Technique and Awareness in Margaret Avison's Poetry: Diction, Sound, Impressionism, Syntax

by Brent Wood


Margaret Avison, one of Canada’s most technically accomplished poets, is also one of our most spiritually focused. Two strategies most prominent in Avison’s poetry are the defamiliarization of language through shifts in diction, self-conscious repetition of sound and unusual word-clusters, and the defamiliarization of experience through grammatical ambiguity, oblique description and out-of-context metaphor. Both these strategies are directed not only at conveying the poet’s "fancy" to the reader’s "inner eye," but at opening up the reader’s perceptual habits in general, at drawing attention to the role of the imagination in perception, at offering a kind of tutorial in active perception, and at providing a sense of validation or affirmation of similar kinds of experience that the reader might already be having, creating a sense of camaraderie based on awareness of the magic of simply existing that extends past the bounds of any particular theology.

Despite the orthodox Christian theology and ideology underpinning Avison’s work, there is considerable potential in her poetry for the inspiration of a creative awareness and self-awareness as a result of these techniques. This is but one aspect of Avison’s poetics, and certainly a fair critique of her work should also address her use of Christian (and, in Winter Sun, non-Christian) myth and metaphorical tension toward related ends. But, as Mullen notes in Choreia (1982), "since artists tend to work by taking apart the whole of reality and reassembling it according to the techniques of their art, purely technical considerations may be the surest threads to their labyrinths" (5). In Avison’s case, such an approach proves especially revealing.

This essay examines the relationship between Avison’s technical resources and her appeal to and inspiration of heightened awareness, with special attention to diction, consonance, metaphor and syntax. As Avison’s work has grown more subtle in its employment of these devices over time, it is often easiest to see these techniques in her earlier work. Because of the [Page 56] scholarly mindset which often expects logical coherence from the object of its textual analysis, and because of the difficulty in dealing with explicitly orthodox Christian poetry, criticism of Avison’s work has not always got to the heart of the way its technical essentials support its spiritually-derived principles. In this essay I revisit well-known poems from Winter Sun (1960), including "Snow" and "The Swimmer’s Moment," with an eye to offering a critical alternative to scholarly commentary to date, one that shows how diction, repetition of sound, and open-ended metaphor achieve Avison’s goals. I then discuss the defamiliarizing role of syntax, word-clustering and oblique reference with respect to the poems of The Dumbfounding (1966) and No Time (1989), with passing reference to those of sunblue (1976).

Diction, Sound and Impressionism in "Snow"

Ernest Redekop’s pioneering study Margaret Avison (1970) begins with a quotation from "The Apex Animal," the first poem in Winter Sun, the collection which put Avison firmly on the North American literary map, in which Avison describes the "narrow Head of the Horse": "It, I fancy, and from experience / commend the fancy to your inner eye" (Redekop 1; WS 17). Redekop observes that this single phrase serves to orient us toward Avison’s entire poetics. Her own imaginative engagement with experience is what is offered, and she finds ways of rendering it so that it may be appealing to the reader’s imagination, waking it out of its "idolatrous" slumber, as Owen Barfield might have it.

This is not only an aesthetic concern, Avison and Barfield both know, but a moral one. Barfield in Saving the Appearances (1957) uses the term "idolatry" to characterize the tendency to conceive of phenomena as the total of their sense-content and nothing more, thus elevating human perception to the status of ontology and making object-idols out of phenomena which in actuality possess qualities which are ultimately beyond our everyday modes of awareness. Barfield’s idolatry is characterized by a lack of awareness that the phenomenal world is largely of human creation, resulting in an attitude which not only hedonistically or manipulatively treats an object solely as its sense-content, but also in hubris and ignorance strips the world of spirit by assuming that no phenomenon is anything more than what it can be perceived to be within the limitations of human science. The promotion of the proactive imagination is a moral act, one Avison accomplishes not only through argument but by demonstration and [Page 57] through textures of sound and diction patterns which, although the logical faculty may ignore them, make themselves felt and heard.

The famous first lines of "Snow," written at approximately the same time as "The Apex Animal," convey this message more explicitly: "Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes. / The optic heart must venture: a jail-break / And re-creation" (WS 17). "Snow," particularly these opening lines, has drawn as much commentary as has the rest of Avison’s catalogue together. However, as the kind of awareness Avison is working towards communicating is not especially commensurable with verbal expression in general, never mind the logical strictures of academic argument, scholarship often provides an understanding of only a narrow portion of the poetry’s spectrum of radiance. That Avison’s poetry has received comparatively little criticism in comparison with the esteem in which it has been generally held is thus perhaps not to be wondered at but to be expected.

A case can be made for "Snow" as one of Avison’s most finely-wrought works, although it has not proved as popular with anthologists as it has with professors of English literature.1 Redekop’s book was the first to offer commentary on it. Ants Reigo (1977) responded to Redekop’s reading of the poem in Contemporary Verse II, arguing that his "literal" analysis had missed the forest for the trees. Curiously, no subsequent critic has made reference to Reigo’s article, nor does it show up in the bibliography of David Kent’s Margaret Avison and Her Works (1987). This is noteworthy because Reigo offers a valuable common-sense reading of the poem and a corresponding critique of Redekop’s lack-of-common-sense one.

