Atwood review

I have a review of Margaret Atwood's The Door in this week's issue of The Peak. You can read it here. Thanks Peak!

The title they gave it misses the point a bit, which is more the fault of my poor communication than anything, I suppose (and reinforces that I should darn well stop submitting untitled things to people).

Unfortunately, they had to cut out the funnest part of the review, so here's the whole thing in it's original form:

I’d just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s new collection of poetry The Door, when Mike Hingston, The Peak’s Arts Editor, sent me a note asking me to rush my review in order to fill a space in an upcoming issue. I quickly started jotting down notes. My plan was to open with this excerpt from an Al Purdy poem (“Concerning Ms. Atwood“):

There is Margaret Atwood
—she is meeting Premier Peterson
in the Ontario Legislative Buildings
he is congratulating her
for being Margaret Atwood.

There is Margaret Atwood
—she is swinging a champagne bottle
against the bow of a super icebreaker
It winces noticeably from the blow
and escapes into the water
"My name is Henry Larson"

There is Margaret Atwood
—she is accepting the Nobel Prize
and reporters are crowding around
with tears in their eyes
asking why she is so marvellous
she replies simply and modestly
"I am Margaret Atwood"

I’d then go on to explain how I felt bad for the poems - not for Atwood, but for the poems themselves - because they aren’t terrible. Some of them are really quite good. If they were contained in a new poet’s debut collection I could see most people saying “A pretty good start” or something like that. But these poems have to carry the weight of being penned by the Queen of CanLit herself. They have to appear in a collection whose publisher’s promotional blurb describes them as “lucid yet urgent poems [which] range in tone from lyric to ironic to meditative to prophetic,” and as being “brave and compassionate.” I was going to point out that most of those terms have little connection to the poems in The Door. It doesn’t seem to matter what Margaret Atwood writes, if it is good, or awful, or, as in this case, mediocre. What matters is that Margaret Atwood writes it. In other words, it appears the publisher doesn’t even have to read the book to write the blurb. And that’s not fair for the little poems.

And little poems they are. Rarely “prophetic” or “brave,” they are instead mostly quiet and reflective musings. Generally speaking, they read like the love children of the poems of Wislawa Szymborska and Billy Collins, which makes for a comfortable, if not always challenging read. While some of the poems appear polished, many seem to go on far longer than necessary. Take, for instance, the opening to “Enough of these discouragements”:

Enough of these discouragements,
you said. Enough gnawed skulls.
Why all these red wet tickets
to the pain theatricals?
Why these boxfuls of ruin?
Whole big-block warehouses full.
Why can’t you tell about flowers?

But I did tell, I answer.
Petal by petal

Now that’s great stuff. Unfortunately, the poem continues for another four stanzas, adding little to that powerful opening image, and ending up overstretched and drained of its original energy.

My plan was to say all this and then ultimately defend the book, to say: look, I know people are going to slag this because it’s not as amazing as something touched by the divine, autograph-robot-constructing hand of Ms. Atwood ought to be, but that doesn’t mean it should be discarded. I was all prepared to conclude the review by saying that the poems in the collection will probably get a raw deal from most in the poetry world, but in reality, while they won’t change your life, they will still make for a good Saturday afternoon read.

But then Mike sent me an e-mail saying he had found something else to fill the spot, and I could relax for a while. So I did. A couple days later, my review still unwritten, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry nominees were announced…and whaddya know, The Door is, apparently, one of the top five Canadian poetry books of the year! Perhaps I would understand this if the judges’ only criteria were the hype in the press blurb and the glowing reviews of past works by The New York Times and Washington Post that appear on the dust jacket, but otherwise…geez. After all my concern that the hype would bury the book many feet deeper than it truly deserved, it turned out the hype had, in fact, worked.

So I thought of changing everything, of really ripping into the book and explaining that yes, great poetry is being written in Canada, and no, it is no longer being written by Margaret Atwood. But then, that’s not my point. Instead my point is that we shouldn’t be evaluating on, or responding to, images and reputations, but instead on the poems themselves. We shouldn’t assault the book simply because Atwood is an easy target, just as we shouldn’t nominate her for a GG that there is little question her book doesn’t deserve. Both are unfairly distortive.

So, ultimately, my conclusions are the same, GG or not. I still feel bad for the poems, perhaps more so. More significantly, I feel bad for us Canadian poetry fans for all the meaningless noise we have to endure in our search for some good poems. The poems in The Door make for an ok read - there is much better and there is much worse out there - and if that is enough for you, then I encourage you to check out a copy.cl


Anonymous said...

I wonder how, exactly, Atwood built up this whole mystique around herself. I find almost all of her work mediocre. I suppose it's better than the worst of the self-indulgent acanemic prose/poetry that haunts the Canadian journals and too many small presses, but I've yet to walk away from an Atwood piece saying 'wow.' Handmaiden's tale is about the closest she gets. But then again, I'm just a cynical, literary recluse with funny ideas about literature being 'real.'

Colin Stewart said...

The same thing happened with Atwood's last book, Oryx and Crake. Everyone was like "it's the next 1984!" after it came out, even though it was barely more than competent. Eh.

On that note -- I wrote an Atwood-related short story for my fiction class. My prof told me I could get sued for libel if I published it. I'll read it at the next open mic.