their affection, whether they be male or female, has a consciousness worth exploring, and they are willing to carry this person way from darkness. The other reason that this poem should be valued is because of Atwood’s use of the elements. The imagery of the poem moves from water (“smooth dark wave”) to earth (forest, cave) to water again (“become the boat that would row you”) to fire (“a flame in two cupped hands”) then finally, air (“I would like to be the air that inhabits you”). The poem “Variations of the Word Sleep” is an excellent example of Atwood’s talent for revealing feelings of separations and also for showing the romance in giving up ones’ own identity for the sake of love.

This theme is not typical to what the public would consider ruthlessly feminist, but Atwood’s writings redefine the realms of what women desire and deserve in love. The next poem that this paper will discuss is the poem “Variations on the Word Love.” This poem is similar to “Variations on the Word Sleep” in the sense that the idea of love evolves from a simplistic, shallow relationship to realm of love that explores new meanings of human connection and consciousness. The first stanza even seems to be a mockery of the idea of love, because Atwood’s words ring of cynicism: “This is a word we use to plug/ holes with. It’s the right size for those warm/ blanks in speech, for those red heart/ shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing / like real hearts. Add lace/ and you can sell/ it.” (802).

This poem, at least initially, seems to fit Atwood’s reputation as a staunch “feminist” better than the latter poem, in the sense of “feminism” as a mo …