Telling it over again: Atwoods Art of Parody
by Barbara Godard
In her fiction, Margaret Atwood has been concerned with the individuals quest for authenticity in a world of mass production, and, as a corollary, with originality in works of art. Marian in The Edible Woman seeks to extricate herself from a reified world, and runs away from camera lenses that would reproduce her objectified. In Surfacing and Lady Oracle, Atwoods self-reflexive protagonists want to cure themselves of a habit of taking or borrowing from other artists/writers by exposing the distortion of such derivation or copying, to use the polite terms of aesthetic discourse, filching and plagiarism being the impolite words. After scraping away sedimented accretions, the protagonists uncover the bedrock of their original voice. The narrator of Surfacing sums this situation up when she says:
Eventually she gives up these standardized reproductions of other peoples work to reproduce herself materially through a child: procreation.
Through the study of supreme fictions, fakelore, Atwood explores ideas of artistic excellence predicated upon the question of originality with respect to received ideas or forms. Originality rests on a real or constructed otherness, according to the transcendental image of artist as genius. Atwoods fiction is grounded in paradox, however. While the embedded narratives denounce all imitation, the text is composed through such superposition of ready-made narratives. The purported reductiveness of the copy, suggested in the embedded text, is counterbalanced by the expansiveness of the synthesis in the new text. Moreover, discrimination of originality depends on the readers thorough knowledge of and detection of copied forms, paradoxically valorised. For copying may be a method of learning: at certain times in the history of art and literature, imitation of, or quotation of classical models has been a highly approved method of instruction, young artists being encouraged to copy before looking to nature, or to themselves, for truth. Imitation is thus a way station on the road to originality, as Atwood recognized in instructing undergraduates to write pastiches of Shaw and Beckett.2 In fact, such re-creation inevitably becomes creation, imitation re-marks its difference. It is a form of criticism that leads to the active exploration of alternate possibilities from those currently dominating the literary scene. In Surfacing and Lady Oracle, Atwood plays with this paradox of imitation as subversion. Her strategy of explicit appropriation of convention aims to show it to be expropriation or intervention:3 imitation is not making something borrowed ones own, but the dispossession of ones true nature. Simultaneously, through her choice of text and her exploratory synthesis, the something borrowed becomes very much Atwoods own.
Repetition performs a critical refunctioning which is an important part of Atwoods satiric technique, directed at separating knowledgeable from naive readers. Yet the telling over again of old stories, especially of archetypal ones recontextualised in modern situations, is an affirmative element of Atwoods art. Revealing her sympathy for the source texts, this repetition valorises them in the very act of challenging their hegemony, since recognition of parody depends on the consolidation of literary values, on shared beliefs which bind more tightly the compact between writer and reader. Indeed, Atwoods repetitions are frequently reverential, reinforcing the authority of the literary canon, as is evident in her earliest published work which includes imitations of Yeats Crazy Jane poems, of Wordsworthian idiot boys and Mad Mother ballads. Avalon (is) Revisited.4 These might well be taken as exemplary of the copying of an apprentice poet. However, Atwoods first book, Double Persephone,5 which functions on the same principle of classical stories displaced and recontextualized in the modern world, was greeted on its appearance by poets E.J. Pratt and Margaret Avison with praise for the young poets original voice.6 At the heart of Atwoods repetition is the paradox of its difference in a new context: what is most conventional may yet be most novel. Within the range of Atwoods work, imitation is used for different functions with different effects in different texts. In examining Atwoods art of parody, I should like to focus on some of her earliest texts in an effort to demonstrate the fundamental role of parody in her writing. Along the way, I shall be concerned with the distinction between product and process which will perforce stray into a consideration of Modernisms emphasis on the self-referential nature of art and Post-Modernisms critique of re-presentation through metafictional paradoxes. From the beginning, Atwoods writing pursues the search for a supreme fiction even as it deconstructs such a fiction.
Before taking a close look at Atwoods writing, I should explain what I mean by parody. Currently, there is much critical interest in the term, given contemporary concern with the processes of signification in works of art. Parody, like quotation and other modes of repetition, according to Rent Payant, is a mise en abyme, a mirroring of the origins of the process of realistic figuration.7 Through its double frame, the parody insists on the ftindamental reproductability of the source work and on the autonomy of literary language. Whether the source text is underlined, annotated in the margin, or framed by words of admiration, it is a ready-made, worked upon in the target text. The effect of superposition is complex: while there is implicit criticism of the seamless perfection of the simulacrum in the classical realist work of art, uniform in its fabrication, in contrast to the heterogeneity of the target text which bears the evident marks of its transformation by an artist, there is also affirmation of the authority of the source work. But above all, there is an emphasis on transformation, on the role of the artist as reader and writer, and hence on the complex art of communication within fiction. This lays bare the fictiveness of fiction and foregrounds its devices. According to Margaret Rose, this enables their refunctioning for new purposes, expanding the corpus of fiction and contributing to change in literary history. Parody thus has a metafictional function: from within literature itself, it is an archeology of its own medium, reflexively analyzing the grounds for composition and reception of literary texts.8
But how, you may well be saying, can I be making such claims for reverential and serious critical functions of parody when its most common definition is that offered in the QED, a burlesque poem or song (p. 17)? This usage has given rise to the general understanding of the comic effect or mockery in parody, which has led to its being confounded with satire in its aim to ridicule. Awareness of the polemical aspect of parody to destroy an original meaning, however, also underlines the element of incongruity or discrepancy in parody and its ultimate critical function. And here a definition of parody, a genre, moves close to that of irony, a trope, extending the range of parody in yet another direction. Ambiguity indeed is fundamental to the concept of parody as Rose points out: its apparent empathy with and distance from the text imitated is located in the root meaning of the word, for in Greek, para means both opposition to its object and nearness (p. 33). What results may be a countersong or a sing along. In either case, the double text arises from the super-position of texts, from the incorporation of a background text, that parodied, in the parodying text old embedded in new. Contrary to other forms of inter-texuality, this synthesis of texts aims to establish difference between them and not similtude. Parodoxically it underlines its transgression of the literary norms which are included within itself as embedded material, according to Linda Hutcheon.9 This exclusively textual focus of parody distinguishes it from satire whose attack is directed at social aberrations, not at literary conventions. Parody, though, may be one of the structural elements of the satirist. Indeed, it has been a frequent device of Canadian satirists such as Robertson Davies who have consistently attempted to reform the Philistine literary tastes of their audience.10 Parody is a sophisticated literary form, inviting the complicity of a highly perspicacious reader who shares the irony of recognizing difference at the heart of similarity, in order to activate its full complexity of meaning.11
Current interest in reader-reception theories of criticism has also been a stimulant for interest in theories of parody. Parody offers a salient case because it consists of two text-worlds, those of the parodist and her target, received by the reader at another time and place and based on two connected models of communication. As Rose points out,12 the source work is decoded by the parodist as reader and then encoded again in a changed form, transformed for another decoder, the reader, who will have previously read and decoded the source work (p. 26). Consequently, the signals for parody must be activated by the reader. This may be done in many ways. Unable to recognize the parodied text, the reader may fail to decipher the two text worlds and will become the naive victim of the irony of the author. Or the reader may recognize the parody but remain strongly attached to the parodied text, and so become the victim of irony and the target of satire. For, dependent upon shared community values, parody excludes even as it offers complicity. Should the reader recognize the parodistic effect, and still identify with the parodied text, she may be the target of satire. The ideal reader would be the one who enjoys the recognition of the hidden irony and satire and exchanges a sideward glance in complicity with the writer.
Such a view of parody has theoretical implications with respect to the concept of the authors intentionality, and the question of the readers competence and the manipulative abilities of the author, as Linda Hutcheon points out (p. 149). And here a vertiginous spiral of ironies within ironies opens up. For the discrepancy might well be intended by the writer as a disruption of her contract with the reader. On the other hand, the reader may detect parody of conventions where none has been intended. Similarly, the readers competence must extend through linguistic and generic norms to ideological ones; hence the elitist reputation of parody, but also its subversive potential. For, dependent on this wink of recognition, parody becomes a vehicle for criticism within closed societies where the surface text may be perceived to be either reverential to norms or iconoclastic, depending on the position of the reader. Paradoxically, the genre exists only in that it transgresses the aesthetic norms that guarantee its existence (p. 151). Because of this complexity, Hutcheon advocates a hermeneutic model which, in treating discourse as an event, takes into account the dynamics of reading/writing/reading in and through the text (p. 141). Consequently, she develops a pragmatics of parody which she characterizes as an unmarked ethos having a broad range of potential markings from the neutral, respectful or playful, through the knowing smile of recognition or the sarcastic smile and the marked scornful ethos, to the subversive satiric deflation (p. 149).