Reigo’s reading of "Snow" is a prelude to a response to Daniel Doerksen’s (1976) argument that there is a marked contrast between Avison’s pre-conversion and post-conversion poems, the former implying a "seeker" who "has not found" (Reigo 16). Reigo offers his analysis of "Snow" as partial evidence for his counter-argument that the poems of Winter Sun do in fact reveal a wealth of spiritual experience, and that it is in fact the poems of the 1940s which contrast with those of Winter Sun. Reigo takes "Snow" as a demonstration that "the simple act of looking up into the falling snow and suffering the pain of over-exposure is an instance of transcendence and spiritual rebirth." "It is a case of seeing the world in a grain of sand. Avison advocates openness to experience and demonstrates that whole, honest experiencing of our own private physiological processes brings us into harmony with creation, even if only momentarily and at the cost of suffering and alienation. Her message is that anything "really experienced" is a way to the state of grace (16). The poem is not a logical progression, Reigo points out, with the imagistic portion providing [Page 58] evidence for the opening statements. Instead, "the argument…controls our perception of the experience presented: it generalizes it, increases its range of reference and multiplies its levels of significance, insuring our understanding of its seriousness and importance. The propositions are a centripetal device, containing and redoubling the energy generated in the mimesis" (16). Reigo observes that Redekop’s reading makes no reference to the "snow" of the title, and instead tries to link the many images that occur in the poem to one another as images, rather than as imaginative experiences of snow itself. Redekop’s analysis, he argues, "is that of a pointillist painting viewed from a distance of a few inches: the flecks of pigment have been noted, but have not been resolved into a picture; the colours have been isolated and named rather than optically mixed" (14).

Reigo describes the process of reading which he apparently has experienced, and which he feels is intended or typical. He argues that Avison is essentially "re-creating" her "meaning" rather than simply stating it; that she is "so much more concerned to communicate the quality of the experience than to specify its kind that we almost have to infer the kind from the quality" (14). In other words, the technique is "impressionistic" (14), sacrificing "easy understanding to presentational immediacy." The reading process, therefore, is a stumbling one, beginning with a disorientation which forces a re-reading in turn forcing a recognition of an apparent contradiction, all of which eventually leads to a resolution through the "discovery that the passage is in fact a re-creation of the dazzle of bright light, of the act of looking up into the falling snow." The lines Reigo specifically addresses are "The astonished cinders quake / with rhizomes. All ways through the electric air / Trundle candy-bright disks" (WS 17), but his observations continue in the same vein in discussion of the poem in its entirety.

Subsequent articles on "Snow," beginning with Francis Zichy’s (1978), display a markedly different interpretation. Zichy does not describe "Snow" as an instance of enlightened awareness, but of despair. As Michael Taylor (1979) and Robert Lecker (1980) rightly complain, Zichy spends most of his argument focused on the first few lines of the poem, his central point being that there is a kind of "violence" implied there, focusing on the use of the word "stuffs." Indeed, Zichy repeats the word "stuffs" or one of its variants five times during his discussion of the poem, while using the word "snow" only once. In contrast to Reigo’s reading, the title "Snow" seems merely incidental.

Taylor, in response, points out that "stuffs" does not seem to inspire in him the feeling of dread. "Stuffs," for him, cannot help but have associations [Page 59] with "overflowing boxes" and "over-full stomachs," hardly the kind of word to instill the kind of existential anxiety Zichy finds in the experience of the poem. "Stuffs" can indeed seem to represent an odd choice of diction for a dense little poem like "Snow," especially put up against Latin and Greek-derived words like "optic," "venture," "re-creation," "astonish," "asters" and "rhizomes," puns on "astonished cinders" and "asters/ starry" and poetic creations such as "rivery." However, it is not the individual words which matter here, but that very sense of contrast. It is not only the peculiarity of the image evoked by the phrase "chase rivery pewter" but the queerness of the phrase itself. Similarly, "trundle candy-bright disks" and "creation’s unseen freight" are curious as "trundle" and "freight" come with connotations of workaday heaviness rather than the magical lightness of their companions.

Zichy does not really acknowledge the role of diction in the poem, though he does make note of imagery and tone. In contrast to Reigo’s observation that the opening lines illuminate the subsequent cluster of images, Zichy begins by assuming an inherent "surface logic" in the poem which is undermined by the "imagery and tone." In other words, he expects to encounter statements which are logically apprehensible. In this view, the apprehended logic is then rendered problematic by the tone and imagery, whose function it is to modify that logic. The opening of "Snow" is a bald statement, one which is, in Zailig Pollock’s (1980) words, "the boldest, most straightforward in Avison’s work" (179), and therefore one which invites a reading like Zichy’s. It makes an assertion one can take issue with, evaluate, judge as either true or false.2 The rest of the octave is also composed of a series of simple assertions, ones which seem to make much less sense than the opening statement:

Sedges and wild rice chase rivery pewter.
The astonished cinders quake with rhizomes.
All ways through the electric air trundle candy-bright disks
They are desolate toys if the soul’s gates seal, and cannot bear, must shudder under creation’s unseen freight.

(WS 17)

It is typical of the logic-seeking mind to latch onto apparently logically-apprehensible statements, especially when attempting to make sense of a poem which largely appears to defy logic. Having at least something to grasp on to, Zichy then can begin to address the actual word-choices made by Avison, and he opts to focus on the word-choices made in that opening statement and the relation he perceives between those choices and the logic [Page 60] of the assertion itself. This is again in contrast to the approach taken by Reigo, in which the logic of the assertion is taken to apply to the subsequent series of assertions, to which, in conjunction with the title of the poem, it provides a key, rendering those latter assertions sensible.

In all this focus on logic, imagery and tone, however, the central element of delight in "Snow," and in much of Avison’s work, has been overlooked. "Stuffs" may have threatening connotations for Zichy, and pleasant, even comical connotations for Taylor, but what is most noteworthy about the word is in the way it fits into the remarkable, dense mosaic of sound and diction that Avison has created. "Stuff" is undoubtedly one of the most over-used words in common parlance, rivalling "like" for prominence in adolescent vocabulary; a word which, as a noun, has come to be synonymous with "things," both in describing objects and activities, as in "I have stuff to do." Phrases such as "the stuff of dreams" and the "the stuff of genius" seem to imply both "that which a shell is filled with" and the generalized meaning of "matter." As a noun it can imply valueless material, woolen fabric, drugs, or money; as a verb it can imply cramming, filling a turkey, eating to satiation, taxidermy, pushing hastily, forcing, nasal congestion, or illegally filling a ballot box. It is a word of many purposes, far from precise, a favourite in "vulgar" usage. Taylor suggests that Avison might have achieved the "threatening" effect better with "thrusts," but he does not note that "thrusts," because of the more precise nature which would allow it this effect, doesn’t fit the bill in terms of diction. "Snow" would suffer noticeably as a poem were "thrusts" its second word.

