Woman, Land and Nation

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Woman, Land and Nation

The word “ecocriticism” was probably first used in William Rueckert’s essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism” (1978) and was subsequently accepted in critical vocabulary when Cheryll Glotfelty, at that time a graduate student at Cornell, revived the term in the meeting of the Western Literature Association in Coeur d’Alene in 1989, and recommended the use of the term to refer to the scattered critical field that had been known as “the study of nature writing.” Glotfelty defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies.” He further states that “. . . all ecological criticism shares the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it. Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnections between nature and culture, specifically the cultural artifacts language and literature.

As a critical stance, it has one foot in literature and the other on land; as a theoretical discourse, it negotiates between the human and the nonhuman.” (Glotfelty xviii). Simon Estok argues that ecocriticism is more than “simply the study of Nature or natural things in literature; rather, it is any theory that is committed to effecting change by analyzing the function–thematic, artistic, social, historical, ideological, theoretical, or otherwise–of the natural environment, or aspects of it, represented in documents (literary or other) that contribute to material practices in material worlds” (Estok 16-17). Thus it may be stated that ecocriticism tends to analyze the analogies between ecosystems and imaginative texts and posits that such texts potentially have an ecological (regenerative, revitalizing) function in the cultural system (Zapf ). Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) – Canada’s extraordinary woman of letters – has made her reputation as much by being versatile as by being controversial. Atwood’s poem reflects a post-modern emphasis on language as constitutive of reality, the forms are discontinuous, and her thematic focus is on almost all the central issues: revisioning and remythologizing the past, politics, peace, ecology, victimization, survival, and the complex web of human relationships. A writer of international prominence, Atwood is at the same time a poet, novelist, critic, and short-story writer.

The conventional readings of Atwood centres round her projection of woman characters in her novels, the social constructions, her concepts of victimization and survival and her yearning to earn identity for women and Canada as a nation. With the growing concern over environmental issues and the role of literature, Atwood becomes more and more pertinent because of the profound ecological implications in her works which clearly reflects Atwood’s ecological thoughts concerning human-nature relationship. Margaret Atwood, the daughter of Carl and Margaret Killam Atwood, was born on 18 November 1939 in Ottawa. She is the second of three children in a family with strong cultural roots in Nova Scotia. Atwood also spent a large part of her growing up in the wilderness of northern Quebec, where her father, a professional entomologist, pursued his research. Even after settling in Toronto in 1946, Atwood continued to visit the northern woods in summer along with her parents. This childhood experience in the Canadian wilderness provided the background for her nature verse.

Atwood’s first book of verse, Double Persephone was published in 1961 and was awarded with E.J.Pratt Medal that year. This small collection of verse is focused on the doubleness inherent in the classical myth of Persephone as well as of the diagramming of the world in terms of two parts. The title poem conveys a sense of the world where there is the contrast between art and life, the static and kinetic. In 1966, Atwood’s second collection of verse, The Circle Game appeared and received a Governor General’s Award in that year. The poems of this collection received the international attention because of their subject and tone. With the publication of The Circle Game, Atwood became a major voice in the feminist debate over personal relationships. The same paradoxical duality of process and product, performer and performed, creator and creation, is the central concern of Atwood’s next volume of verse, The Animals in That Country (1968). One of Atwood’s most fascinating books of verse, The Journals of Susana Moodie (1970), is based on narratives of the life of the Canadian pioneer lady of letters Susana Moodie.

Moodie provides Atwood with a persona of exploring the dichotomies of colonial Canada. In her next collection of verse, Procedures for Underground (1970), there are a number of poems dealing with family history and Atwood also extends her subject matter to include the nature and the role of the artist. With the publication of Power Politics (1971) and You Are Happy (1974), Atwood’s public visibility increased. In Power Politics, Atwood voices the woman’s concern for carving out a female space in the patriarchal structure of the society; she projects woman as victim who is denied from her own identity. Love between man and woman is a game of power where man colonizes and consumes the flesh of woman. In the “Circe/ Mud Poems” of You Are Happy, there is a transformation of this relationship where the woman protagonist rejects the traditional roles of women and prefers the love and relationship with man on the ground of equality and compassion.

