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.
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.
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.
'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.'
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.
'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.'
'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.'
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.