"Stuffs" may be our first clue that the play of diction is an essential part of the poem, but it is quickly followed by the recognition that the phrase itself "nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes" has a particular kind of character. "Your" is used not only to indicate "the reader’s" but also the more general "one’s" as part of the "vulgar" diction suggested by "stuffs." "At your eyes" as a phrase has this quality also. Avison could have written "into your eyes," but opts for the more colloquial, grammatically questionable "in at." "The world," although not suggesting any particular brand of diction on its own, is in the context of the rest of the line recognizably in this same vein. Avison could have written "reality," had she wished; "the world" instead is part of the same diction field in which one finds "your" instead of "one’s." In sum, the diction of the first line is unequivocally colloquial, yet there is little sense that it is intended to mimic realistic speech. Lines like "nobody else going to walk it for you," from an old folksong, or the expression "nobody’s going to hand it to you on a silver platter," are natural idiomatic expressions displaying something of the same attitude, [Page 61] but one can hardly imagine even a soap-box preacher using the line Avison creates. The image is startling, as Zichy suggests, but not so much because of a tone which implies violence as because of this surprising contrast between diction and subject matter. It is a case where the line balances between outright clumsiness and raw elegance, and we are not sure exactly how to take the contrast between the apparent profundity of the message and the choice of phrasing. "Tone," the term Zichy uses, implies a speaker, a character delivering these lines in a particular manner. By the third line, however, we are out of the realm of character altogether. In the first four lines there are at least four diction fields at work: vulgar speech, a precise language describing landscape, a technical vocabulary drawn from science, and a sophisticated "literary" diction. "Snow" is in this respect a close relative of A.J.M. Smith’s sonnet "The Wisdom of Old Jelly Roll." Whereas Smith effects a transformation from the "highfalutin’" to the down-to-earth over the course of his poem, Avison mixes the diction fields as she goes, creating a disorienting but ultimately beautiful counterpoint of styles foreshadowing a postmodernist aesthetic.

The curious progression of images begins in the second line. "Optic" is a Greek-derived, scientific, abstract term used as an adjective rather than a noun, as we would ordinarily encounter it. "Optic nerve" is the only common phrase in which we find it as an adjective, and here we have "heart" substituted for "nerve." It is not merely the images that are curious, however, but also the combination of words used to build them. "Venture" is another word associated with a sophistication of speech, but "jail-break" brings us right back into the vulgar. Since it is not capitalized, on first reading we may or may not experience "re-creation" as implying a Christian "creation," but when we encounter "sedges" we are once again out of commonplace diction and into something specialized. In conjunction with "wild rice" we momentarily expect a turn to precise descriptive language of a landscape, but the ungraceful neologism "rivery" disturbs that sense, and "pewter," an increasingly uncommon word, is out of the vocabulary of landscape altogether. "Astonished," its origins in "turned to stone" virtually lost, is also increasingly disused in North American parlance, but as a "literary" word it sticks out like a sore thumb between the concrete "pewter" and "cinders." This interweaving continues for the entire poem: words like "rhizome," "asters" and "petals" contribute to the landscape diction, "disks," "electric," "trundle" and "freight" add to the technical, "desolate toys" demonstrates a clash between the literary and the commonplace, and "starry," "soul’s gates" and "ring your change" bridge the gap between the literary and common by way of the implied cliché. [Page 62]

The repeated sense of surprise brought about by the unusual combinations of words and rapid shifts in diction refreshes every word as it is encountered, making the experience of these words as strange and new as the experience which is being described. Avison forces us to taste every word as if for the first time, making us aware of its sonic makeup and of the contrast between the conventional unimaginative ways we ordinarily use it and the much larger range of resonances which it potentially possesses. This rapid switching between different kinds of speech cannot help but affect the reader, whether consciously or unconsciously, yet not one of the scholars who have published critiques on "Snow" has even mentioned this aspect of the poem in passing, let alone considered it as an intentional structural principle. Here the mindset expecting logical discursive activity misses a central aspect of a poem, resulting in a debate about "tone" as if Avison were an ironic dramatist like Al Purdy, or T.S. Eliot.

The poet Stephanie Bolster offers some indication of what a poet sees in Avison’s style. In a brief essay in New Quarterly (1999), Bolster revisits "The Two Selves" from The Dumbfounding and notices the aspects of the poem which escaped her conscious awareness when encountering it in university ten years before:

Looking at it now, I see rhymes to which I was oblivious ten years ago in my devotion to free verse, and a care in word choice that must be a mark of deliberation, rather than inspiration as I thought then…. The phrases "crusted dry," "head-/level," "swivel," "linen sky," "scribbles his tracks," give the poem texture and save it from being simply a mystical ramble. Avison’s delight in language as language makes me eager to use "lintel," "escritoire," and "bicycle-tree" in poems of my own. Her placing of incongruous objects within one space reminds me of Joseph Cornell’s boxes; the space within which all these things/words can exist together is the poem, and the poem alone. The poem doesn’t simply inhabit a space, it creates one.    (Bolster 67)