In Two-Headed Poems (1978), Atwood returns to a concern that first emerged in Survival (1972): the complexities of being Canadian. The poems of this collection also reflect many of the themes Atwood was exploring in her prose writings and novels. In True Stories (1981), art and life meet and conflict. Interlunar (1984) opens with a series of “Snake Poems” which reiterate the central preoccupation of Atwood: victimization. Women, like snakes, suffer from the preconceptions, superstitions, untruths, and violence of others. Themes of death and power, violence, usually against women, remain the central motif in this series of poems. From Double Persephone (1961) to Interlunar (1984), during this period of her literary career, Margaret Atwood moved from a reliance on the conventions of traditional lyric poetry to an accomplished ease in the prosodic conventions of her contemporaries. Likewise, her thematic focus also changes with that ease from Canadian nationalism to Modernism; ecology to politics; victimization to survival. Margaret Atwood is both a satirist and a seer.

She holds a mirror up to our times, whose multiple refractions challenge our definition of reality, and more importantly, demand that we change those worlds in which we live. For Atwood sees clearly where the humanity stands with all its clutter, its mess; and the satirist Atwood reflects it through her poems. In Atwood’s first book of verse, Double Persephone the paradox established by the contrast between dynamic, natural, creative process and static, unnatural, created product generates many of her later poems: Two-Headed Poems, Procedures for Underground, The Animals in that Country and most powerfully in Power Politics. The same paradoxical duality of process and product, performer and performed, creator and creation, is the central concern of Atwood’s next volume of verse, The Animals in That Country (1968).

In the poem ‘Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein’, “the poet becomes a performer with a scalpel, skilled and controlling; but the poet is also a creator who questions the validity and effects – on himself and on others – of his creation.” (Hutcheon 21) In ‘The Reincarnation of Captain Cook’, the explorer, in his old age, realizes that his mistake or failure lies in acknowledging the names, maps, the history that preceded him on his voyages, thereby making his discoveries of “a known / land, a country.”, already ordered by man. The “animals in that country” are dead or domesticated, or hunted. “This” country, in contrast, is the living, unknown one where animals still die, but their deaths, like their births, are part of the natural process of life.

“Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” is viewed as a parable of Canadian settlement, documents an early settler’s failure to win a place for him from the bush. The poem begins with the paradox of the pioneer imprisoned by space, “with no walls, no border / anywhere”. He shouted at the wilderness, “Let me out!” The settler tries to impose an order on the wilderness but he fails and goes insane: “the green / vision, the unnamed / whale invaded”. The poem is also viewed as a futile effort of Canadian woman to find a space in the wilderness of male-dominated society. “A Fortification” is a poem of self-disclosure through metaphor of concealment. The garrison-mentality theme of the poem, in which man, ironically, is held “safe” from nature:

I have armed myself, yes I am safe: safe:
the grass can’t hurt me.
My senses swivel like guns in their fixed sockets:
I am barriered from leaves and blood.
One of Atwood’s most fascinating books of verse, The Journals of Susana

Moodie (1970), is based on narratives of the life of the Canadian pioneer lady of letters Susana Moodie. Moodie provides Atwood with a persona of exploring the dichotomies of colonial Canada. The book is divided into three sections or “Journals” presented in Moodie’s voice. “Journal I”, is concerned about the years 1832 to 1840, recounts Moodie’s arrival in Canada and the inevitable alienation of this cultivated young Englishwoman from the people and the new land. It seems that Moodie at first lost herself in the wilderness of Canadian bush and it also marks the loss of her self. She:

entered a large darkness.
It was our own
ignorance we entered.
(“Further Arrivals”)

But her struggle for survival in the bush changes her. In the poem “Departure from the Bush”, she is almost ready to accept the wilderness of Canadian nature, but she still requires man-made lamps to see in the dark, though she does know the fact that: “I need wolf’s eyes to see / the truth” (‘Further Arrivals’). When she leaves the wilderness she feels that she is losing something she did not yet have: There was something they almost taught me

I came away not having learned.

