Margaret Avison

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Margaret Avison
Born April 23, 1918
Galt, Ontario
Died July 31, 2007(2007-07-31) (aged 89)
Toronto, Ontario
Language English
Citizenship Canadian
Alma mater Victoria University
Genre poetry
Notable works Winter Sun, The Dumbfounding,Concrete and Wild Carrot, No Time
Notable awards Governor General's Award, Officer of the Order of Canada, Griffin Poetry Prize

Margaret Avison, OC (April 23, 1918 – July 31, 2007) was a Canadian poet who twice won Canada's Governor General's Award and has also won its Griffin Poetry Prize.[1] "Her work has often been praised for the beauty of its language and images."[2]


Avison was born in Galt, Ontario, and grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, and Calgary, Alberta,[3] the daughter of a Methodist minister. She attended Alma College, located in St. Thomas, Ontario, ca. 1935.[4] As a teenager she was hospitalized for anorexia.[5]

She attended Victoria University in the University of Toronto, getting her B.A. in 1940 (and returning to pick up her M.A. in 1965).[3] She began publishing poetry in the college magazine, Acta Victoriana.[6]

"Despite the fact that Avison dedicated her life to poetry, she 'never wanted to "be a poet."'"[5] She "worked as a librarian, social worker, and teacher, writing her poetry in the evenings."[7] "Until her retirement at 68, she was a 'wage-earner,' never applying for a Canada Council grant and quitting several jobs whenever they threatened to evolve into a time-sucking 'career.'"[5]

She "has taught at Scarborough College, and did social work at the Presbyterian Church Mission in Toronto." [1] She "also wrote a textbook, History of Ontario, for junior high school students, published in 1951."[6]

"In addition to her own poetry, Avison translated poems and short stories from Hungarian to English."[8]

Avison's poem "Gatineau" appeared in Canadian Poetry Magazine in 1939. In 1943, anthologist A.J.M. Smith included her poetry in his Book of Canadian Poetry.[1] (In her autobiography, she mentions a "chaste skinny dip" with Smith.)[5]

In 1956 Avison received a Guggenheim Fellowship, "which she used to travel to Chicago. There she completed her first poetry anthology, Winter Sun." between 1956 and 1957.[9]

It was not until three years later that her first book of poems, Winter Sun, was published. Winter Sun won the Governor General's Award for poetry in 1960.[1]

Avison converted to Christianity (from agnosticism) in 1963.[5] She wrote about that experience in her second book of poetry, The Dumbfounding (1966). Her friend, English professor Joseph Zezulka, said of her Christian faith: "It was a private religious conviction, adding: "She was kindliness itself. She had so much tolerance and charity for her fellow beings, and I think that's the important thing about her Christianity."[10]

Avison was writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in 1972-73. From 1973 to 1978 she worked in the archives division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). In 1978 she joined Toronto's Mustard Seed Mission, and worked there until her retirement in 1986.[3]

Avison became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984.[7]

Her fourth collection of poems, No Time, came out in 1990, and won her a second Governor General's Award.[11]

In 2003 Avison's Concrete and Wild Carrot won the Griffin Poetry Prize.[1] "Lauding Avison as 'a national treasure,' Griffin Poetry Prize judges praised the 'sublimity' and 'humility' of her poetry -- which they described as 'some of the most humane, sweet and profound poetry of our time.'"[12]

Margaret Avison died in Toronto on July 31, 2007, age 89, from undisclosed causes.


Avison can be considered a spiritual or metaphysical poet; "her work is often described by reviewers as introspective, observant, and deeply spiritual."[7] "Many critics compare her work to the great metaphysical poets of the 17th century."[10]

The Encyclopædia Britannica describes her as a "Canadian poet who revealed the progress of an interior spiritual journey in her three successive volumes of poetry," referring to her first three books, Winter Sun, The Dumbfounding, and sunblue.[2]

With Winter Sun, "Avison established herself as a difficult and introspective poet given to private images and subtle shadings of emotion that challenge and frustrate the reader" (says The Canadian Encyclopedia). "These complexities in her writing conceal a deeply religious and vulnerable sensibility."[1] "In this volume the poet's subject matter varies from environmental destruction and the plight of the poor to metaphysical ponderings and playful explorations of language. Avison's emphasis is on looking at the familiar in new and thought-provoking ways."[6] "One of Avison's principal concerns in Winter Sun is perception, and she consistently emphasizes looking at the familiar in new and thought-provoking ways. Ernest H. Redekop has argued that 'there is a profound sense in Avison's poems that the world must not be forced into ordinary limits of sight and articulation.' In the poem "Perspective," for instance, Avison attacks linear perspective."[9]

The Dumbfounding was "a more accessible record of spiritual discovery, and a more revealing account of the unmasked, narrative 'I.'"[1] In this work, "Avison expresses her wonder at her own rediscovered faith. It employs the same poetic techniques as Winter Sun, but here the poet is no longer searching for meaning. "Truth" has been identified as the presence of a personal, loving, and forgiving God."[9]

