On Reading Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game (1966)

“If you think you understand what you see on the surface, caution Atwood’s fathomless parentheticals, keep looking.”

1966; House of Anansi, 2012

So says Suzanne Buffam in her introduction to the new AList edition of this classic Canlit work.

(And don’t you love the word ‘parentheticals’?)

I’m not sure that I *do* understand what I see on the surface of the poems in The Circle Game, but I keep looking.

Margaret Atwood’s novels were some of the earliest grown-up books that I read, pulling the pocketbooks from my mother’s bricks-and-boards bookshelves.

So, I am interested in what “came before”.

So, apparently, was she.

In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes:

“The drawbacks to being a female writer — especially a female poet — were well known by the time I got there. Germaine Greer, in her very thorough book Slip-Shod Sibyls, has recounted the sad careers and frequently grim deaths of female poets from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.”

(I wonder: does the poem “A Sibyl” fit here?)

Margaret Atwood wonders: “Is that where the priestess of the imagination was fated to end up — as a red puddle on the floor?”

This question resurfaces, in a slightly different form, in a later essay on Canadian poet Gwen MacEwen, whom she met in the fall of 1960 at the Bohemian Embassy in Toronto.

At the time, the Embassy held poetry readings on Thursday evenings, and Margaret Atwood discusses the prominence of poetry in the Canadian literary scene overall.

“Indeed, for most of the 1960s poetry was the predominant literary form in Canada: the few existing publishers were reluctant to take chances with new novelists, as novels were expensive to produce and were thought to have a severely limited audience inside Canada and none whatsoever outside it.”

(Well, this is fifty years ago, right? Needless to say: things have changed.)

An other sense tugs at us:
we have lost something,
some key to these things
which must be writings
and are locked against us
or perhaps (like a potential
mine, unknown vein
of metal in the rock)
something not lost or hidden
but just not found yet

that informs, holds together
this confusion, this largeness
and dissolving
not above or behind
or within it, but one
with it: an

something too huge and simple
for us to see.

(From “A Place: Fragments”)

Perhaps it is both, too huge and simple for me to see; I have not spent a lot of time with Margaret Atwood’s poetry (although I did thoroughly enjoy The Door).

I was introduced to her poetry in English class, in grade 13, when my teacher explained Margaret Atwood’s “The Animals in That Country”.

(She chose that one deliberately, passing around dittoed copies; “The Ladylady” was in our Heath Introduction to Literature — and it was pulled from The Animals in That Country collection originally– but perhaps she didn’t care for it. She taught it alongside Alden Nowlan’s “The Bull Moose“.)

That poem is somewhat less mysterious to me, now, when I re-read, than the poems in The Circle Game, but I still wish my teacher was at my elbow, identifying tropes and re-reading key lines, unravelling the story behind them.

Margaret Atwood

The poems in this country are not readily accessible; they demand multiple readings (and perhaps a glass of wine, or perhaps a good novel to dip into alongside, stalwart and fortifying).

Still, although I obviously do not have a knack for playing The Circle Game, I admire the technique of a seasoned player: perhaps my score will improve with time.

Project Notes: 
Day 33 of 45: Sometimes I enjoy the meanderings that a book inspires more than the book itself. This was one of those cases. I dabbled in each of the books mentioned herein, and added a good number of new items to my TBR list (thanks to both the Heath Anthology and Margaret Atwood’s essays in Moving Targets. And it inspired actual meanderings as well; this slim volume fits easily in a purse, and I took it to a favourite neighbourhood cafe and thoroughly enjoyed a mocha and a cannelle, reading poems and staring out the window on a bright winter afternoon. Sure, it wasn’t The Embassy, but it was lovely all the same.

What’s the last book that you “scored” truly dismally with?



  1. Buried In Print March 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Karen – The Door has some real gems in it; I’d recommend that one as a good starting place, or perhaps some of the recordings that she has made of her work which can be found online. I hope you enjoy what you discover!

    Stefanie – I need that book that you recommended later last year about reading poetry…I can’t think of the title right now, but it was useful in terms of reframing the way that readers approach/experience poetry, and I had it from the library but at the “wrong time”.

    Debbie – Oh, that’s right: we completely disagree about Margaret Atwood…I had forgotten about that. (Heheh *grin)

    Sandra – You’ve quoted some of my favourite poems in that collection and, you’re right, a book poorly experienced at one time is often worth revisiting at a later time. If you haven’t read her essays, I bet you would enjoy those immensely as well (especially some of the bookish ones). I’m not sure if I will retry “The Circle Game” anytime soon, but I’ve not dismissed the possibility either!

  2. Sandra December 21, 2012 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Your review has reminded me of The Door which I was totally surprised to find that I very much liked and appreciated. The poem “Your Children Cut their Hands” is an amazingly insightful statement. In “At Brute Point” I love the line “(Could it be that we are the old people/already?/Surely not./Not with such hats.)” And this, from Owl and Pussycat, Some Years Later: “…:we were born with mortality’s/hook in us, and year by year it drags us/where we’re going:down. But/surely there is still/a job to be done by us, at least/time to be passed; for instance, we could/celebrate inner beauty. Gardens.” If I read The Circle Game it would have been years ago and I have no doubt I scored truly dismally. However, it just might be that I was not ready and perhaps I should try again? There is not one piece of Atwood’s fiction that I do not consider a favourite. Thanks for sending me back through The Door.

  3. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis December 20, 2012 at 8:39 am - Reply

    I think I’ve scored truly dismally with anything I’ve ever read of Atwood’s. After a while, that became tiresome. I like to be challenged, but not to feel the author is being haughty (“you won’t get this, I know you won’t – ever”) so I don’t read her anymore.

  4. Stefanie December 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    I don’t think many people read Atwood’s poetry. I like it quite a bit even though it is not easy to puzzle out sometimes. Haven’t read it in ages though. I think you just inspired me to pull a volume off the shelf! 🙂

  5. kaggsy December 19, 2012 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Like you, I haven’t explored much of Atwood’s poetry, although I love and have read many of her novels. I think the hint to look below the surface with her writing is apt – I often think what I’m reading is straightforward and simple but it never turns out to be so and ends up talking to me with her unique voice, and staying with me for a long time. Maybe I *should* make time for her poetry too – thanks for the review!

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