Let’s read through Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.
Taking a break from the 20th century, we’re going to chat about a poetry collection from a famous author, who’s asking a very interesting question within her poems:
How many words does it take to tell a story?
Margaret Atwood (1939-) is a prolific writer in nearly every genre. She really doesn’t need me to give her an introduction. But if you haven’t read a book by Margaret Atwood, you could do worse than to start with her poetry. She started publishing poetry in the 1960s–and her first two books were award winners. She writes about the nature of dualities, about women and their treatment by society, and about grief. Her writing is pretty lean and very easy to read. She uses questions effectively throughout her poems and encourages readers to engage with difficult ideas. Dearly is her first new collection in over a decade, and uses fairy tales and songs to look at life, aging, and our connection with each other and the planet.
And if you are new to poetry–this is a great collection to start with–especially since it Atwood has enough bestselling weight to make an audiobook of her collection. It’s available on Libby from the San Francisco Public Library, and likely from your local library too. The audiobook is read by Atwood.
Plot abounds throughout these poems. Sometimes this is absolutely explicit such as in the pronouncement at the end of “The Tin Woodsman Gets a Massage”: “Let there be plot.” I think this commitment to plot, which is not always a common poetry element, makes Atwood’s work more approachable to readers who are used to reading fiction. There are narratives and stories woven into the poems.
It’s more common in poetry for narrative to be used as allusion. “The Tin Woodsman Gets a Massage” is a clear example of this–we’re expected to understand the reference so that the poet doesn’t have to explain the narrative but can instead allude to it and draw new comparisons and conclusions. Older poets (and Atwood herself) frequently draw on mythological or biblical stories to do this, more modern poets often reach to fairy tales, popular culture, and other stories. But the point is still the same–to use a comparatively well known reference to illuminate something personal. Atwood often uses these devices to make familiar things less familiar. Her speakers are extremely skeptical of appearances:
“The world that we think we see
is only our best guess.”
from “Walking in the Madman’s Wood”
One of the things I absolutely love about this collection is how much Atwood can communicate in three lines–an entire film as it turns out:
“The aliens arrive.from “The Aliens Arrive: Nine Late Night Movies”
They are smarter than us, and carnivorous.
You know the rest.”
She also makes great use of repetition, as in the poem “Souvenirs” the repetition of “remember” works really interestingly in this quote. It brings its own rhythm to the poem, but to me it also suggests an accompanying fear–that of forgetting. As if saying the word over and over again becomes a kind of spell or charm:
“But who is to remember what?from “Souvenirs”
It’s a cute cat hat, but you’ve never been there.
I can remember buying it
and you can remember that I once
remembered: I remembered
something for you.”
Also, can we take a second to appreciate the hard ka sound of “cute” and “cat” and then the sing-song rhyme of “cat” and “hat”?
Atwood’s poetry asks a lot of questions, and its generally really well done, but I think this example might be a rare overuse. What are your thoughts? Do we need all 3 questions here? All four lines? I think I would have stopped at two.
“Do we have goodwill?from “The Twilight of the Gods”
To all mankind?
Not any more.
Did we ever?”
I love the use of song language throughout the poems as well. But I think I’ve gushed enough. Margaret Atwood definitely doesn’t need me to plug her work, but I’ll do it anyway. Go and read Dearly!