Dense sound-patterning has also been a favourite tool of Avison’s in making poetry resonate on a non-logical level, and is also in extreme evidence in "Snow." The young George Bowering wanted music from Avison and music is precisely what he found.3 There is tendency toward alliteration and asymmetrical repetition even in most of her otherwise "free" verse which eschews repetition of pulse. In "Snow" we notice it in the sestet with "yellow Yangtze" and "rest may ring your change." "Yellow Yangtze" is the perhaps the more noteworthy, as "Yangtze" is said to mean "yellow" in Chinese. Avison, a master of vocabulary, surely must have been aware of this, yet opted for the redundancy. Here is thus a redundancy of meaning, [Page 63] initial consonant and rhythm. In other poems from Winter Sun there is a similar use of repetition. For example, "the massive flux massive Mantegna knew" ("Perspective" 32), "through the miles of night / across three nights of field and waterfront" ("The Apex Animal" 1), "The kind of lighting up of the terrain / That leaves aside the whole terrain, really" ("Voluptuaries and Others" 64), and "Whacks with his hockey-stick, and whacks / In the wet" ("Thaw" 39). These are but a few examples among many, standing out largely due to the apparent lack of emphasis on formal repetition which surrounds them.

Avison’s aesthetic depends not upon lack of repetition per se, but on an appearance of this which belies an internal dependence on it. Much of her poetry hides its internal orientation around consonance and assonance with an apparent emphasis on freedom from repetition in much the same way that a sonnet such as "Snow" belies its own rhyme scheme by severing phrasing from rhyme pattern. The sonnets of Winter Sun and the isolated instances of verbal redundancy are special cases in which the repetition is allowed a place in the rhetorical flow. "Snow" is especially amusing in this sense because its rhetoric is so apparently illogical that the repetition of sound ought to shine through easily, but is concealed by the apparent regularity of the sonnet form.

Let us listen closely to the sounds of "Snow." "Nobody stuffs" immediately presents the listener with assonance, as "body" is generally pronounced quickly enough to reduce the short "o" to a short "u" sound. "Stuffs" is itself an instance of consonance, beginning and ending with the same sound. "In at your eyes" provides an alliteration of stressed vowel sounds between "in" and "eyes," augmented by "at." There is consonance between "world" and "your," between "nobody" and "in," and between "at" and "stuffs." Part of the surprise of "optic" is due to the introduction of two new sounds, "p" and "c", sandwiched between the short "o" and "i" and the "t" we have already met. "Optic heart must venture" features consonance on "t", and "must" echoes "stuffs." "Heart" and "break" are related not only by sound, augmented by "venture," but by commonplace expression, and "jail-break" rhymes with itself. The "r" consonance continues with "re-creation," which features also an internal rhyme on the long "e". The poem’s first phrase, then, the phrase which has been the bone of so much logical contention, features no less than twelve instances of sonic repetition.

Let us listen to the subsequent phrases. "Sedges and wild rice chase rivery pewter" includes another echo of "stuffs," this time in terms of internal consonance on s/z, which continues through "rice" and "chase" and right [Page 64] through the subsequent lines in "astonished cinders," "rhizomes," "ways," "disks," "desolate," "toys," "soul’s gates seal," "shudder," "creation’s unseen," "soft," "is snow’s," "spins," "stasis," "that’s death’s," "asters," "quietness," "petals," "suffering," "starry," "rest" and "sad listener."4 "Chase" echoes the end-rhymes "jail-break" and "quake" and also "re-creation" and "ways." "Cinders" is a near-rhyme for "venture"; "electric" echoes "optic." The "r" sound occurs seven times in lines five and six: "rhizomes," "through," "electric," "air," "trundle," "bright," "are." The short "u" occurs five times in line eight, echoing the opening lines: "must shudder under" and "creation’s unseen," in addition to "but" and "colour" in line nine. "Creation’s unseen freight" features an internal rhyme on long "e", long "a" and short "u". "Sh" occurs in "creation" and "shudder."

This density of assonance and consonance is not accidental, nor is it incidental to the poem’s appeal. Even more remarkable is that it is executed in such a way as not to draw attention to itself except in a very few places, even to the extent that the end-rhymes are barely noticed. There is little repetition of word ("creation" and "your" are the only significant words repeated) and there are no alliterative strings longer than two.

Opening the sestet are a series of pairs: "soft" and "snow," "colour of mourning," "yellow Yangtze," "where the wheel" and "spins/stasis." The short "i" is highlighted in "spins," "indifferent" and "stasis," and seven "s"’s occur in this line alone, followed by two more at the opening of the subsequent line in "asters." "Tumbled" and "suffering" repeat the short "u", making thirteen instances of this sound in all. The sonnet closes with two more pairs: "suffering/starry" and "rest/ring." Here the sonic resolution is exceptionally pleasing, as the "s" and "r" which have constituted so much of the poem are re-stated in the multisyllabic near-rhyme "starry blur / listener," while "listener" echoes the "n" which has been introduced in the final line in "ring your change."

In addition to its delightful play of diction and sound, the sonnet, as Lecker puts it, "is about our ability to use imagination as a means to visionary creation," or, one might also say, heightened awareness. Lecker paraphrases the poem’s message this way: "Avison suggests that the world must not be received in the mimetic sense, but envisioned as if it were seen for the first time" (181). Perhaps Lecker’s use of "mimetic" is not entirely accurate, however. The question must be posed, mimetic of what? One can argue whether the description of "Snow" is best understood as a conscious fanciful excursion into the ways snow might be perceived by a lively imagination, or as an attempt at a faithful reproduction of the raw experience of [Page 65] snow stripped from habitual perception. In Barfield’s words, is this a conscious or unconscious "figuration"?

Reigo seems to argue for the latter, referring to Avison’s technique as impressionistic, which is to suggest that the artifice all occurs in conjunction with the attempt at putting the experience into words. However, "Snow" also exemplifies the argument Barfield makes in Saving the Appearances. Barfield points to the Impressionist painters as indicative of a movement towards the "liberation" of the image, arguing that they "were striving to realize in consciousness the normally unconscious activity of ‘figuration’ itself" (1957: 132). However, the real antidote to "idolatry"— "the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation and seek that for its own sake, transmuting the admired image into a desired object" (111)—is conscious imaginative experiencing rather than mere imaginative expression. The dizzying shifts of sound and diction in "Snow," rather than image, metaphor or tone, are primarily responsible for the poem’s potential to awake the reader to these possibilities.

