Regarded as one of Canada’s finest living writers, Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist, and environmental activist. Her books have received critical acclaim in the United States, Europe, and her native Canada, and she has received numerous literary awards, including the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Governor General’s Award, twice. Atwood’s critical popularity is matched by her popularity with readers; her books are regularly bestsellers.
Atwood first came to public attention as a poet in the 1960s with her collections Double Persephone (1961), winner of the E.J. Pratt Medal, and The Circle Game (1964), winner of a Governor General’s award. These two books marked out the terrain her subsequent poetry has explored. Double Persephone dramatizes the contrasts between life and art, as well as natural and human creations. The Circle Game takes this opposition further, setting such human constructs as games, literature, and love against the instability of nature. Sherrill Grace, writing in Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, identified the central tension in all of Atwood’s work as “the pull towards art on one hand and towards life on the other.” Atwood “is constantly aware of opposites—self/other, subject/ object, male/female, nature/man—and of the need to accept and work within them,” Grace explained. Linda W. Wagner, writing in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, also saw the dualistic nature of Atwood’s poetry, asserting that “duality [is] presented as separation” in her work. This separation leads her characters to be isolated from one another and from the natural world, resulting in their inability to communicate, to break free of exploitative social relationships, or to understand their place in the natural order. “In her early poetry,” Gloria Onley wrote in the West Coast Review, Atwood “is acutely aware of the problem of alienation, the need for real human communication and the establishment of genuine human community—real as opposed to mechanical or manipulative; genuine as opposed to the counterfeit community of the body politic.”
Suffering is common for the female characters in Atwood’s poems, although they are never passive victims. Atwood’s poems, West Coast Review contributor Onley maintained, concern “modern woman’s anguish at finding herself isolated and exploited (although also exploiting) by the imposition of a sex role power structure.” Atwood explained to Judy Klemesrud in the New York Times that her suffering characters come from real life: “My women suffer because most of the women I talk to seem to have suffered.” Although she became a favorite of feminists, Atwood’s popularity in the feminist community was unsought. “I began as a profoundly apolitical writer,” she told Lindsy Van Gelder of Ms., “but then I began to do what all novelists and some poets do: I began to describe the world around me.”
Atwood’s 1995 book of poetry, Morning in the Burned House, “reflects a period in Atwood’s life when time seems to be running out,” observed John Bemrose in Maclean’s. Noting that many of the poems address grief and loss, particularly in relationship to her father’s death and a realization of her own mortality, Bemrose added that the book “moves even more deeply into survival territory.” Bemrose further suggested that in this book, Atwood allows the readers greater latitude in interpretation than in her earlier verse: “Atwood uses grief…to break away from that airless poetry and into a new freedom.” A selection of Atwood’s poems was released as Eating Fire: Selected Poems 1965-1995 in 1998. Showing the arc of Atwood’s poetics, the volume was praised by Scotland on Sunday for its “lean, symbolic, thoroughly Atwoodesque prose honed into elegant columns.” Atwood’s 2007 collection, The Door, was her first new volume of poems in a decade. Reviewing the book for the Guardian, the noted literary critic Jay Parini maintained that Atwood’s “northern” poetic climate is fully on view, “full of wintry scenes, harsh autumnal rain, splintered lives, and awkward relationships. Against this landscape, she draws figures of herself.” Parini found Atwood using irony, the conventions of confessional verse, political attitudes and gestures, as well as moments of ars poetica throughout the collection. “There is a pleasing consistency in these poems,” he wrote “which are always written in a fluent free verse, in robust, clear language. Atwood’s wit and humour are pervasive, and few of the poems end without an ironic twang.”
Atwood’s interest in women and female experience also emerges clearly in her novels, particularly in The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Life before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Even later novels such as The Robber Bride (1993) and Alias Grace (1996) feature female characters defined by their intelligence and complexity. By far Atwood’s most famous early novel, The Handmaid’s Tale also presages her later novels of scientific dystopia and environmental disaster like Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). Rather than “science fiction,” Atwood uses the term “speculative fiction” to describe her project in these novels. The Handmaid’s Tale is dominated by an unforgiving view of patriarchy and its legacies. As Barbara Holliday wrote in the Detroit Free Press, Atwood “has been concerned in her fiction with the painful psychic warfare between men and women. In The Handmaid’s Tale…she casts subtlety aside, exposing woman’s primal fear of being used and helpless.” Atwood, however, believes that her vision is not far from reality. Speaking to Battiata, Atwood noted that “The Handmaid’s Tale does not depend upon hypothetical scenarios, omens, or straws in the wind, but upon documented occurrences and public pronouncements; all matters of record.”
(This bio is truncated. Please see the Poetry Foundation to read the rest. It’s well worth your time. She’s fascinating!)
I’m not going to comment on this poem other than to say it jolted me because I have the same kind of reaction to reading the news in any form. But here is a short analysis I ran across from Legendumst that explains the poem rather well.
Published in 1968, “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” portrays a reader haunted by the atrocities reported in the news. Literate, the reader not only cannot escape the news, but likely experiences a responsibility to read them, to inform herself, and even attempts to reach her own readers so that she may make the world a better place. Yet all her attempts are futile. She cannot shake of the sense of responsibility and guilt, and although we may find it difficult to relate to her uncompromising verdict, “I am the cause”, we can certainly understand that the mere act of reading the news — of just sitting there, “quietly as a fuse”, witnessing the horrors of the world from our living rooms — has a touch of the absurd, the more so in this day an age when news has become an entertainment commodity and each war comes with its own jingle.
It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers
While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses
and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.
Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse
and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.
I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself
It is dangerous to read newspapers.
Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees
another village explodes.
Picture Source: Poetry Foundation