Avison, Margaret (Kirkland)

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AVISON, Margaret (Kirkland)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Galt, Ontario, 23 April 1918. Education: University of Toronto, B.A. in English 1940, M.A. 1964. Career: Worked for North American Life Insurance Company and Gage Press; editor, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, until 1945; staff member, registrar's office and library, 1945–55, and lecturer, for one year, University of Toronto; nursemaid, 1955; worker, Presbyterian Home Missions, Toronto; writer-in-residence, University of Western Ontario, 1972–73; staff member of archives division, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1973–78; staff member, Mustard Seed Mission, Toronto, from 1978. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1956; Governor-General's award, 1961, 1990. Address: 17 Lascelles Boulevard, Apartment 108, Toronto, Ontario M4V 2B6, Canada.



Winter Sun. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, and London, Routledge, 1960.

The Dumbfounding. New York, Norton, 1966.

Sunblue. Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Lancelot Press, 1978.

Winter Sun/The Dumbfounding: Poems 1940–1966. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1982.

No Time. Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Lancelot Press, 1989.

Selected Poems. Toronto and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Not Yet but Still. Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Lancelot Press, 1997.


History of Toronto. Toronto, Gage, 1951.

The Research Compendium, with Albert Rose. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1964.

A Kind of Perseverance. Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Lancelot Press, 1994.

Translator, with Ilona Duczynska and Karl Polanyi, The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary 1930–1956. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1963.

Translator, with Ilona Duczynska, Acta Sanctorum and Other Tales, by József Lengyel. London, Owen, 1970.


Bibliography: In The Annotated Bibiliography of Canada's Major Authors, vol. 6, edited by Jack David and Robert Lecker, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1985.

Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Margaret Avison" by Martin Wilson, in Canadian Literature, Autumn 1959; Margaret Avison by E.H. Redekop, Toronto, Copp Clark, 1970; 'Lighting up the Terrain:' The Poetry of Margaret Avison, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987, Margaret Avison and Her Works, Toronto, ECW Press, 1989, "Wholeharted Poetry; Halfhearted Criticism," in Essays on Canadian Writing (Toronto), 44, Fall 1991, and in ECW's Biographical Guide to Canadian Poets, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1993, all by David Kent; Waiting for the Son: Poetics, Theology, Rhetoric in Margaret Avison's 'Sunblue' by C.D. Mazoff, Dunvegan, Ontario, Cormorant Books, 1989; "The Avison Collection at the University of Manitoba: Poems 1929–89" by Margaret Calverley, in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 28, Spring/Summer 1991; "The Territory of Conscience: The Poetry of Margaret Avison" by R. Sullivan, in Literary Half-Yearly (Mysore, India), 32(1), January 1991; "Phoenix from the Ashes: Lorna Crozier and Margaret Avison in Contemporary Mourning" by Deborah Bowen, in Canadian Poetry, 40, Spring/Summer 1997.

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It is largely through the work of women poets such as P.K. Page and Phyllis Webb—and even to an extent Margaret Atwood—that a distinctly metaphysical strain has entered into modern Canadian poetry. The writer who perhaps most strikingly manifests this trend is Margaret Avison, and in her case the metaphysical element has been strengthened and shaped by a conversion experience that dominated her second volume, The Dumbfounding. This has since added a strong devotional tendency to her poetry and to her life, in which she seeks assiduously to bear witness to her Christianity.

Avison has been writing poetry since the 1950s, and although she did not publish her first collection, Winter Sun, until 1960, she had already attracted attention with the poems she had published in periodicals. In fact, her work was the subject of a major critical article (Milton Wilson's "The Poetry of Margaret Avison," in Canadian Literature [Vancouver], Autumn 1959) before she had a book in print. Avison has written sparingly and slowly (agonizingly slowly it seems), and by the late 1970s she had published only two further volumes, The Dumbfounding and Sunblue.

There was never a question of religious faith in itself making Avison a remarkable poet. What Rosemary Sullivan has called "the sophistication and beauty of her linguistic and imagistic gift" were, in fact, most evident at the time when she seemed to be moving away from the religious convictions of her youthful Ontario Methodist background; conversion (or reconversion) seems to have changed her poetry without necessarily enhancing it. The later poems have been more direct, perhaps because the poet ceased to be a searcher in unknown realms. Avison was no longer exploring the dark intricacies of her own mind or the uncertainties of the universe but now moved forward with the assuredness of revealed knowledge.

Many readers prefer the earlier, unconverted Avison. Her poems provide a challenge to those who seek to unravel their introspective intricacy, and they delight with their lambent visuality. Perhaps most of all, the poems project a sense of search and daring, a metaphysical gamble offered, for example, by "The Swimmer's Moment":

   For everyone
   The swimmer's moment at the whirlpool comes,
   But many at that moment will not say,
   "This is the whirlpool, then."
   By their refusal they are saved
   From the black pit, and also from contesting
   The deadly rapids, and emerging in
   The mysterious, and more ample, further waters.
   And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn
   Pale and forever on the rim of suction
   They will not recognize
   Of those who dare the knowledge
   Many are whirled into the ominous centre
   That, gaping vertical, seals up
   For them an eternal boon of privacy,
   So that we turn away from their defeat
   With a despair, not for their deaths, but for
   Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their secret
   Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth
   Where one or two have won:
   (The silver reaches of the estuary).

Those "silver reaches" beyond the whirlpool are the terrain of The Dumbfounding and Sunblue, and there is a sense, as the poems move through the conversion experience toward the orthodoxy that lies beyond ecstasy, of leveling off into smoother waters. It is there already in "The Dumbfounding," the title poem, in the stripped style as much as in the sense of spiritual certainty:

   Yet you are
   constant and sure,
   the all-lovely, all-men's-way
   to that far country.
   Winning one, you again
   all ways would begin
   life: to make new
   flesh, to empower
   the weak in nature
   to restore
   or stay the sufferer;
   lead through the garden to
   trash, rubble, hill,
   where, the outcast's outcast,
   you sound dark's uttermost, strangely light-brimming, until
   time be full.

Yet one knows that there are dark nights as well as "sunblue" days ahead, for such is the nature of the creative and spiritual life in a poet so naturally metaphysical as Avison.

—George Woodcock