Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Witness Is What You Must Bear" - Politics in Margaret Atwood's Poetry*

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Witness Is What You Must Bear" - Politics in Margaret Atwood's Poetry*

Article excerpt

Introduction

ALTHOUGH CRITICS HAVE USUALLY IGNORED the democratic-socialist content of Margaret Atwood's writing,1 politics is essential to understand her career and works. As her biographer Rosemary Sullivan observes, she has become an effective spokesperson for political issues in Canada that have demanded writers' attention, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, censorship, copyright law, obscenity laws, the status of women, and the environment.2 She has been a member of Amnesty International and currently channels her political preoccupations through PEN International, of which she was a president from 1984 to 1986. In addition, she has always been at the cutting edge of societal concerns: in the 1990s, she took part in the debates about federalism and the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, and in the early twenty-first century she openly expressed her views on the USA's participation in the Iraq war in her "Letter to America." Most recently (July 2011), she has mobilized her followers through the social network Twitter to protest against the privatization of the Toronto Public Library system.3

In Linda Wagner-Martin's words, becoming a spokesperson for human rights is one of the new roles Atwood took on in the late 1970s and 1980s.4 She moved away from specific gender concerns to become a poet of witness and speak about social wrongs. For the Canadian writer, her involvement with human-rights issues is "not separate from writing":

When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings; as you grow your immediate surroundings become larger. There's no contradiction [...]. I began as a profoundly apolitical writer, but then I began to do what all novelists do: I began to describe the world around me.5

Against the separation of art and social context imposed by the Leavisite critical tradition, she proposes the compatibility of politics and arts:

I point out to Americans who believe that art is over here and politics is over there, that it's not two boxes. Other writers in other countries don't have that problem. What people are afraid of here is that if they write political poetry, some reviewer is going to say it's not poetry and sure, you take that risk, but what is Ufe without risks? [. . .] All I'm saying is it's an anomaly to say that political things are not artistic. Political engagement can give a writer tremendous energy.6

Atwood' s own definition of politics is based on its concreteness and materiality:

Politics, for me, is everything that involves who gets to do what to whom. . . It's not just elections [...]. Politics really has to do with how people order their societies, to whom power is ascribed, who is considered to have power.7

In her story "Postcolonial" from her collection The Tent (2006), she still used the definition of power as "who gets to do what to whom," to refer to the extermination of native populations ("them') undertaken by Europeans ("we") during the colonization of the Americas:

We muse about the Native inhabitants, who had a bad time of it at our hands despite arrows or, conversely, despite helpfulness. They were ravaged by disease. . . Also hunted down, shot, clubbed over the head, robbed and so forth. We muse about these things and feel terrible. We did that, we think, to them. We say the word them, believing we know what we mean by it; we say the word we, even though we were not born at the time.8

Drawing on Atwood's personal definition of power, this essay aims at showing the development of her interest in political issues in her collections of poetry, from Power Politics up to The Door, in order to demonstrate that she has always been involved in the defence of human rights and the denunciation of their violation. As I move chronologically through Atwood's politically committed poetic collections, I will also try to establish bridges with her fictional and non-fictional works, revealing, once again, the coherence and continuity of thought between the various literary genres of the Canadian writer's production. …

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