Sonic Morphing and Open-ended Metaphor in "The Swimmer’s Moment"

Although "The Swimmer’s Moment" (WS 36), another popular poem from Winter Sun,5 does not feature the clashing shifts in diction characteristic of "Snow," there is nonetheless a noticeable contrast between the flowing literary diction of the final line and the poem’s colloquial, almost awkward opening. The ultimate line borders on the overly slick, and it is unlikely Avison would have written it later in her career. However, the asymmetrical sonic pattern and the unexpected diction shift between "silver" and "estuary" together with the sense that it is a metaphorical "estuary" somehow combine to energize the line.6 Like "Snow," "The Swimmer’s Moment" relies largely on patterns of "s" and "r" sounds to establish its sonic character, though augmented here by "w", "m" and "l". We hear all these five consonants in the first phrase, and the rest of the poem plays them out in various combinations, until the culmination in the rich final line. Only "m" has disappeared by the end of the poem, as has the principal actor, the swimmer, whose name was the occasion of its introduction; fittingly, the only "m" following the last reference to the swimmer, "them" in line 15, is in "anonymous" in line 19.

Throughout "The Swimmer’s Moment," too, is a submerged reliance on repetition, as virtually every word in the poem is linked sonically to [Page 66] another nearby it. "For" is linked by "r" to "everyone," which is linked by "w" to "swimmer," which is linked by "m" to "moment," which is linked by "t" to "at." "Whirlpool" is linked by "w" to "swimmer," and "comes" by "m" to this same pivotal word. The "m" continues to link "many" and the reiteration of "moment." "Will" is connected to "whirlpool," "not" to "moment" and "at that," "say" to "swimmer" and ahead to "this is," linked in turn to "the," "then," "their" and "they." "Refusal" is a near-rhyme for "whirlpool," as is "saved" for "say," and "everyone" for "comes" and "from." It is not until we get to "black pit" that we find a distinctive collection of sounds not intimately connected to their antecedents. However, in the very next line "rapids" echoes it, especially coming as it does on the heels of "contesting the deadly," which reiterate the "t" and "l" in addition to its own internal rhyme on the short "e". "Emerging in the mysterious, and more ample further waters" presents an interweaving of "m", "r" and the long "e" with more neutral sounds. The interlocking continues through the poem, leaving the word "suction" to stand out as one of the only important words in the poem not part of this pattern. "Turn and turn," "turn away" and "eternal" all echo one another; "bland-blank" and "faces turn and turn / pale" offer nearly symmetrical repetitions; "whirled" echoes "whirlpool," as does "seals up" and "boon."

There are other similarities between the two poems. "The Swimmer’s Moment" features the same kind of philosophical assertion that begins "Snow," but continues in a discursive vein rather than departing into poetic impressionism. This makes it a much easier poem to understand, prompting W.H. New to label it "obvious." While one might argue that the images in "Snow" are not metaphorical because they may be better understood as impressionistic, the whirlpool in "The Swimmer’s Moment" and the action that takes place around it are most definitely metaphorical. The question here is, given the vehicle, what is the tenor?

The temptation of the logically discursive mindset is to "fill in the blank" and thus complete the argument the poem appears to be making, which is precisely what K.M. Quinsey does in "The Dissolving Jail-Break in Avison" (1989). This essay uses the conceptual argument propounded in "Snow" as a launching point for a discussion of several other Avison poems, including "The Swimmer’s Moment." "Its pivotal metaphor," as Quinsey sees it, "equates the swimmer’s plunge with immersion in the world exposed by the freed imagination." Quinsey goes on to fit the remainder of the puzzle into place: "the poem indicates that everyone actually enters the water on the edge of the pool—the imaginative leap is taken by all, knowingly or unknowingly…in itself but a beginning, which can [Page 67] lead either to deeper imprisonment or to re-creation…. Instead of re-creation there is an eternal boon of privacy, an ironic gift, possibly of isolation arising from the altered vision and an inability to communicate it" (25). Quinsey notes that, in narratively relating the action, Avison places herself "not as one who has achieved a new vision, but as one for whom the decisive moment has not yet come" (26).

There is certainly no evidence to contradict Quinsey's assumption that the whirlpool in the poem is a metaphor for the imagination. On the other hand, neither is there any evidence to suggest that this is the preferred interpretation, as the entire poem is confined to a description of the action of swimmers interacting with a whirlpool. One naturally senses that something more must be meant by the poet, given that the description is not especially realistic and that some kind of mystery is implied within and beyond the whirlpool. Might the whirlpool not as easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a mystical experience, an encounter with God, a religious conversion, or a sweeping up by some supernatural force? Might it not be a figure for a kind of passage into another phase of life requiring awareness and bravery, even a rite of passage which offers itself spontaneously? Might it not be death, the ultimate transformative passage? That all these possibilities and more are present in addition to the interpretation Quinsey has fastened on is the poem’s source of metaphorical strength. By providing an intense ambiguity, it saves itself from the charge of "obviousness." As is the case with "Snow," Avison is, as Reigo put it, "so much more concerned to communicate the quality of the experience than to specify its kind that we almost have to infer the kind from the quality" (14). The logical tendency is naturally to read the poem as an allegory, interpreting the central image according to one’s knowledge of an ideology or philosophy, and then to use this as a key to then put the action and subsidiary images and characters into place. But this is to debase the poem, to project a logical, discursive framework onto it, and thus to simplify it, robbing it of its richness.

