Margaret Avison, OC, poet (born 23 April 1918 in Galt [Cambridge], ON; died 31 July 2007 in Toronto, ON). An Officer of the Order of Canada, two-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, and recipient of the Griffin Poetry Prize, Margaret Avison is one of Canada’s most profoundly influential poets, known for the exploration of Christian themes in her work.

Education and Early Career

Educated at Victoria College, University of Toronto, where she studied English literature, Margaret Avison began her career publishing poems in student literary journals in the early 1930s, and then with a poem in the Canadian Poetry Magazine in 1939. Her early poetry was also included in A.J.M. Smith's landmark 1943 anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry. At Northrop Frye's urging, she applied for, and won, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1956 to study poetry at the University of Chicago. Avison taught English at Scarborough College, and did social work at the Presbyterian Church Mission in Toronto and, for many years, volunteered for the Mustard Seed Mission. She also studied creative writing at the University of Indiana, and was a writer in residence at University of Western Ontario.

In addition to her nine volumes of poetry, Avison's many publications include the middle-school textbook History of Ontario (1951), a medical biography, several translations from Hungarian — including eight poems appearing in The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary 1930-1956 (1963) and co-translating Jozef Lengyel's Acta Sanctorum and Other Tales along with Ilona Duczynska — and a collection of her lectures titled A Kind of Perseverance (1994). But it is for her richly dense and demanding poetry that she is best known and most celebrated.

Margaret Avison won the Governor General's Literary Award for her first collection of poetry, Winter Sun (1960). With this work, Avison established herself as a difficult and introspective poet, given to private images and subtle shadings of emotion that challenge and frustrate the reader. These complexities in her writing conceal a deeply religious and vulnerable sensibility. Avison’s early poetry, nonetheless, is decidedly secular, her vision of the world often bleak; the only source of redemption is the poetic imagination. This aligns her with great British Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and heirs to Romanticism like American 20th century poet Wallace Stevens. One of the best-known poems from Winter Sun, “Snow,” opens with the lines: “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes. / The optic heart must venture: a jail break / and re-creation.” Avison seems to be suggesting here that the real substance of the external world is the creation of the individual, subjective heart or imagination. The world is not a given; in order to create it, the imagination must break free.

Religious Poetry

On 4 January 1963, while reading the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, upon reading the phrase “You believe in God, believe also in Me,” Margaret Avison had a spiritual epiphany and committed herself to Christianity. In an unpublished essay, Avison later reflected back on her earlier self, writing, “how grievously I cut off his way by honouring the artist”; by giving priority to the imagination, Avison believed, she had obstructed the path of Christ. Inspired both by her readings of the Gospels and of great English religious poets like George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Avison’s later work is devotional in spirit. Metaphysical and religious in concern, these poems eschew the personal and subjective character of her earlier work and that of her peers in Canada and the United States.

In 1966, Avison published The Dumbfounding, a more accessible record of spiritual discovery, and a more revealing account of the unmasked, narrative “I.” The title poem of The Dumbfounding is quite explicitly about Christ. The poem begins, “When you walked here, / took skin, muscle, hair, / eyes, larynx, we / withheld all honor: ‘His house is clay, / how can he tell us of his far country?’” The poem suggests that the very idea of the divine manifesting itself in ordinary, mortal human flesh challenged belief and understanding; it is literally dumbfounding. By the end of the poem, we begin to understand that the path of Christ she thought her earlier conception of poetry obstructed actually required the divine to be supremely humble and close to the ground. “The Dumbfounding” concludes: “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.” These themes were further developed in Sunblue (1978), a combination of social concern and moral values fused by religious conviction and a continuing restatement of personal faith. Here, again, Avison is acutely aware of the great difficulty of receiving the revelation faith offers. In “Stone’s Secret,” from Sunblue, she writes, “Word has arrived that / peace will brim up, will come / ‘like a river and the / glory…like a flowing stream’”, but she acknowledges that there are still those who will hesitate and wait.

In addition to the three volumes of her collected works published in 2003, 2004 and 2005, Avison brought out a collection of new poems in 2006, a year before her death, titled Momentary Dark. Her autobiography, I Am Here and Not Not-There, was prepared for publication posthumously by critic and longtime friend Stan Dragland, and published in 2009.

Honours

Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Winter Sun (1960)

Officer of the Order of Canada (1984)

Governor General’s Award for No Time (1990)

Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)

Griffin Poetry Prize for Concrete and Wild Carrot (2003)

Leslie K. Tarr Award (2005)