It is important to keep this range in mind when we turn to the writing of Margaret Atwood, for she strikes all the keys in the scale. Indeed, it is the very complexity of her parody, of her reworkings of literary genres, conventions and specific works, and the wide spectrum of positions in which her readers find themselves placed by these parodies, that has led to the polarisation of critical opinion about her work. One has only to look at the range of feminist responses from the positive valorisation of Carol Christ13 to the denunciation of Jennifer Waelti-Walters14 to comprehend this. On the other hand, there is something for everyone in her work, for the naive reader who revels in her romance forms and for the jaded reader who winks in recognition at the transformation of these same forms, for the reader who seeks identity as well as for the one in search of change. Much of Atwoods mature art plays with this ambiguity. Her reworking of quasi-institutional forms gives rise to cultural complicity with the reader through the form of transparent communication established in the knowing glance but also with a wider system external to the work invoked in order to reach the shared smile.
In this context, Atwoods work on both feminist and nationalist discourses may be better understood. Both are introduced through traditional texts which Atwood recontextualises to new ends, conventions of the female gothic novel being reworked in Lady Oracle, while those of Quebec and native oral forms are refunctionalised in Surfacing. In both cases, parody is a vehicle for social satire directed outside the literary institution at the limitations of being a woman and a Canadian and about the naïveté of much feminism and nationalism, even as it creates bonds with other women and among fellow nationals who are readers.15 In these books, parody is the mode of a well-read and mature artist. But parody was the favoured genre of the young Margaret Atwood, and must thus be seen as a characteristic feature of her literary art.
My interest in Atwood as parodist is of equally long duration, going back some thirty years to a shared experience. Every time I hear the torreador song from Carmen, the words G.H. & T boys pop into my mind along with it, effacing Bizets libretto, and teasing me with the selectivity of my memory. I have long forgotten the rest of Margaret Atwoods words, one of her earliest creations in verse, though this single phrase is enough to evoke for me the rugged shores of Georgian Bay and a communal ritual celebrated in the operetta that Atwood wrote for a summer camp.16 Thus I enter into the dialectique mémorielle which Michael Rifaterre identifies as the impact of parody on the readers (or hearers) mind.17 Other critics have made this mixture of doubling and differentiation of the generic memory the basis of a theory of literature, as Linda Hutcheon reminds us. Most notable of these in the present case is Northrop Frye, whose theory of archetypes presupposes the development of literary works from the structures of pre-existing works. Refunctioned in Freudian terms and more pointed towards the author than the text, this literary compulsion to repeat with a difference becomes Harold Blooms A Map of Misreading, the marked trait of strong writers, originals.18 Already I have effectively blurred the notion of origins in my discussion of Atwoods work by invoking an intertextual frame, moving away from biography toward the canon. For Atwoods interest in repetition stems both from her preoccupation with ritual and her recontextualisation of Fryes theory of literature. To read through the boxes of Atwoods early work which are held in the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto, especially through her partially written PhD thesis on the generic conventions and intertexual plays of the metaphysical romance, Nature and Power in the English Metaphysical Romance of the 19th and 20th Centuries, is to become aware of the extent to which her poetry and fiction is a refunctioning of The Anatomy of Criticism, with its outline of the conventions of Romance.19
Like Frye, Atwood is intrigued by the ways in which an abstract or purely literary world of fictional and thematic design goes through a displacement in a variety of context(s) of plausibility.20 Like Jay MacPherson and James Reaney, other mythopoeic poets who were her mentors, Atwood has not been antagonistic to convention because she considers it part of her craft to use and master it. On the contrary these poets reach out to the literary figures of the past because they see them as fellow explorers of the kind of creative act they are engaged in. For them, all art must be considered against other works of art, within a literary tradition. Literature is a system in which meaning is created through patterns of similarity and difference. Repetition of the major works of the past maintains them as precedents and models, even while the new context specifically a Canadian context modifies their function, and hence their meaning. So coexist both the Modernist view of the simultaneous presence within a world of Art, the view advanced by T.S. Eliot in his Tradition and the Individual Talent,21 and the post-Modernist emphasis on the metafictional paradox. For the repetition of parody openly signals itself, and marks its difference from the original. It encodes in its enumerative conflict both the intent and the reception, for part of the recognition of parody is inferring intent. In so focussing on the act of enunciation, it destroys artistic illusion, prevents us from naturalizing convention through our automatic consumption of it, and thus gives new life to that same convention.
Structurally, a parody is an act of incorporation, a synthesis of several texts. Margaret Atwoods first publicly performed parody wittily signals its own textual procedures in its title, Synthesia.22 This is an operetta performed by a Home Economics Class at Leaside Highschool in 1956. In form, it is a topical drama, interspersed with songs: words by Atwood, music by the Masters. It introduces the characteristic ludic element of Atwoods parody which, even though it may be a more neutral sidewards glance, is never absent from her work. This texts pleasure comes from the ironic discrepancy between the high art associations of the Barcarole from The Tales of Hoffman and H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan and the mundane subject of the verbal text, washday worries. To the tune of Baccarole, the Overture opens with:
Fabrics need a washing a week,
A washing when they get soiled;
If they never hop in the tub,
Then they will be surely spoiled,
When you wash them,
do not slosh them, do not squeeze or wring,
Or theyll get the washday blues,
and just like you theyll sing:
Oh, I dread Monday morn
The drama is set in the palace of the synthetics where the King and Queen are sitting down for tea with their daughters, Orlon, Nylon and Dacron. Atwoods wit shines in the dialogue, for example, when the Queen announces the menu for the day: Ah some Dreft and Tide with warm water sauce, some iced cleaning fluid, and a little bottle of Carbon Tetrachloride (p. 1). Later, she quotes Alice in Wonderland. Dont drink too much or youll dissolve. By changing its associations, as she does with the music, she recontextualizes this phrase and signals to the hearer to take this all as nonsense. Dissolve, of course, is just what these synthetics will not do.
Into the cosy domestic scene in the palace comes Sir William Wooley to sing a tragic song about his venerable history he has clothed notables from Noah and Cleopatra to Queen Victoria but is threatened by his tragic flaw, his tendency to shrink. The Queen cheers him by proposing a solution, marriage to one of her daughters, and with the flip of the coin he wins Orlon. Following the solemn strains of the wedding march, the Nurse enters with a bundle (recontextualising Shakespeare too, where Nurses play comic roles) and is greeted by the strains of O my darlin Clementine transformed to read, O My darlin Woolerlene. This Wool and Orlon combination, for the nation (p. 5) celebrates the powers of synthesis.23 The audience smiles in recognition at the words of advertising (the echo of G.H. Woodsjingle for underwear), set to music from a different sociolect, an example of the estrangement effect (prior ostraneniya of Chklovski).24 Both story and structure announce what is to become Atwoods most frequent strategy, the marriage of a text with a venerable tradition to a new context in order to create a happy blend that honours convention, even as it transforms it.
In choosing the genre of the advertising jingle to be parodied, Atwood was exercising a critical function and using her parody to satiric aim. While she does lay bare the rhetoric of advertising, Atwoods parody here is more ludic than satiric, more playful metalanguage than polemic. The comic impact of the incongruity between the two codes she uses still strikes us with the wit of apt quotation. In her recontextualising it to become a means of seducing the hearer into buying material goods, and not into entering the palace of art, Atwood deflates the opera. Here she is engaging in something beloved of parodists, namely exorcising her own ghosts by enrolling them in her cause. Atwood has long been enamoured of the grand opera. As she writes in her afterword to the Journals of Susanna Moodie: I dreamt I was watching an opera I had written about Susanna Moodie. I was alone in the theatre; on the empty white stage, a single figure was singing.25 Her dream of singing has so far translated itself only in comic operas (opera buffon) which recontextualise the dream into the realities of the prosaic world in which she finds herself laundry, summer camp, school room scarcely scenes for passion and revenge. More recently, this interest has manifested itself in writing for children, parodic musicals for her daughters classmates and The Festival of Mixed Crass for the Young Peoples Theatre in Toronto.