This technique of putting into words only the barest outlines of a story or scene and leaving the rest to be inferred by the reader is typical of Avison’s writing in Winter Sun. "New Year’s Poem" (WS 29) carefully depicts the details of winter morning scene, hinting at events which have already happened; "To Professor X, Year Y" (34) presents a mysterious gathering whose "explosive meaning" is never made explicit; "Our Working Day May be Menaced" (57), "The Agnes Cleves Papers" (78), "Prelude" (9) and "Thaw" (39) all seem to revolve around oblique connections between events in the present and those that have already happened, parts of which [Page 68] are told and parts of which are not. This elusive quality is achieved in different ways throughout Avison’s work including through the increasing use of unidentified speakers in The Dumbfounding, although, as has been noted, there is a tendency toward greater surety and less mystery in the post-conversion work, and a greater simplicity and directness in her later work especially. The effect of the oblique, ambiguous stories is twofold: to allow the reader to engage imaginatively with what is given, leaving space for resonance with his or her own thoughts, associations, feelings and flights of fancy, and to defamiliarize the material that is presented. Thus the commending of the poet’s fancy to the reader’s inner eye, as it were, is not quite so simple a process. Avison’s most effective technique is to present just enough material from a given angle to convince us that something is there and to stimulate our imaginations, but not enough to create a predictable imaginative reaction.

Syntax and Defamiliarization in The Dumbfounding and No Time

Another of Avison’s favourite sites for defamiliarization of both language and experience is syntax. Robert James Merret’s essay "Faithful Unpredictability: Syntax and Theology in Margaret Avison’s Poetry" (1987) makes the argument that Avison’s poetry in The Dumbfounding and in sunblue relies on using syntax "oddly" to create a kind of unpredictability. Though his principal claim that "from their grammar, Avison’s poems acquire theological substance" is something of a stretch, Merret quite reasonably argues that Avison’s mixing and matching of transitive and intransitive verbs, personal and impersonal constructions, and present and past participles is not mere stylistic play but signifies an underlying attitude towards reality. The gist here is that assumptions about what is active and what is passive, what past and what present, are questioned and eventually broken down, showing Avison’s experience of the world to be essentially non-materialist. Leaving aside the questionable assumption that an attitude toward material reality can justifiably be called "theological" in most circumstances, there remains a problem with the essay’s other pre-supposition: that the reader is expecting a certain kind of grammatical coherence when reading the poetry. Here Merrett’s essay displays the same tendency as the critical essays surveyed above: the tendency to treat the poetry as if it were an idiosyncratic version of the same kind of discourse as the scholarly essay itself. As a result, the observations made in the essay run the [Page 69] gamut from insightful to trivial, and some instances of unusual grammatical structure are overlooked. Only the most logically fastidious, unimaginative mindset, for example, could find it odd that the grass referred to in "Old…Young…" (D 9) is described as both "breathing" as if a living creature, and "shining" as if an object. The essay comments on the description of the tobogganing boy in "The Absorbed," noting the clustering of present participles in that section of the poem, while ignoring the much more enigmatically constructed part which precedes it.

Merrett does draw our attention to some of the grammatical patterns typical of Avison and chooses some noteworthy poems for analysis. One device he takes note of occurs at the beginning of "The Earth that Falls Away," describing a blindfold:

Brine-crusted, thread-knobbed,
odd-shaped scrap,
clay-soaked, wadded crooked,
(D 38)

Although Merrett’s analysis of the grammatical asymmetry of these compounds is interesting, surely what is unusual about this cluster is not that each compound differs slightly from its companions, but the very fact that they are clustered so densely together. Similarly, in Avison’s work as a whole, it is not the use of these sorts of compounds per se which is noteworthy, but the degree to which they appear and the uses to which they are put.

There are some instances of these compounds in Winter Sun, such as "candy-bright" from "Snow," "faery-false" and "lion-hearted" from "Intra-Political" (WS 44), and "rose-sweet" from "New Year’s Poem" (29) but they are infrequent and for the most part slip by as dense but relatively conventional metaphorical expressions. In the second section of "Meeting Together Of Poles and Latitudes (In Prospect)" (21), however, a series of them attract the reader’s attention: "vapour-trails," "cats-cradles," "bone-myth," "slumber-troubled," "myth-clay" and "scratch-happy." Here the first two are no more than conventional expressions for familiar sights, but they do prepare the way for the enigmatic quality of "bone-myth" and "myth-clay" and the rhyming "slumber-troubled" and "scratch-happy," which begin to look like the "kennings" of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

"The Absorbed" (D 34), the first poem composed for The Dumbfounding, is, as Merrett notes, filled with such compounds. Again, some are conventional, but others are surprising and unusual combinations, such as [Page 70] "frost-lumpy," "slope-sheen," "dry-thorn" and "grape-white." "Frost-lumpy" evidently signifies snow made lumpy by thawing and freezing. A toboggan slope certainly has a certain kind of sheen, but "slope-sheen" seems to create a new category of "sheen" just for it. "Dry-thorn" might be read as "dry as a thorn," but then why not "thorn-dry," as in "frost-lumpy"? Furthermore, who thinks of thorns as being especially dry? "Thorn," in addition to its Christian connotations, here may describe the sharp, painful sensation of cold, dry air in the nostrils. Thus the metaphorical relation is only implied; once again, one must infer the event from its quality. "Grape-white" is explicitly metaphorical, but like "frost-lumpy" it is an unusual and striking instance of this, as grapes are almost always green or purply-red.