The second journal covers the period 1840-1871, Moodie’s years in Belleville, and concerns about her reflections on society and her experience on her years in the bush. She recounts her bush life in which the violence of nature, the identity of hunter and victim, and her acknowledgment that man is both part of nature and also alienated from it, allows Moodie to accept the duality of life in the Canadian bush. At last Moodie accepts the land as the tomb of the fruit of her womb. The poem “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” ends with: “I planted him in this country/ like a flag”.

The third journal covers the period 1871-1969, that is, to the poet’s present. Atwood adds further dimension of doubleness, the literary dead Moodie is transformed in the poems into a creative energy and irrepressible spirit of the land upon which the twentieth century structures of man rise. In the last poem of the journal, “A Bus Along St. Clair: December”, Moodie is presented as an old lady on a bus in Toronto teaching the reader to see the wilderness both beneath and within the city.

In her next collection of verse, Procedures for Underground (1970), there are a number of poems dealing with family history and Atwood also extends her subject matter to include the nature and the role of the artist who is essentially a woman and the poems deal with the response of the artist to Canadian wilderness. Atwood has said that the title poem, taken from Northwest Coast Indian mythology, is “one of the few poems I’ve written about the creative process . . . and I do see it as a decent to the underworld.” (Sandler 10) The underground reverses our perceptual expectation: the sun is green, rivers flow backwards, the traces and rocks are shifted from their locations, and the inhabitants are perpetually hungry. If the artist returns safely to this world she will return with “wisdom and great power”, but not without pain.

The artist’s underground knowledge brings heightened, at times terrifying, sensitivity to the violence implicit beneath ordinary surfaces. Images of diving, of figures rising from the water or appearing in it, also reminds of Atwood’s second novel Surfacing (1972): not surprisingly, because when Procedures for Underground appeared, Atwood was in the process of writing Surfacing. In “Three Desk Objects” she reflects on the evolution of human-kind, entailing so many struggles (wars and deaths), before clocks, electric type-writers, and lamps could be invented. Seeing these objects, she says:

I am afraid to touch you
I think you will cry out in pain
I think you will be warm, like skin.

Again, Atwood’s earlier books are recalled in the images of the menacing game and of the free and caged beasts in, for example, “Dreams of the Animals”. However, in Procedures for Underground stasis and order are seen as both necessary and endangered by nature: houses are protective but can burn down, and the melting snow is responsible for “undermining the road”. The emphasis, though, is not only on the dangers of (and to) the static rational orders of man’s constructs, but also on the possibility of presenting the dynamic within the static: ‘seeing the ice/ as what it is, water’.” (Hutcheon 23)

In Two-Headed Poems (1978), Atwood returns to a concern that first emerged in Survival (1972): the complexities of being Canadian. The poems of this collection also reflect many of the themes Atwood was exploring in her prose writings and novels. In Two-Headed Poems, Atwood continues to explore the doubleness within: of the heart that says, “I want, I don’t want”, and the doubleness of Canada as a nation. The epigraph of the section entitled “Two-Headed Poems” is:

The heads speak somethings singly, sometimes
together, sometimes alternately within a poem .
Like all Siamese twins, they dream of separation.

Atwood’s central concern in Two-Headed Poems is the predicament of woman in the patriarchal structure of Canadian society. In The Circle Game and Power Politics, the woman is projected as a being whose flesh is colonized, whose eyes are captured behind mirrors and whose words are helpless. In You Are Happy, the relationship between man and woman is tended to be on the ground of equality and compassion. In Two-Headed Poems, there is further movement of transformation where the woman moves beyond her function as mirroring object, and assumes her historical identity as woman: the woman becomes the agent of history rather than its victim:

As for the woman, who did not
want to be involved, they are involved.
It is that blood on the snow
which turns out to be not
some bludgeoned or machine-gunned
animal’s, but your own
that does it.