Although the ludic element is never absent from Atwoods parody, surfacing again most obviously in the refunctioning of the gothic narratives in Lady Oracle, it is often more neutral, present in the wit of yoked contrasts, as in True Stories26 where much of the meaning is generated by a perceived contrast between the genre of womens romances of hardships in the popular press and the stories of torture retold to us in Atwoods poems. Here the shared guffaw has become a scarcely perceptible nod, as is the case in Atwoods respectful parodies through which she consolidates and explores inherited literary values and beliefs.
Many writers begin their careers with parodies. If dynamic, such emulation may also be emancipation, as in Atwoods case. In her connection and contrast of disparate texts, Atwood most frequently foregrounds their concealed discrepancy rather than their concealed identity. Through the juxtaposition of two codes she creates a metalanguage, a commentary on another linguistic identity. In this way she foregrounds the process of canonisation itself, quotation, even as she deconstructs the literary norms which the original within the canon tries to realise. Through such a dialectical refunctioning of the canonical discourse of the age, Atwood aims to make a place for herself in it as a Canadian and a woman. For if it is a truism of literary history that only parodies of well-known and powerful works survive, they in turn must have something new to say.
Atwoods ambivalent attitude to the great tradition of English literature is everywhere evident in her early poems. As a student of English literature, her sympathy and admiration for the works of the masters is everywhere evident. On the other hand, as a young poet, she feels the overwhelming weight of the classics pressing down to silence her. Hence, her fascination for the doubled Persephone, existing in two worlds, both above and below ground, figure of past and present, existing both in the cycle of nature and as artifact. In the suite of poems Double Persephone, her first published book, the student Atwood explores the power of the word, the written hieroglyph, as the trace or double of experience. But the persona mourns the loss of spontaneity, of vitality, which results, for this doubling never captures the essence of the moment itself, but refers only to its own formal laws. Thus the field of hieroglyphics of the final poem in the suite Double Persephone, with its emphasis on the freezing of pain into art (The bright feet bleed upon the grass / Freezing motion as they pass / As gathering words as cruel as thorns / She wanders with her unicorns / While the black horses of her breath / Stamp impatient for her death) brings us back full circle to the girl with the gorgon touch of the opening poem, Formal Garden, the girl surrounded by marbled flesh in Plutos Hades, exiled from the living wrist and arm she reaches out for. Traditionally, Atwood criticism, especially that following the lead of Frank Davey, has located in this all-too-perfect world of death, the origin of a preoccupation with stasis, and a fear of the Palace of Art.27 While there is a certain truth to these assertions, the full significance of the nature of this Palace of Art can best be understood by remembering that Double Persephone is a parody. This was clearly signalled in its earliest version which included Boston Incident about a twentieth-century rape and in the poets self-parodying signature on the ins., Annabel Ulaluna.28 Its quotation of the classical myth is a critical misreading, repetition with a difference.
Atwood signals the change to us in her title. Everywhere she makes significant alterations to the Persephone story. As you will remember, in its traditional form this story celebrates the vegetation myths of a matriarchal agricultural society. It is a story of fertility, praising the power of the Mother Goddess, Demeter, and is associated with the Eleusian mysteries, celebrations among women including the rite of Baubo. The focus of the story is its conclusion, where Demeter discovers her lost daughter, Persephone, exerts her authority over Hades by bringing Persephone back to this world for six months of the year and, bountiful in her graditude, bestows the gift of grain on humanity. Atwoods contesting version is not a narrative, nor does it tell the full story. Instead, the six lyrics circle around moments of pain and loss associated with the death of spring and flowers, centering on the Chthonic Love of Hades for Persephone. Only briefly, and in mourning, does the lost mother figure in this suite. The focus is shifted to the linked images of sex and death in an inversion and deflation of the pastoral world. In Pastoral, the shepherd makes his truelove die as he is fiddling a tune across his bone. The pun on sex and death prepares for the central activity of the poem, the marriage of Persephone to Death, her transformation into the withered crone, the witch, when in Persephone Departing, Pluto lash(ing) his black team, carries her off by force. The emphasis in Atwoods poem is not on maternal beneficience and sexuality among women, but on rape. Just as her Pastoral is an inverted pastoral, so too Atwoods Persephone story is distorted to include only the view from below. The dominance of this dark world is conveyed through the new ordering of the story which in Atwoods recontextualising begins with the Formal Garden in Hades where Persephone finds herself among marble statues. Then, in flashback, it moves to the surface to describe Persephones rape, to conclude in the deaththroes of this union.
While the thrust of the parody is to recreate textual norms in order to question and undermine them, the full understanding of its meaning requires an examination of the original and the new contexts. Additional significance accrues to our reading of Double Persephone as the story of coming to writing perceived as a loss of the self when we explore the hidden contrast in the context of Atwoods text and the classical original. For in the latter is to be found a story of the encroachment on the creative power of the Great Mother, a story whose full impact is realised only in the present moment when the fact that god was once a woman has long been forgotten. Plutos rape of Persephone was perhaps the most dramatic event in a long history of subduing female creativity which had begun with Zeuss rape of her mother Demeter. From Atwoods perspective in the twentieth century, to enter the field of writing is indeed to be seduced onto masculine terrain, to enter a threatening underworld. In writing Double Persephone, Atwood is exorcising her fear of a patriarchal tradition. Here another notable goddess, Athene, has also lost her authority, become, in Iconic Landscape, The idiot girl, sustaining the whole landscape, who Stands with her brooding owl, and her cold sun. By quoting the story of Persephone, however, rather than returning to Homer or Oedipus, as the origins of the literary canon, Atwoods archeology of the text effects a swerve in the tradition. A critical function of evaluation is carried out in the choice of text to be parodied. Here the pastoral is shown to be marked by patriarchal values. Through such a genealogy of her forbears, Atwood illustrates how the imitative faculties of the self may be refunctioned to serve its coming to self-consciousness through distinguishing the self from others.
This self-reflexive element is foregrounded in another of Atwoods reworkings of classical stories about powerful women, The Triple Goddess.29 A poem for voices those of a blind pencil seller, observer, chorus, and of a twelve year old girl, a twenty-four year old woman, and a forty-eight year old matron this poem is also a refunctioning of the work of Robert Graves on the mediterranean Great Mother, incarnate in her triple forms as Diana the virgin, Venus the woman and Hecate the crone, which Atwood has elaborated in Survival.30 The title signals the quotation, for within the poem, all is difference. The women are thoroughly modern, preoccupied with nail polish and bridge clubs. Throughout, however, is heard a critical note, as a jaundiced eye scans the options open to women in our world. The young girls dismay at leaving the garden of childhood for the forced form of maidenhood/Crouched grey outside my paled hart-guarded wood (p. 11), is increased by the matrons counsel to market herself well: Listen you should be smart/And shrewd, and set yourself a decent price;/Bargain your life, haggle it for the Good/Life (p. 12). The language of commerce has overwhelmed and trivialised the woman:
Only the words cornucopious and witch point to an earlier archetype of female power, for the fertility goddess has been contained within the limitations of a supermarket mind.
That this reduction is the work of the patriarchy is suggested in the blind mans song. In the city, during the dark period of the year, after the leaves until before the leaves, he observes these women. The time period in question, and the activity of the hunt, as well as the sexual puns in his words, hint to the reader that the containing power is Pluto who has once more taken away the grain and the maiden from the bountiful earth to lock her into his lair under his sexual thralldom.
the tongues are silent
for a minute, two minutes
minute silence shattered only by
the push of leaves, too deep
under or too far down for me to hear
the heels have immigrated
to the suburbs, each his bunny caught
with cunning coney-catching play;
his master stroke, piece, bringing peace at last
or so he thought.
another minute, day,
the tongues are silent but the stones repeat: (p. 12)
In this Tiresias-like characters speech, the final word should be underlined. For Atwoods poem is preoccupied with repetition, with the stones telling over and over again the story of the womens captivity in domesticity.
The women themselves are preoccupied with the resemblances between them: three different phases, but in all a woman bound to the deadly routine of feeding husband and children. As the Blindman remarks in his opening words: The misss, mistresss and Mrs.s/All speak or sound or mean or seem the same (p. 8). The women, too, are conscious of their being three-in-one, the woman remembering the white waif in herself and foreseeing the witch, while the girl more fearfully feels herself invaded by two other beings.
