- Compose a “window poem,” like Avison’s. Position yourself at different windows in a house or other building and write a poem, or series of poems, that likewise note the outside and inside, past and present, of what you see.
- Linda Bierds’s poem guide suggests that Avison’s poem “denies no journey.” First, attempt to chart the sight lines in the poem as Bierds does. Then, try writing a poem that mimics Avison’s journeys but in a completely different context or situation (you might try writing a structurally similar poem with opposite contents, for example).
- The term “window-ledge” appears three times in “New Year’s Poem.” How does the poem explore other thresholds, or zones of contact, between different spaces (inside/outside, or earth/sky) and states (past/present, but also life/death)? How do thresholds echo or complicate the final mirror image in the poem?
- Avison’s poem is a good example of free verse. Read the glossary’s definition: how does the poem follow or not follow “the natural rhythms of speech”? If this doesn’t sound or read like speech to you, what kind of language is it? Think about the implications of equating free verse and speech: could you, for example, “translate” Avison’s poem into an actual example of a person speaking? What would the poem look or sound like?
- Use Avison’s poem to think more deeply as a class about free verse. You might begin your conversation with the second discussion question above: after reading the glossary entry on free verse, ask students to think about how Avison’s poem follows or departs from the criteria. What are the “natural rhythms of speech”? (You might have them do the exercise embedded in the discussion question in pairs or small groups.) After thinking about speech and conversation, turn to the free verse line. A commonplace about free verse is that, without any metrical scheme for guidance, line endings become extra-meaningful. Ask students to test this notion out on Avison’s poem: do her line endings create meaning? What kinds of words do they end on? Do the lines operate as units of sense? What about the “waist lines” as Linda Bierds describes them—what’s special about such irregular spacing? After discussing Avison’s poem in the context of the glossary’s definition of free verse, have your students revise or rewrite the definition.
- “New Year’s Poem” is a kind of occasional poem: one written for a particular event or occasion. Have your students research and find other examples of occasional poetry. Ask them to think about the differences between occasional verse: how do poems written for public events differ from Avison’s, which seems to commemorate a purely personal moment? Compare Avison’s poem to other poems written in honor of holidays: what kinds of language do the poems deploy? To what ends? Who does the audience for each poem seem to be and how does that affect the poem’s tone, mood, form, and content? As a final exercise, students might write their own occasional poem, either for a holiday or public event. Ask them to think about the audience as well as the “occasion” to which their own poem will respond.
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Margaret Avison: “New Year's Poem”
I have always been drawn to poems that contain, within their meditative movements, a hint of narrative and a textured visual richness. Certainly Margaret Avison’s lovely “New Year’s Poem” holds that triple attraction: deeply meditative, it is a feast for the eyes, while its delicate narrative allows me to sample, again and again, a formal seasonal party and its quiet aftermath. Still, it is not Avison’s difficult balance of image, thought, and story that I most admire in “New Year’s Poem”: It is her remarkable achievements with structure. Using fir needles and starlings, Arcturus and a single, luminous pearl, Avison has crafted journeys: vertical, circular, concentric, diagonal, temporal, and interior.
From our position beside the poem’s speaker, we follow her gaze—as we follow Avison’s almost stair-stepping initial lines—down to a windowledge and a solitary pearl, a pearl that in turn has spilled down, not only from the neck of its wearer but from the past. Where has it landed? Farther down, it seems, in the suet and snow. But no, it is here, back up on the windowledge, sharing its glow with the glow of the present morning.
The pearl’s vertical journey through space is mirrored twice at the poem’s center, as the speaker turns her gaze from the apartment’s interior down through the window to the birdclaw-etched snow, then up to Acturus, then down once again to the courtyard, and up to the windowledge—while time shifts, as it did for the pearl, from the past of memory to the present morning. What movements we’ve experienced in nine lines!—from the grave to the celestial, then again, in miniature, from the skull-and-crossbones aftermath of the birds to the amber crusts of bread now lifting within their lifting bodies.
And what of those “waist” lines? Those quiet, centered moments that, taken together, echo haiku? I’m reminded once more of the birdfoot Xs etched in snow. The lines of the X, its bones, cross through one another on their diagonal journeys, each holding, for a moment, a bit of the other as they meet. So these momentary, centered lines hold a bit of the poem’s past and a bit of its future. The solitary pearl cast its glow upward to illuminate the dying season and downward to blend with the opening morning. “I remember” touches the “black-and-silver crisscross” of the formal party and the enigmatic, stiff grave of another season. What a “gentle and just pleasure it is,” Avison tells us, to know that a dark, cosmic-cast wind can, on occasion, smooth itself to stillness, just there at a windowledge, just there at our fingertips.
Or perhaps those compressed and centered lines, like stones dropped in a pond, create a concentric movement. This poem denies no journey. As its closing words circle back to its title, we might feel, also, that the poem’s final destination has always been the interior—which has, in turn, been its point of departure: the reflective human mind, unchilled and habitable, holding simultaneously what has fallen and will fall.
Linda Bierds on Margaret Avison’s “New Year's Poem” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.
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Margaret Avison was born in Galt, Ontario, Canada, and lived for many years in Toronto. She received a BA and an MA from the University of Toronto and worked as a librarian, social worker, and teacher, writing her poetry in the evenings. Avison’s collections of poetry include Winter Sun (1960), Dumbfounding (1966), Sunblue (1978), No Time (1990), Concrete and Wild Carrot (2002), and Momentary Dark (2006).
Avison became a devout Christian in 1963, and her work is often described by reviewers as introspective, observant, and deeply spiritual. Judith Fitzgerald, writing of Avison’s posthumous collection Listening (2009) in the Globe and Mail, commented: “An original, an authentic visionary without the flashily splashy trappings so often accorded those whose egos impose themselves upon others in their dubiously designated ‘poetry,’ Avison praises Creation in all its transplendent awesome/awful mutations.”
Avison was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984. She received the...
Poems By Margaret Avison
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