The majority of the poems in The Dumbfounding feature newly-created compounds of one type or another, and the liberal use of these continues through sunblue and No Time. They are most noticeable when clustered, when presenting an unusual or implicit metaphor, or when condensing a longer expression into a short, distinctive rhythmic unit consisting mainly of strong stresses. It is worth noting that they are most noticeably absent or of lesser importance in the explicitly Christian poems, which tend to revolve around myth, metaphor, and scripture. "A Nameless One" (D 97) begins with a description of the insect made up of three compounds each of which uses nouns turned into past participles as the second term: "a narrow winged / long-elbowed-thread-legged / living insect." This delightful descriptive cluster sets up the compound which is the focal point of the final stanza: "insect-day." This latter is composed of two nouns, the first of which modifies our reading of the second; the day is still what we know as a day, but it has become charged with the significance of a lifetime. Here the condensed expression is critical to the effectiveness of the poem. The two small things, day and insect, put together make the day appear relatively great, and the condensed expression of this becomes similarly a foil for the wonder and greatness of a lifetime.

In The Dumbfounding one may find repeated unconventional compounds in "Pace" (12), "The Word" (56), "Words" (23), "Old… Young…" (9), "Micro-Metro" (16), "July Man" (22), "Natural/Unnatural" (83), "Janitor Working on a Threshold" (78) and "Christmas: Anticipation" (93). The clustering effect is at its most extreme in "Micro-Metro." Homes are "ivy-towelled, lonely-sunned, / lawn-folded, hedge-hid"; the "road-grid" is "grease-dapper"; the park displays a "grass rug, tree drape", in which the italics force the stress on the initial term in the same way the hyphen does; bandsmen litter the slopes with "parade-silks, match-papers" and play [Page 71] "route-rallying drums." The conventional compounds "foot-paths," "band-stand" and "wrought-iron" are highlighted by their unconventional neighbours, and our attention is drawn to the compound structure of these taken-for-granted terms as if they were newly coined. Here again the desired effect is the defamiliarization of both language and experience as we attempt to translate Avison’s dense combinations of otherwise simple terms into imagination.

In dispensing with the full metaphorical or descriptive expressions, Avison not only achieves the economy a poem like "Micro-Metro" demands, but alters the imaginative vision of the reader. "Covered by ivy that hung like towels, standing alone in the sunlight, folded in by lawns and hidden by hedges" might be the prosaic version of such a description, and not a bad one at that. Avison’s condensed version has turned all the verbs to de facto adjectives, so that the picture is presented as an immediate impression, a quick snapshot without action, without a past. Furthermore, the significant aspect of the metaphor implied by "ivy-towelled" is not specified; in my prosaic version I only assume it has something to do with how the ivy hangs, which might not have been Avison’s intention at all, nor the interpretation it deserves, and which moreover reduces the range of potential imaginative vision. As in "A Nameless One" and "The Absorbed," there is nothing unusual going on in the poem; there is little action, and nothing out of the ordinary being described. But our imaginative impression of the familiar becomes open to unfamiliar feelings and interpretation.

Among the best later examples of this technique occur in "Crowd Coralling" (NT 101) and "Early Morning (Peopleless) Park" (NT 92) from No Time. This volume continues the general trend toward simultaneous condensation and simplification of style, and these two poems are indicative of this. In "Crowd Corralling" the kind of pattern seen in "Micro-Metro" is condensed still further, with no pure verbs at all, only a single preposition repeated ("in"), and the compounds "tin-brim," "grass-soak" and "go-holes" made up of one syllable words derived from Anglo-Saxon. In fact the only Latin-derived words in the entire poem are "people," "uncontrollable," "beautiful" and "power." The compounds "sheepdogging skypower" sum up the poem’s main subject and again form a kind of kenning, the sense of which is bolstered by their alliteration and by the poem’s reliance on words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Here is a poem which presents no action at all, yet conveys a sense of intense, active power.

"Early Morning (Peopleless) Park" features another related strategy, which is to take a word normally used as a noun and employ it as a verb; [Page 72] in this case, as the past participle "roomed." "Room" can be used as a verb in ordinary speech, but not normally in a transitive sense. "Rich" here also seems to be both noun and adjective, another grammatical ambiguity regularly employed by the poet, also evident in "are felt." The compounds here, "bright-dangled," "grass-mat" and "cushion-whispering," again display the range of use to which Avison puts the device, including internal assonance and consonance, unexpected combinations, and ambiguous grammatical connection between the two terms. Non-hyphenated combinations which resonate with these, with much the same function, are "paw pads" and "sungold."

The poem’s final line, like the final line in "Crowd Corralling," sums up its central thrust, and the raison d’être of many of the techniques of defamiliarization discussed here. "Rich" is arguably the most accurate word to describe the quality of experience Avison usually attempts to convey (in "Old… Young…" the light of sunset is "mahogany-rich"); "touch" is the kind of contact whose immediacy and intimacy Avison wants most to approach through her mainly visually-descriptive poems; and "only" and "now" highlight the most important aspect of a fully-aware being: attentiveness to the intensity, singularity and magic of the moment.




  1. Gary Geddes left it out of his 1969 Oxford anthology15 Canadian Poets and A.J.M Smith left it out of the Oxford collection he edited in 1967. It has never shown up in the Norton anthologies, nor the Gage, nor any of the Christian anthologies. Milton Wilson included it in his McClelland and Stewart collection of 1964, but subsequent M&S publications have left it out. The Oxford first included it in 1973, and again in the Oxford Book of Canadian Poetry edited by Atwood in 1982. Penguin included it in 1975, and the Holt, Rinehart and Winston collections of 1972 and 1973, edited by Eli Mandel and Paul Denham respectively both included it. The Heath Introduction to Literature, Canadian Edition, from 1980 uses it as an example of the sonnet form. [back]

  2. It is not alone, however, amidst Avison’s other poems. Straightforward assertions, either propositional or descriptive, make up a vast proportion of Avison’s work, particularly in Winter Sun. "Tennis", "The Swimmer’s Moment" and "Voluptuaries and Others" all begin in this same fashion. Even her later work continues with this format at times, as in "The stuff of flesh and bone / is given, datum" ("Light (I)", sunblue 59). Other poems from Winter Sun offer descriptive assertions: "The Christmas twigs crispen and needles rattle / Along the windowledge" ("New Year’s Poem" WS 29); "The square for civic receptions / Is jammed" ("To Professor X, Year Y" WS 24). [back]