Back to my dark of skull
I see two faces looming:
One more dim
The mark of an old complacent wrinkled
Harridan in mink;
The other nearer
Melting through my teeth of ice
With fire of her hard mouth;
Are these my mothers, sisters, or my own
Pattern in my inevitable bone? (p. 10-11)
What has once been a source of power, the triple aspect of the goddess, has become in Atwoods displaced version of the archetype a wry twist of fate. The pattern of ritual has become mechanical, deadening repetition. As the woman continues:
Plagiarize is a word exchanged between Charles Pachter and Margaret Atwood to describe the way in which as friends they imitate each others styles.31 In the letters, it is a positive term establishing shared perspectives. In the poem, the term seems more negative in its pairing with biological determinism. The girl growing up to womanhood cannot escape the pattern, cannot find a different role, cannot break out of conventions. And the role that literary conventions offer her is limited. Atwoods criticism of this role is implicit in the irony of the contrast between early glory and modern day pain.
By introducing the terms pattern and pastiche into this poem, Atwood establishes a metalinguistic reflexion on the process of her art, foregrounding her process of displacement of archetypes, her use of ready-mades. Her story doubles back on itself to offer a metaphor of its own origins, here opening up to infinity in a never-ending story which is that of the recursive paradigm. Her self-discourse about the woman writer is similar to that of the adolescent, despair at leaving behind the untroubled stage of youth. For the conventional patterns offered to the woman writer are bleak ones, tales of enslavement and death. To tell them over again and again is something the young writer seems condemned to do, against her will.
Celtic myth offers another group of stories Atwood reworks to open a perspective more welcoming for women as in Avalon Revisited.32 The Mists ofAvalon is a current best seller among feminists.33 Atwoods suite of poems, published not longer after her Persephone suite, is much less ambitious both in scope and feminist thesis. We recognize her familiar technique: parodied text is identified through the title, which immediately signals its revisionary perspective. Atwoods intended title was Avalon Reversed.34 Even more clearly, this title points to the poems topsy turvy perspective. Again, Atwood winks to the knowing reader, familiar with the Arthurian legend necessary to fully activate the meaning of the dialogue her new text engages with it. Additional meaning accrues for the reader who recognizes the parallel drawn between the female persona in The Betrayal of Arthur and Miltons Eve: She was the garden, she became the tree/That lured his will within the reach of choice;/(. . .) Thus in a bower flanked by rotting gods/Their fig-leaves worn with simpering elegance,/The queen claimed her due sacrifice from him (p. 11). When added to parallels drawn between Vivien and Spensers Broceliande (Recollections of Vivien) and between Guinevere and Tennysons Lady of Shallott (The Apotheosis of Guinevere), the knowing reader recognizes that Atwood is foregrounding the norms of the English epic tradition, target of her parody, most specifically its representation of women. In Avalon Revisited, Atwood has replaced the epic of male adventure with the lyric voices of the women of the Arthurian cycle interwoven in a tapestry. In the poem they create there is no Arthur in Avalon. No hero is here, Only those Queens that were/His three mortal wounds (The King p. 13). On one level, this conclusion suggests, in Audrey Thomas words, that the best revenge is writing well. For the women write/weave themselves into textual eternity.
In this womens poem, we read about the Apotheosis of Guinevere, not that of Arthur. Male figures are characterised by their violence, their nothingness, when women hold up the mirror of art. The Kings, opening poem of the suite, is spoken in Arthurs voice, a doubled one. For Arthur sits on the throne, sending the spectral horseman out to act/My bloody work and pleasure (p. 10). In the crystal of my mind, Arthur thinks up activities for the horseman to execute which invert the moral order mythically associated with Camelot: There, the rescued maiden is the dragon. /He wounds her by my will;/Her tongue is cut by his blunt hand/To be my oracle: This perversion, this perpetration of rape on unsuspecting Procnes, speaks my double fall. In turn, the alter ego, the horseman in The Rider moves through a space where there is nothing (no sea, no sky p. 12) but only the goad of his own spur, and the cruelty of the double vision that twists his spine to thorn/And forms an evasive maiden out of stone. Against this vacuum created by male desire is positioned the artistic activity of the women.
Through a series of images in their lyrics, images of the mirror, of vegetation opposing construction, of twinning and doubling, Atwood explores the self-mirroring nature of artistic activity. Here too, the vision rebounds on itself, narcissistically. Unlike the Lady of Shallott, these women have not left the ivory tower of art. But in their self-conscious activity of mirroring, they cast a critical eye on the whole question of imitation and of representation, exposing its falsifying processes, the way it betrays an original dream of fruitful multiplication. As Vivien remembers, the growth of vegetation threatens the overthrow of holy spires. All three women are placed within the world of nature, giving it a prominent place in Atwoods version of the legend. The mirror of dream castles lies shattered into slivers, destroyed with the head that gave birth to the dreams. Elaine in Arcadia is the third, self-reflexive, metalinguistic moment in any embrace: I am a third/Inverted in the water;/Not a twin swan, but one/Whose white stare casts a freezing light upon/All twins, and shrivels pleasure to the core. As the voice of art, she sings their song, floating The paralysing river of their tears. Indirectly, then, Atwood refers to the death of Elaine of Astalot who, with letter in hand, was placed in a river barge to drift down to Camelot and make public the hidden corruption of Launcelot.
For Guinevere is reserved the final phase of the killing into art that is Procnes revenge for her long years of silence. In this poem, Atwood self-reflexively foregrounds her own processes of inversion: The mirror opposites, pale grief, dark sin,/Take turns at dancing in the twilight room/Each reversing what the other does/To make the weaver at the ivory loom/Undo what she has done (p. 12). The mirror is shattered and in the next action it is reconstituted. Atwoods art, too, is a doing and an undoing in its critical recontexualising. Her poem contains within it both the female gender of its writer and the bipolar picture of her world, just as Guineveres tapestry weaves the vision seen in the mirror and the viewer, both encoded and encoder bound into the world of art. She pictures earth and hell/Reflected in her looking glass, both/Images of the embroidering queen/Who threaded heaven through her needles hole. Here the parodists mirror is a tool Atwood uses to move beyond and criticise the limitation of art to imitate and represent. Atwoods insistance on the presence of the encoder and her intention breaks the frame and intrudes on the illusion of art. Atwood engages in critical debate with the canon, illustrating how in paradises of art, grounded in but limited by the issue of gender, we write/weave our mirror doubles, men or women as the case may be, into eternity. Her parody of the epic genre invites the knowing smile of the feminist reader who recognizes the target of Atwoods irony, the purportedly universal epic which is now perceived to be a masculine norm used to exclude women from the literary canon.
Very tangential are the similarities between source and target texts in these two cases. However, in a number of early poems, Atwood is more specific in her parody, focussing not on a generic convention, but on the works of a single author. In both cases I shall discuss here, her aim is to recontextualise the masters in a Canadian context and thus to point up both the relevance of such models in the present day and to open up Canadian experience for transformation into the high world of art. In their self-referring play we see once again Atwood in the dual role of parodist as both reader and writer. The sideward glance of recognition is most evident in a whole series of poems remarking the conventions of Wordsworths The Idiot Boy.35
The Idiot Boy is one of Wordsworths poems founded on the affections, printed alongside a number of other poems evoking great pathos with titles such as The Emigrant Mother, The Sailors Mother, The Forsaken, and the pastoral poem of the simple life, Michael. It is a ballad-like narrative about a mother, Betty, who is nursing her sick, elderly neighbour, Susan. She puts her simple-minded son onto their pony to go for the doctor in the middle of the night. When the boy fails to return, Betty sets off lamenting in search of him and the doctor, wandering over the moonlight vales. Eventually Susan gets out of bed, searches for her two lost helpers: they all return at daybreak. In her ironic transcontextualising of the poem, Atwood relocates and updates it in a series of poems. Specifically, she alters Wordsworths optimistic conclusion remarking his character with her own chthonic perspective, to point out the inappropriateness of the pastoral for twentieth century writers.