In True Stories (1981), art and life meet and conflict and the poems of this collection also reflects Canadian woman’s response to wilderness. The art and life conflict in the realm of love and it shows a kind of movement in Atwood’s response to the subject: Screw poetry, it’s you I want,

your taste, rain
on you, mouth on your skin.
( “Late Night” )
Art and life also engaged in conflict in the realm of politics:
How can I justify
this gentle poem then in the face of sheer
horror?
( “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice” )

“Small Poems for the Winter Solstice” is a series of love poems included in True Stories – projects the brutality, the ‘true stories’ of the world. The final poem in the series is a meditation on the power of the poet, quite unlike the traditional love poetry in which the apotheosis of beloved is to exist in a poem. The poet here, opts for life with all its dirtiness and clutter, and she incorporates herself with it.

The middle section of this collection, as well as a poem series within it, is called “Notes Toward a Poem That can Never Be Written”. The poems of this series express the horror and brutality of the events described. These poems are evidence, better, grim, and direct; it seems that these poems have deliberate designs on the reader; they say, “I accuse”. The brutality described in “A Women’s Issue” is deliberate and stunning. The series concludes with the disclosure of the speaker’s sense of involvement in the infliction of suffering and her response to vast unrequited wilderness:

This forest is alien
to me, closer than skin,
unknown, something early
as caves and buried, hard

a chopped stone knofe, the
long bone lying in darkness
inside my right arm : not
innocent but latent.

Affiliated with the 1980s with the human rights organization, Amnesty International, Atwood’s preoccupation with the brutality and irrational barbarity of the world as well as the fragmentation of human mind in this chaotic situation is obvious in this collection of poems. George Woodcock has observed that the poems read “like verse abstracts of the more harrowing sections of Amnesty Inter national reports.” (Woodcock 139)

Interlunar (1984) opens with a series of “Snake Poems” which reiterate the central preoccupation of Atwood: victimization. Women, like snakes, suffer from the preconceptions, superstitions, untruths, and violence of others. Themes of death and power, violence, usually against women, remain the central motif in this series of poems:

A peach in boiling water
This is a domestic image.
Try: soft moon with the rind off.

In poems such as “Reading a Political Thriller Beside a Remote Lake in the Canadian Shield” and “The Words Continue This Journey”, the poet’s central concern is obviously on Canadian woman’s response to wilderness as well as issues concerning human rights and the writing of poetry. Interlunar suggests that the two modes of verse and fiction may not be easily separable and it reveals the perfect medium for Atwood, the poet-novelist.

The ecocritical reading of her poems reveals that Atwood makes a parallel study of Canadian wilderness along with the position of woman in the traditional Canadian patriarchal society. It is also to be noted that Atwood herself has many times raised the voice for the protection of Canadian wilderness. “For an author who spent so much time plumbing the metaphoric qualities of the land, it is surprising to see how pragmatic Atwood is about wilderness preservation” (Hatch 197). Again in Wilderness Tips, Atwood portrays how the nature takes revenge upon those who declare themselves eco-friendly but they actually threaten the natural by refuting its richness. So Atwood, both in her poetry as well as in prose writings, depicts the contradictory human attitudes towards nature and thus has become a powerful voice of environment preservation.

Works cited:

1. Estok, Simon C. “Shakespeare and Ecocriticism: An Analysis of ‘Home’ and ‘Power’ in King Lear.” AUMLA 103 (May 2005). 2. Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm. Eds. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens and London: University of Georgia, 1996. 3. Hatch, Ronald B. “Margaret Atwood, the Land, and Ecology”. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Ed. Reingard M. Nischik. New York: Camden House. 2000. 4. Hutcheon, Linda. ‘Margaret Atwood’, Canadian Writers Since 1960s: First Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume-53. Ed. W. H. New. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1968. 5. Sandler, Linda. Ed. ‘Interview with Margaret Atwood’, Margaret Atwood: A Symposium. Special issue of Malahat Review. 41 (January 1977). 6. Woodcock, George. ‘Metamorphosis and Survival: Notes on the Recent Poetry of Margaret Atwood’, Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System. Eds. Sherrill E. Grace and Lorraine Weir. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 1983. 7. Zapf, Hubert. “Literary Ecology and the Ethics of Texts.” New Literary History 39.4 (2008).

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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 25 December 2016

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