  3. See Bowering’s "Margaret: A Vision" in Kent 1987. [back]

  4. There are a total of 45 instances of the "s" sound and its adjuncts "z" and "sh" out of a total of 266 total consonant-events in the poem. Even given that "s" is one of the most [Page 73] common vowel sounds in English, this consonance level, roughly 17%, is remarkable and beautiful. A secondary consonance in the poem is "r", occurring 32 times, or 13%.These two consonant sounds, two of twenty-five possible, thus make up nearly one-third of the total number of consonant sounds in the poem. By way of comparison, Spenser, the master of assonance and consonance, achieved 19 instances of the long "a" in Amoretti 75, and 15 of the long "i", largely by repetition of the word "I" and by making these two vowel sounds part of the interlocking Spenserian rhyme scheme. These instances of assonance comprise, respectively, roughly 14% and 11% of the total number of vowel events in that sonnet, comparable to the situation in "Snow" where two of the twenty-two possible vowel sounds make up 25% of the total vowel-events in the poem. Although Spenser’s poem is packed with consonance, it is generally in the form of localized alliteration, and there is not the overall sense of sonic "hue" generated by a continued use of a given sound throughout the poem, although the sibilants do occur 28 times out of the total of 224 consonant events, or 12%.

        As another point of comparison, "The Wisdom of Old Jelly Roll" features 40 instances of the sibilant sounds, but only 18 instances of r, the second most common sound, out of a total of 239 consonant events, or 17% and 7% respectively. Note here that the number of consonant events in "Snow" significantly exceeds the number in the two comparison poems, indicative of Avison’s predilection for consonant clusters. Closer in numbers is Malcolm Lowry’s "Delirium in Vera Cruz," which features 37 instances of "r" and 32 instances of "s"/"z"/"h" of a total of 265 consonsant events, a ratio of 14% and 12% respectively. Note that both Lowry’s and Smith’s poems include extra syllables in the last lines. "The Swimmer," a poem of similar length, though not a sonnet, by Avison’s contemporary Irving Layton features 57 sibilants of a total of 358 consonant events, a ratio of 16%. [back]

  5. It has been anthologized slightly more often than "Snow": Geddes, Denham, Bowering, David and Lecker and Houtman’s Christian anthology include it, while Atwood, Wilson, Mandel, Smith, Klink, Daymond, Gustafson, Brown and the Norton anthology pass it over. Either Avison or her editors at Norton chose to include it among the four poems from Winter Sun republished in The Dumbfounding. [back]

  6. "Where one or two have won" employs a homonym and a repetition of "r", and the punch-line "the silver reaches of the estuary" glows with three long "e"s and three "s"s, the "e"s on strong-weak-weak and the "s"s on strong-weak-strong, two "v"s (weak-strong), three "r"s (weak-strong-strong), two "the"s, two short "e"s and an echo of "two" from the previous line. [back]


Works Cited


Avison, Margaret.The Dumbfounding. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966

——. No Time. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1989.

——. Not Yet but Still. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1997.

——. Selected Poems. Toronto: Oxford, 1990.

——. sunblue. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1978.

——. Winter Sun. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957. [Page 74]

Bolster, Stephanie. "Myself and ‘The Two Selves’." New Quarterly 19.3 (1999): 65-7.

Bowering, George. "Margaret: a Vision." Lighting Up the Terrain: the Poetry of Margaret Avison. Ed. David Kent. Toronto: ECW, 1987. 42-6.

Calverley, Margaret. "‘Service Is Joy’: Margaret Avison’s Sonnet Sequence in Winter Sun." Essays on Canadian Writing 50 (1993): 210-30.

Doerksen, Daniel. "Search and Discovery in Margaret Avison’s Poetry." Canadian Literature 60 (1974): 7-20.

Kent, David. Lighting Up the Terrain: the Poetry of Margaret Avison. Toronto: ECW, 1987.

——. Margaret Avison and Her Works. Canadian Writers and Their Works. Ed. Jack David and Robert Lecker. Toronto: ECW, 1988.

——. "Wholehearted Poetry; Halfhearted Criticism." Essays on Canadian Writing 33 (1991): 67-78.

Lecker, Robert. "Exegetical Blizzard." Studies in Canadian Literature 4 (1979): 180-84.

Merrett, Robert James. "Faithful Unpredictability: Syntax and Theology in Margaret Avison’s Poetry." Lighting up the Terrain: the Poetry of Margaret Avison.Toronto: ECW Press, 1987. 82-110.

Mullen, William. Choreia: Pindar and Dance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton, 1982.

Pollock, Zailig. "A Response to Michael Taylor's ‘Snow Blindness’." Studies in Canadian Literature 4.1 (1979): 177-84.

Quinsey, K.M. "The Dissolving Jail-Break in Avison." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 25 (1989): 21-37.

Redekop, Ernest. Margaret Avison. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1970.

——. "sun/Son light/LightL Avison’s elemental sunblue." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 7 (1980): 21-36.

Reigo, Ants. "Margaret Avison and the Gospel of Vision." Contemporary Verse II 3 (1977): 14-19.

Taylor, Michael. "Snow Blindness." Studies in Canadian Literature 3 (1978): 288-90.

Zichy, Francis. "‘Each in His Prison/Thinking of the Key’: Images of Confinement and Liberation in Margaret Avison." Studies in Canadian Literature 3 (1978): 232-43.

——. "Response to Robert Lecker’s ‘Exegetical Blizzard’ and Michael Taylor’s ‘Snow Blindness’." Studies in Canadian Literature 4 (1979): 177-79. [Page 75]