There is more of the grotesque and arabesque in Atwoods poems than in Wordsworths story where the focus has been on the idiot childs muteness. His lunacy is literal: he merges into the moonlit landscape. Atwood picks up on both facts in her poems, updating the dumbness to the post-Freudian designation of autism, and zeroing in on the fact that Wordsworths wanderer is a vegetation spirit. What Atwood does in her poems is to extend Wordsworths original, situating her lyrics in time both before and after his poems. Thus we read about The Idiot Boy Unborn where he is abandoned in the compost heap, to become a vegetation god, sprouting like a potato; A soft almost-human/Explosion from decay.36 Atwoods poem foregrounds what is background to the action in Wordsworths, the boys kinship with the world of nature, the result of his lacking the human distinctiveness of speech. Atwood meditates on the strange paradox of the boys life where he is closer to the world of nature than to that of humans: upside down/His body ponders. This line foregrounds Atwoods strategy of inversion.
In her sequel to Wordsworth, What Happened to the Idiot Boy, Atwood relocates Wordsworths Lake District rustic in a suitable Canadian pastoral landscape, on the prairies.37 This Idiot Boy had bland yellow hair/And a prairie-blank vacant stare./Mostly he walked and looked until he is frightened away by an old woman in Toronto. He runs back west on his journey, Drifting in the fields of Saskatchewan/Drowned beneath the waves of a/Yellow grain sky. The aptness of Atwoods parody invites our knowing smile here. The alert reader who has recognized the leap from Wordsworths simple folk, experiencing the powerful sensory impressions that are key to the emotions recollected in tranquillity, to the emptiness of the Canadian prairie and the shallowness of this thirty-two year old infant, also shares in the delightful satire. While Wordsworths example has made possible a Canadian pastoral about prairie folk, it also highlights the discrepancies in the two contexts, satirically foregrounding the perennial Canadian philistinism and negative environment which prevents there being a pastoral tradition, since pastoral depends on a backward glance from the city. Two other poems in the series rework this prairie motif, notably The Orphan from Alberta,38 and Poor Tom,39 (with respect to William Shakespeare too), who is thatched with straw, with insane/bird-eyes and lies wasting in the fields, going the way of all vegetation gods, back into the earth. The Autistic Child updates Wordsworths poem on a more serious note, dramatising the internal perspective of the isolated child who cannot talk, the heartbreak of wanting to scatter/the inside word to syllables:/word says hold on hold on/me, prays prays. It focuses on the tragedy of the child who is locked locked locked,40 reaching an emotional depth that Wordsworth never attains, when his tragic narrative veers around 1800 to become comedy.
So too, Atwoods series of poems which explore the characterization of Betty in Wordsworths poem shed new light on her. She is named Good Betty by Wordsworth, foregrounding thus her loving care and concern for child and neighbour alike. What Atwoods poems bring to light is what an attentive reader may infer from Wordsworths narrative, that the mother is as mad as the son. For Betty is simple-minded enough to send her child off on such a difficult journey without even a note to help him explain his mission to the doctor. When she herself repeats his journey, wakens the doctor and fails to send him back to sick Susans bedside, her scatterbrained nature is further underlined. Wordsworths text fails to comment on this, but Atwoods critical refunctioning fills in this gap. All five poems, The Mad Mother, The Day After You Were Born, Mad Mother Lullaby, Mad Mother Ballads I and II, make explicit references to Atwoods Idiot Boy poems, such intertextual plays grounding them in the same Wordsworth poem. All focus on the interconnection of life and death: the womb that is the red coffin, the cradle/grave of Mad Mother Lullaby becomes the compost heap, the garden of my abortions, in Mad Mother Ballad I. The Mother in Ballad II is walking through the garden looking for the green lawn where she found her child after it was born, Carrying your day old infant corpse/Crumpled in my clenched hand.41 Caught up in the cycle of regeneration and decay, mother and children are simultaneously reaching out for life and destruction. As the mad mother says in her lullaby, I know/It is my life they demand in their voracious search for life. She seals up her eyelids to keep the children in, letting them wander on empty plains, the territory of orphans, echoing thus the language of The Orphan from Alberta or What the Idiot Boy Did.
Wordsworths Betty, like her son, is a lunatic and most likely a devotee of the moon. Atwoods Mad Mother is Mother Nature viewed from another facet, that of the crone or the witch. As with classical myth, Atwood has inverted the Romantic pastoral to tell the story upside down, to give the view from below. Gone is the golden world of pastoral with shepherds piping and shepherdesses dancing. It survives as a dark and mournful world where destruction has triumphed over creation. Atwoods black romanticism has antecedents in Yeats Crazy Jane poems42 and in James Reaneys One Man Masque from which the cradle/coffin metaphor is inherited.43 Editors of Atwoods poems recognised her parodic game although they responded to it differently, according to their stance in the Canadian Tarzanist/Academic debate, as Frye framed the struggle between the aboriginals and the originals, the latter specializing in studying and imitating great poets of the past.44 Some, like J.R. Colombo, wrote to warn her of the dangers of such anxiety of influence which would result in extremely hermetic poems.45 Others, like Milton Wilson, enchanted by Atwoods sources, responded enthusiastically to her recontextualising of Wordsworth and accepted the poems for immediate publication.46 At issue here is the matter of naive readings and general accessibility which parody, elitist art because of its insistance on knowledge of the canon, calls into question.
These issues were very much on Atwoods mind in the early sixties. In several works she openly addresses the questions of the sophistication of the reader and of the authors degree of self-consciousness when writing parody in parodies which are vehicles for social satire. The marked scornful ethos of satire co-exists with the ludic smile of parody. Best known of these is Atwoods libretto for John Beckwiths choral suite, Trumpets of Summer, commissioned for CBC in 1964 in honour of the Quarter-Centenary of the bard. The attentive listener familiar with the custom of Ontario Stratford will be alerted by the title to Atwoods subject, which is, in the words of Beckwiths programme notes, A Canadian View of Shakespeare, With Music.47 Atwoods refunctioning of Shakespeare in her libretto is an example of respectful remarking in some sections, but with a range of effects from homage through scornful derision. In these latter sections, Atwood is using parody as a tool for epistemological change, educating her readers to a more critical literary taste.
In his notes, Beckwith outlines the history of the project, beginning with his initial reluctance to do yet one more setting to Where the Bee Sucks, and other familiar Shakespearean lyrics. The problem of originality was crucial to him. Recast to come directly out of the circumstances of Canadian involvement in an international event, the way in which Shakespeare is reflected in modern Canadian life, the project captured Beckwiths enthusiasm and he began to flesh out ideas for incorporating original material and quotations both by and about Shakespeare, using a Shakespearean motif, the seasons or ages of man, as framework. At this stage of the discussion, Jay MacPherson was actively involved, though she later withdrew, after she had suggested that Margaret Atwood write the libretto. Thus Atwoods rewriting of Shakespeare is complicated by the additional fact of her response to the work of one of her literary mothers. As well, in the mixture of love and mockery which blends into the acid smile of response to Trumpets, we catch an echo of Reaneys statement of emancipation from imperialism in To the Avon River above Stratford, Canada, when he praises the dear bad poets of Canada over the bard of the English Avon.48 When Reaney wrote his poem, there was indeed a marked contrast between the two Stratfords. In the interval preceding Atwoods text, the overt discrepancy disappeared: the Canadian Stratford worked hard to live up to its celebrated name, and established a theatrical festival with its stage in the round, the first modern theatre to imitate Elizabethan staging. The town had become centred on this respectful parody.
