Culture & Conversation

The Insurgent Margaret Avison

If there is a theology of poetry, it holds that the poem transcends the poet, that the poem retains its central qualities regardless of the poet’s human flaws.  The poet concerned with theology, however, is required to produce work that is less forgiving of deviation.  In general, it must see subject matter through a narrow ethos, one that involves a fallen creation in need of redemption and a humanity that exists as an emanation of divine dramaturgy.  Few late 20th century poets, who tended to openly confess their flaws, accepted the demands of working within such confines.  They preferred instead the freedom of the antinomian wild blue yonder.

The late Margaret Avison was a rare exception to this tendency.  In the beginning, she was a talented practitioner of academic verse, her work filled with the formal apparatus and personal symbolism that marked the poetry of the late ’50s and early ’60s.  Then she had an experience of religious conversion, and her newfound Christianity increasingly became the lens through which she reported the subject matter of her work.  She became known as a Christian poet, and her reputation suffered from what was seen as an influence that limited her as an artist.  In some ways, though, her poetry sustained a continuous fidelity to a particular vision.  It was her means of invoking that vision that changed, even more than the changes wrought by her faith.  Here are some lines from a 1960 poem in which she’s describing snow:

“…All ways through the electric air
Trundle candy-bright discs; they are desolate
Toys if the soul’s gates seal, and cannot bear,
Must shudder under, creation’s unseen freight.”

Even with its off-rhyme and loose pentameter, the formal air of these lines is what’s most conspicuous.  She obviously took pleasure in the harmony achieved by the formal poem, possibly relishing its anticipation of the triumph of order over the confusions of unbelief.  Compare them with these lines from a poem almost 20 years later:

“But Goodness broke in, as the sea
satins in shoreward sun
washing the clutter wide away:
all my inventeds gone.”

Nature is still the fundament of creativity here, the nexus that leads to the illumination of mystery.  Rhyme and meter are utilized, but it’s ragged rather than regular.  Everything has been tightened, braided into a lash, her language reinvented and made more urgent.  Avison’s obscure and private early vision had apparently awaited a strong influence to give it a burst of clarity and definition.  It’s easy to see her conversion as the source of that light, as well as the influence of reading that other great Christian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, from whom she obviously assimilated a new tendency for inverted speech and daring word play.

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:

“You open your eyes to a lonely light.
Something not there you’d dreamed would be.
Utterly lost from all company you
yield to an absence from long ago
looking for pencil-tracings out on the
waiting wash of the lonely light.”

Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.

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