Significantly, the proposed musical suite was to include a movement lampooning current fashions in Shakespearean staging, though this was eventually omitted. Its shadowy presence hovers in the final version, however, which everywhere underlines the concealed discrepancy between the gigantic imagination of Shakespeare, (shadows of a dreaming giants mind p. 7), and the insubstantial nature of the Canadian copy. As the chorus scornfully sings in the Prologue: words words words/that we cant understand. In contemporary Canada, Shakespeare has been subordinated to an academic ritual that fails to make itself a presence in the face of the rigours of the Canadian climate. As the epilogue wittily echoes The Tempest; Our revels now are ended: these our actors/are voices on the wind/passing with the passing/snowdrifts, rebuilding/the fabric of this vision/again from year to year/in this particular chilly/space and time//are trumpet voices/on a passing wind/leaving only an echo behind/or all the seasons and actors//and the giant/shadows of a dreaming giants mind. Though the words are partially the same in Shakespeares and in Atwoods texts, this similarity hides a great discrepancy in meaning. Atwoods text forcefully mocks the absurdity of the Canadian Stratford enterprise, given Prosperos injunction at this point in Shakespeares play to lay aside magic, to abdicate creative powers and let other knowledges circulate. The mockery persists in the allusion to the shadows of shadows through which Plato denounces imitation. The knowledgeable reader responds wryly to the way Atwood has used the occasion of Shakespeares anniversary to do violence to his stature within the canon. On the other hand, the naive reader, the one who is portrayed as the typical citizen of Stratford, Ontario, finds her reverence for the greatest English dramatist confirmed in Atwoods text through its use of Shakespearean motifs and abundant quotations from his best-known plays. Atwood uses parody here in an attempt to educate her readers to a more critical literary taste, one that will free them from servile reverence for dead masters of another place and time, in order to appreciate their own living writers. On the other hand, in the picture she gives of low brow Ontario culture, there seems little hope for a great Canadian original to find an audience: the only hope lies in doing homage to Shakespeare. However, in the ironic transcontextualising of high literary and popular cultures, she creates a metalinguistic statement, which contrasts the disparate perspectives in yet another way. The knowledgeable reader recognises the origins of Shakespeares theatre in the popular customs of his day, a fact that makes most apt Atwoods Madrigal for Teenagers, which juxtaposes a text from Twelfth Night, O mistress mine, where are you roaming? with a rock and roll update of the Elizabethean ballad: Or well go to the dance in the high-school gym/Fa-la-la, etc. /Where the music is loud and the lights are dim/With a fa-la-la. On this level, the high brow audience finds itself the butt of criticism, while the popular enthusiast of Shakespeares work smiles broadly to see her position valorised in this turn of the spiral. Multilevelled is the irony of incongruity between the two cultural contexts high brow English, low brow Canadian and between two texts, original and imitation, in the movement Ladies and Gentlemen on Opening Night. While its presence in the theatre, like the elaborate dress, is evidence of ritual repetition, supported also by its participation in it (And again you are fashionably late), the wealthy audience ultimately captures the true spirit of Shakespeares theatre in its carnival origins, when the barriers between actors and audience are broken down. It is not the actors/But we ourselves who prance/Across the great stage/With glorious pomp and circumstance. In this ultimate inversion, the spirit of Shakespearean theatre triumphs over its form.
Atwoods technique is itself carnivalesque, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word, a thorough dialogic mixture of voices and discourses the one within the other.49 Between the Prologue, which focuses on the audiences anticipation of a Stratford performance, and the epilogue, a sort of voice-from-the-tomb set to Shakespeares epitaph, are four sections sketching a modern youth to age cycle. Phrases from As You Like It, Julius Caesar, MacBeth, etc. are arbitrarily juxtaposed to quotations from television serials, from Dick and Jane school readers, from academic literary criticism, in a double-edged collage that satirises the Canadian education system which has produced such naive and reverential readers. Here parodic satire and satiric parody join forces, for Atwoods parody of the academic genres of school reader and literary criticism directs a scornful attack at these texts which have been the training ground for naïve readers. How can they be any better when they have such insipid texts to learn from?
In performance, there is considerable overlapping of incongruous texts as in the first movement, the Childrens Song, when a chorus chants from a school primer (Run-run-run/Run-run-run/See-see-see/Dick and Jane/Run) while the tenors describe the experience of a little boy going to school, ending with the famous lines of Shakespeare, reshaped to fit a new metre and rhyme: A whining schoolboy with my lunchpail/Creeping, creeping like a snail/Unwillingly to school. The bards rich use of metaphor here is ironically contrasted to the dull blue book and limited vocabulary presented to children in school today. Similarly, in The Highschool Play which follows, the speakers voice quoting All the worlds a stage, merges with the chorus narrative describing an evenings performance in the school auditorium, a poor performance to a captive audience forced to see Julius Caesar Thats the play on the course,/This year. Introduced by the Principal with a speech Saying how much old Shakespeare/Has to teach, the play closes with a teacher herd(ing) the students out. Intersecting is the lacklustre tone of an actor speaking out the lines Liberty!/Freedom!/Tyranny is dead. Shakespeares words ironically contrast with the students sheep-like behaviour. With such unpromising introductions to the world of letters, it is not surprising that the audience for the opening night in the succeeding sequence seems more like a group of mannequins than people. For the Canadian academic system has first given them pablum, then destroyed any spontaneous popular culture to turn them into automatons.
The blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the teachers, we are led to conclude in the following sequence, A Theoretical Discussion, where Atwoods sarcasm is revealed in yet another parody, of academic discourse this time, rather than of school books. By parodying the genres and conventions active in it, Atwood satirises the pretensions of the Canadian cultural institution. Her challenging, but generally respectful parody of Shakespeare, gives way here to the more marked and deflating ethos of parodic satire. As the first speaker mockingly introduces them, these learned gentlemen have been at a great feast/Of language, and stolen the scraps. Atwood has great fun in this section cataloguing the inanities of scholars who have hunted through the registers to prove the bard was really Colin Clout, have counted commas to prove him a mystic, or discovered Hamlet to be a sun-king and thus claimed him as a mythologist. All the schools of literary criticism are reduced to their lowest common denominator: all then shout out their slogan at once, in competition with the chorus, which chants the name Shakespeare. The single voice of the speaker, emerging as the voice of the bard himself, quotes from the plays.
Psychologist! Mythologist! Shake-speare! Take him for all in Archeologist! Symbologist! Shake-speare! all, he was a MAN!
The section concludes with Shakespeares epitaph, in which he curses the one who moves his bones, by implication, the critics. By shifting the focus of her attention to a satiric parody of the critics and the contemporary literary institution, Atwood prepares the ground for a respectful parody of Shakespeares work, one which cements the bond between creative artist and popular audience by excluding the institutional apparatus of interpretation that would come between them in its role as agent of canonisation and hierarchisation.
Undoubtedly the most complex parodies written by Atwood are to be found in the contributions she made to Acta Victoriana under the pseudonym Shakesbeat Latweed The first of these pieces of satire attacking the naïveté of readers and young writers alike was a co-production of Atwood and Dennis Lee. Atwood later adopted the mocking pseudonym as her own, signalling through it the complex ethos of these pieces which range from respectftul parody of the Shake, to the contesting and deflating parody of the beat, to the mocking or sarcastic parody of Latweed. As this name also indicates (Latweed, Atwood, Lee), Atwoods parody here is very much self-parody of her own naive aspirations as a neophyte poet, primarily, at this point, a voracious reader. This is a pressage of the type of self-parody in Lady Oracle, where she mocks her literary use of venerable conventions like the female gothic and surrealist automatic writing. In these pieces of literary satire, the critical function predominates. Atwood directs her parody to her preferred agons with the canon, the current debased state of Canadian culture, which has resulted in the inhospitable climate for Canadian poets whose efforts cannot be intelligently read by illiterates, and an opposed vein of criticism, directed at the canon itself which, through the aegis of the English department, has become the nourishment of the young poet, and made the problem of originality a crucial one for her. Either choice, abandonment of pattern and archetype, or too-slavish respect of it, cripples the poet.
Within these early essays, Atwood recontextualises the battle between tarzanist and academic poets, clearly indicating her own place among the latter group. In The Poetry of the People, Atwood turns her attention to the state of Canadian culture in what is the characteristic mode of these essays, parodies of different schools of poetry within a parody of the critical essay.50 In these parodies within parodies, the lack of consciousness of the first the unwitting parodies written by poetasters is brought to attention in the second. In its opening lines, The Poetry of the People announces its satiric intention:
These myopic critics have missed the mark. Their narrow and rather fuzzy gaze has focussed only on what are known as literary poets the poets who write for people who read and has thus overlooked the great bulk of Canadian poetry. This lamentable mistake stems in turn from a more grievous one: the attitude that Canada is a literate nation.
This, as anyone will affirm who has ever done Gallup Poll interviews, been a door-to-door salesman, or lectured in a university, is erroneous. The majority of Canadians neither read nor write. Consequently, the real Canadian poetic tradition is, like that of the pre-Hellenistic Greeks or the modern-day Arabian nomads, an oral one. (p. 9)
This oral poetry is not primitive, but highly sophisticated: folk-poetry has reached a stage of extreme subtlety and complexity. Drawing on the best English traditions for its material it is rich in symbolism, and sophisticated in syntax and rhythm. This eulogy is prologue to the naming of the genre of folk-poetry in question; the Radio singing commercial. The diversity of this material which at first strikes one as an immense Augean Stable of words becomes more comprehensible as the researcher turns on it the full battery of techniques of literary analysis. Atwoods essay becomes a parody of literary criticism which it turns upside down to catalogue and analyse the empty words of commercials, finding deep meaning in them.
Both commercials and criticism are mocked in the recontextualisation which brings them together. First to be identified is the Cola School of mystic aphorisms, The Pause that Refreshes. Then the critic turns to the romantic Cleanser Movement (p. 10) whose symbolism is one of Removal. Dirt (being) sacrificed . . . by the archetype of the Cleanser. There follows a quotation of the Ajax commercial, with a verbal reproduction of the sound music, this twist on the original effecting an additional irony, underlined by the unusual plain speaking of the commentary: Get Ajax (bum bum) etc. (p. 10). The commercial is then subjected to the full battery of critical intelligence which brings to critical attention the unwitting parody of the original, dependent as it is for meaning on a reworking of classical stories. As Latweed writes:
In this free-verse fragment, the Cleanser is actually named (with the adjectival epithet Foaming: one is reminded of Ox-Eyed Hera in the Iliad. The Dirt is also specifically indicated. Notice, by the way, the rather abstract refrain probably a corruption of some previously meaningful phrase, now obscured by time). (p. 10)
The word bum is not at all obscure, being indeed the object that necessitates Ajaxs cleansing power. Latweeds phrase, though, is a lucid definition of parody, centering as it does on the difference in meaning introduced by repetition in a changed context. It is also a stab at the critic who would subject Atwoods own essay to such a thorough study of archetypes and sources. Mea Culpa.
The second example of this school of folk-poetry is the Florient commercial, which is refocussed through the erudite commentary wherein Atwood clearly underlines the archetypal significance of the poem in a form of reductio ad absurdam: The form, obviously, is lyric; but the content is dramatic. Here, the cleanser is designated by a multiple epithet, a folk-memory, no doubt, of his mythological status as a vegetation god and an air-spirit (p. 11). Atwoods final example of the genre is a playfully mocking parody in which the Bromo Selzer ad is juxtaposed to the codes of Renaissance pastoral to become a dialogue of Nymph and Shepherd.
Nymph: Lymp-dum-da-dum, da-dum-da-da. . .
Shepherd (alarmed): What was that?
Nymph: I take Bromo for fast relief.
Shepherd (even more alarmed): You do WHAT?
Nymph: I said
I take Bromo for fast relief . . .
Here the Shepherds questions signal the refocussing that is parody, introducing the critical function into the poetic discourse itself. This is effectively brought to our attention in the second containing parody, the critical commentary. Through its own incredible mishmash of codes this is a parody of the critical apparatus.
Here the poet is creating for the sheer joy of creation, fitting his words into an ancient question-and-answer pattern almost Trope-like in form, but embodying in his obscurely symbolic words and Dadistic sounds all that is unquestionably modern. The Freudian sequence of thought, beautiful in its idiomatic simplicity, has obvious death-wish undertones. (p. 11)
Atwood refers here to the playful joy of creation, that is the parodists, indirectly looking back to the pleasure of the clash of codes, characteristic feature of her own early parody of advertising, Synthesia. In the present case the satiric ethos dominates, the critical function of the mockery being foregrounded through the framing essay with its profoundly sarcastic closing words about the profound eloquence, of this contemporary folk poet who moulds the soul of the Canadian People.
The penchant of this folk-poet for unwitting parody is intensified in other mock-essays by Shakesbeat Latweed where this tendency is identified in the academic as well as the Tarzanist poet, even horrors! in the work of Shakesbeat him(her)self. Anglo-Saxon and I is a playful and witty narrative about learning Anglo-Saxon at university.51 It focuses on the problem of translation and the difference in meaning that arises in this form of respectful parody, even when one is transliterating within the same language. For those who were there, it is clearly a satire on the revolution in the teaching of Anglo-Saxon that occurred at the University of Toronto in the 1960s as a result of trends in Anglo-Saxon scholarship. It is also a satire on the English curriculum with its emphasis on an historical approach to the literary canon. As well, it is a critical refunctioning of trends in Modern poetry. Criticism of the tradition is advanced here through parody. In contrast to the other two essays by Latweed I shall consider here, which are more properly examples of parodic satire, Anglo-Saxon and I is an example of satiric parody. The dramatic situation in question here is the clash resulting from the introduction of a radical progressive force, such as myself, into a static confining structure such as Anglo-Saxon (p. 18). The initial phase of the conflict occurs when the Anglo-Saxon Professor asks Mr. Latweed to translate. He has been listening to the sounds of the poems, dreaming of Aelfric and the Cakes, and challenges the professor on the question of translation. Usually thought of as a repetition characterised by identity, translation, Mr. Latweed shows, is repetition with a difference, a transcontextualising of meaning. Mr. Latweed points this out in his replies to the professor which emphasize his position as a great authenticarian. The proper response would be to adopt the spontaneous oral tradition of Caedmon and to sing with a harp. Not impressed, the Professor continues to push the issue. Mr. Latweed responds with a parody of homolinguistic translation in which the sound of the words remains constant while the meaning changes totally. As his commentary phrases it, it has undergone semantic evolution since the time of composition. The passage from The Wanderer where he laments his solitude reads:
Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwipan; nis nu cwicra nan
pe ic him modsefan minne durre
It is translated as:
Often I scold Anna that is the little boy speaking
out of the wheelchair
quipping, Mine car!! Is not quick ran Anne
Theeking (this is baby-talk for seeking) mother-safety (I conjecture that the first syllable of the compound, modesfan is a familiar term for Mother, corresponding to Ma or Mum) at Minnys door (Minny is the older sister; the mother must be either dead or divorced); sweetly I sock Anne (p. 19).
Compounding the irony, Mr. Latweed contributes a commentary pointing out that the style is like a combination of James Joyce and Walt Kelly, with somewhat of a e.e. cummings format, hereby underlining the transcontextualisation he has effected in case the reader has failed to notice the parody. Similarly, he breaks the frame of illusion to take note of the readers response, commenting on the state of confusion, of the professor, and indirectly of the reader, lost in the bewildering incongruity of juxtaposed literary codes.
But this is only the first parody in an escalating conflict between poet and professor. For the next class, Latweed prepares exhaustively (and exhausts the literary tradition) for the translation of a passage from the Wanderer which he presents to us in his literal translation:
Often the solitary man for himself awaits the kindnesses
the mercy of the measurer although he sad at heart
over the waterways for a long time had to
stir with his hands over the sea as cold as frost
travel the paths of exile.
As he avows, this did not quite satisfy my aesthetic sensibilities, and, as he tells the Professor, being somewhat of a poet myself, he composes a translation in verse to capture the wistful undertones of the original. In this, the Wanderer is reworked in the style of Edgar Allan Poe and the black Romanticism of the nineteenth century.
As he wanders weak and weary
Oer many a cold and dreary
Frosty exild path the salty Boreas blows,
The lone man must cry for blessin
For the sad hearts hopes that lessen,
And paddle in the water with his toes. (20)
Again, Latweeds critical commentary self-reflexively foregrounds the process of writing, bringing to our attention the parody. As he writes: I could hardly restrain myself from adding something about the lost Lenore or a comforting crowd of golden daffodils, but I reflected that, after all, poetic liberty is not poetic license (p. 20). Ironically, however, the bathos of the final line of his translation betrays him as the ultimate libertine whose license has been so excessive as to totally transform the poem the extreme antagonist of the authenticarian he has claimed to be.
In this challenge, the inevitable happens: the professor, representative of tradition, loses to the aspiring poet, voice of novelty. In the final challenge, Latweed threatens to expose the professor for his archaic views, for being a nineteenth-century Romantic which will effectively exclude him from the Isaacs gallery and the Tamarack Review, leaving him the Canadian Authors Association as sole literary haunt. Since this association has been satirically denounced by F.R. Scott in 1926 in The Canadian Authors Meet for its antiquated views on art,52 this threat meant banishment to the dark ages of Canadian culture, consignment to the ranks of Reaneys dear bad poets.53 In place of translation in Anglo-Saxon class, Mr. Latweed proposes poetry readings, providing a platform for the best Modernist verse, which, as you have assumed already, is based on the parodic recontextualising of tradition in a way that emphasises the difference of the modern moment, rather than stressing continuity and identity with the past. Latweed has successfully exorcized this past through his successive reworking of The Wanderer in line with the main development of English poetry. Indirectly, in Anglo-Saxon and I, Atwood outlines the project of Modernist verse and places herself within it, albeit as the butt of her satire at the expense of Mr. Latweed.
The same point is made more explicitly in The Expressive Acts, an essay that focuses on the growth of a poet.54 One of Atwoods most playful parodies, it is also one of her most satiric ones even as it is one of her most respectful parodies. For in this essay, she focuses on what was indeed the central dilemma for her as a poet, the conflict between art and life, between tradition and experience, the conflict that brought her to parody in the first case. For through this genre she could satisfy the contradictory impulses of creation through destruction. Satirically, the essay foregrounds this feature of parody in its conclusion: the ultimate expressive act turns out to be the conflagration of all compositions by poetaster Latweed. Latweeds artistic temperament declared itself early, he informs us, though even he failed to recognise his bent until he began to tear books into meaningful shapes instead of just pieces, around the age of five.55 Prophetically, this proves to be the summit of his achievements, for his technique remains unchanged. Such talent could be devoted to painting, music, sculpture or architecture with equal benefit, but Latweed decides to consecrate himself to the sublimest of muses, and so buys a typewriter (p. 14). He goes to school to the masters, but produces early works deemed obscure. This, he continues, is the result of the influence that literary criticism had on my young and easily fevered brain, most specifically the influence of Northrop Frye compounded with that of T.S. Eliot, as Latweed makes clear by falsely attributing a quotation of the latter to a reworked title by the former. Poems are made from other poems; a good poet steals more often than he imitates, pronounced my oracle, The Autonomy of Criticism (or was it The Anatomy of Melancholy)? Recognising that one of the main tenets of modernist poetry is the critical reworking of tradition, Latweed decides to outdo both Eliot and Pound.
True, at least fifty percent of their respective works was composed of quotes: some recognisable, some acknowledged, some even explained; but in between, there were patches that smelt suspiciously of originality. Charlatans, I thought, and sneered. I resolved to compose a poem that would consist of nothing but quotations and footnotes. (p. 14)
The result is a most playful agon with literary fathers, the parodic signalling once again being effected through an incredible confusion of juxtaposed codes.
As Latweed sums it up I had achieved my goal: a really authentic poem. So original in fact is the poem, as to be complete nonsense. A number of the footnotes, a parody of literary scholarship here detoured from critical essay to creative work, refer to Lewis Carroll who misquotes someone else. Atwood in turn provides false leads, as in the final note which refers to the mythic Robert W. Serviceberry, a poet of the Canadian north, and author of Songs of Sauerkraut, a travesty of Robert Services Songs of a Sourdough. However, this final quotation provides the critical aparatus which foregrounds the process of the poem: The last line assimilates the diverse cultures of the past with the reality of the present. Atwood self-reflexively offers the key to her own process of composition. The banality of this line, however, underlines the arbitrary nature of the process of selection, which has indeed made the poem highly original and totally different from its varied sources. As Atwood points out in this parodic satire, the effect of quotation in a new context is to introduce difference, rather than to reinforce similarity between the instances of enunciation. In inflated terms borrowed from a tradition of literary criticism (via Sydney and Spenser), Latweed lauds the success of his reading and extolls the virtues of literature from the Ivory Tower: Had I not steered the ship of Poesy safely to the Bower of academic Bliss, planted her anchor of Hope firmly in the fertile cultivated ground of Truth, and harvested her fruits, fully formed, from the forehead of Zeus? (p. 15).
The high style of this aesthetic is challenged, however, by the Prophet from Montreal who delivers a message from the Fount of Experience, introducing the strategic split which makes Atwoods essay a ludic remarking of the convention of the portrait of the artist novel.56 The Prophet preaches Live Life and Write a message that is upsetting to a young poet who has had little Time to live Life. The poetaster recognises that poems arent snipped from literature but sliced from life, but nonetheless proceeds to live life in the same way as always. He goes out to buy the Prophets book, A Yellow Doormat for the Moon, which the reader recognises as a refiguration of Irving Laytons landmark book, Red Carpet for the Sun. The introduction to this book put forward a platform for the Canadian tarzanists, with their Dionysian and populist perspective, that has since been held to oppose the elitist and erudite poetry of the Preview group, Fryes academic poets.
Following Laytons model, for he is still a voracious reader, Latweed sets off to the bar to drink beer and wait for inspiration. After nine beers, he scrawls:
there is no beer within my glass
alas alas alas alas
This is a travesty of a working class poem. Latweed this time is greatly discouraged and gives up his stack pass, indicating in this manner that he has abandoned reading entirely, ironically thus undercutting the empty pretensions of Laytons aesthetic which is equally dependent on the activity of reading, and on representation and repetition. This change is brief, however, for in the succeeding paragraph, Latweed has once again become an enthusiastic reader, finding revival through the work of John Dewley (a parodic signal twisting the name of John Dewey) whose book on Aesthetics teaches Latweed that the Artist is concerned with neither Literature nor Life, but only with himself. Reaching for the real work of art formed by the white heat of a self-expressive act, Latweed tears up the pages of his poetry and sets fire to it. This is the supreme fiction, the supreme irony of the poem as self-consuming artifact. In this he presages the concrete art of the Royal Porcupine in Lady Oracle, even as he satirically parodies the activities of abstract expressionism, the happening.
Shakesbeat Latweed may have thrown away his stack pass. But from the poetic evidence he has given of his reading, he has no more need of it, having thoroughly digested the Great Tradition of English literature canonised by the academy. Indeed, his poems may be thought of as his academic passport, his equivalent to the comprehensive examination, necessary to graduate and become a teacher in that tradition. His satire is at the expense of the reader too, our voracious appetites having led us to devour his text. We have been suckers clinging to the pumpkin vine of the Mad Mother.
Nor, for that matter, has Margaret Atwood ceased to read. Indeed, a novel in progress has the working title Emma, suggesting that it is another reworking of those classical studies of voracious readers Emma and Mme Bovary.57 Regional Romances, or Across Canada by Pornography (1974), written for the Writers Union pornography project, is a ludic parody of Canadian regionalist literary classics, from Ernest Bucklers The Mountain and the Valley set in the Maritimes, through Susanna Moodies Roughing It in the Bush and Sinclair Rosss As for Me and My House to Bill Bissetts chants to Mother earth. Simultaneously, this text satirically travesties pornography by suggesting that Xenophobia (Ontario stinks!) is a synonym for making out.58 Atwoods major literary works published since the mid-sixties have continued this concern with the production, reproduction and dissemination of literary texts, when they foreground the writers activity as reader and the processes whereby we make sense of what we read by comparing and contrasting a new work to one we have previously read.
Simultaneously, Atwood has foregrounded the evolution of the literary tradition in her works by critically refunctioning the works of the past in order to make alternate readings of them possible, from Canadian and from feminist perspectives. She has made use of parody to actively engage with the monuments of the past even as she is casting them down to make way for new classics. This engagement with tradition, with literary history and with the ideology of canonisation, while it valorises them, simultaneously emphasizes the process of perpetual change in literature, the drive to make it new. In this focus on the structure and reception of preformed literary material and in the foregrounding of the processes of representation to provide a critique of literature as a reflection of another world, Atwoods parody exhibits the metacritical function, the concern with reflexion and reflection, that are characteristic of the post-modernist episteme, to adopt Foucaults term.59 Margaret Atwood is a highly self-conscious writer, nowhere more so than in the self-parodies in which she explores her own predilection for palimpsestic texts. That this self-reflexive element is a constant of her writing, I have attempted to illustrate through this study of her earliest published work.
In light of the tradition of critical reading/writing identified by Shakesbeat Latweed, I think of my own essay as an example of respectful parody, bearing the title Repetition and Difference.60
Dec. 13, 1961. Margaret Avison, September 8, 1961. [back]
Citation, II Citation et intertextualité, Parachute 16, 18, (1979,
1980), pp. 5-8, 25-32, p. 29 quoted. [back]
See note 10, above. [back]
See note 8, above. [back]
Mad Mother Ballad II, Mad Mother Lullaby, The Day After You Were Born, mss. in the Atwood papers, Box 10. [back]