"This was further developed in sunblue (1978), a combination of social concern and moral values fused by religious conviction and a continuing restatement of personal faith."[1] "Both Sunblue and No Time reconfirm Avison's commitment to her Christian faith.... In conjunction with their Christian themes, Avison's poems often celebrate the creative power of the imagination as well as examining the concept of paradoxes and depicting people and landscapes from conflicting viewpoints."[9]

"Avison has the reputation of being a cerebral poet. Her work has been characterized as 'intellectual'" and 'deliberate'; her use of word-play, disconcerting shifts in viewpoint, complex metaphors, and literary allusions make her poetry a challenge to read."[6] "The thing with her poetry is that you must grapple with it, it just does not open up. Its rewards come only to those are willing to make the effort," said Zezulka. "Her poems were not snacks, they were full meals."[10]

"Reviewers have praised the poet for using complex language not as an end in itself, but to accurately convey her subject matter: the love and power of God." While "some secularist critics find her post-conversion poetry too dogmatic," her defenders "claim that the purpose of Avison's poetry goes beyond that of simple religious proselytizing."[6]

Reviewing Avison's posthumous collection, Listening: Last Poems (2007), poet Judith Fitzgerald wrote of her: "An original, an authentic visionary ... Avison praises Creation in all its transplendent awesome/awful mutations."[7]



  • Winter Sun. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1960. London, UK: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1960.
  • The Dumbfounding. New York: Norton, 1966.
  • The Cosmic Chef Glee & Perloo Memorial Society under the direction of Captain Poetry presents an evening of concrete (poems by Margaret Avison [and others] edited by B.P. Nichol.); courtesy Oberon Cement Works. Ottawa: Oberon P, 1970.
  • sunblue. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot P, 1978.
  • Winter Sun/ The Dumbfounding: poems, 1940-66. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982.
  • Selected Poems. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1991.
  • No Time. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot P, 1989; London, ON: Brick Books, 1998.
  • Not Yet but Still. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot P, 1997; London, ON: Brick Books, 1998.
  • Concrete and Wild Carrot. London, ON: Brick Books, 2002. (winner of the 2003 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize)
  • Always Now: The Collected Poems. (in three volumes) Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill, 2003–2005.
  • Momentary Dark. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.
  • Listening: The Last Poems of Margaret Avison. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009.


  • I am Here and Not Not-There: An Autobiography. Porcupine's Quill, 2009
  • A kind of perseverance. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1994
  • A Doctor's Memoirs (from papers and conversations with Dr. A. I. Wolinsky) Macmillan, 1960
  • Acta Sanctorum (translation in collaboration with Ilona Duczynska & Peter Owen, 1966)
  • History of Ontario [for Grade VII] [illustrations by Selwyn Dewdney]. Toronto : W. J. Gage, 1951.
  • The research compendium; review and abstracts of graduate research, 1942-1962. [Toronto] University of Toronto Press [c1964]

Source for list of publications: "100 Canadian Poets" and the Margaret Avison page at Canadian Poetry Online].[13]

Works on Margaret Avison[edit]


  • Kent, David, ed. Lighting Up The Terrain: The Poetry of Margaret Avison. Toronto: ECW, 1987.
  • Kent, David A. Margaret Avison and Her Works. Toronto: ECW, 1989.
  • Mazoff, Chaim D. Waiting for the Son: Images of Release and Restoration in Margaret Avison's Poetry. Dunvegan, Ont.: Cormorant, 1989.


  • Anderson, Mia. "Conversation with the Star Messenger: An Enquiry into Margaret Avison's Winter Sun." Studies in Canadian Literature/Etudes en Literature Canadienne (SCL), 6.1 (1981): 82-132.
  • Bowen, Deborah. "Phoenix from the Ashes: Lorna Crozier and Margaret Avison in Contemporary Mourning." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 40 (1997): 46-57.
  • Calverley, Margaret. "'Service Is Joy': Margaret Avison's Sonnet Sequence in Winter Sun."Essays on Canadian Writing. 50 (1993): 210-30.
  • "The Avison Collection at the University of Manitoba: Poems 1929-89." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 28 (1991): 54-84.
  • Cohn-Sfetcu, Ofelia. "To Live in Abundance of Life: Time in Canadian Literature." Canadian Literature. 76 (1978): 25-36.
  • Guptara, Prabhu S. "A Dark Reservoir of Gladness: Margaret Avison's Third Volume of Verse."The Literary Criterion. 16.1 (1981): 42-45.
  • Jones, Lawrence M. "A Core of Brilliance: Margaret Avison's Achievement." Canadian Literature. 38 (1968): 50-57.
  • Kent, David A. "Wholehearted Poetry; Halfhearted Criticism." Essays on Canadian Writing. 44 (1991): 67-78.
  • Mazoff, David. "Through the Son: An Explication of Margaret Avison's 'Person.'" Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 22: (1988): 40-48.
  • Moisan, Clement. "Rina Lasnier et Margaret Avison." Liberte. 108 (1976): 21-33.
  • New, William H. "The Mind's (I's) (Ice): The Poetry of Margaret Avison." Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal. 16 (1970): 185-202.
  • Quinsey, K. M. "The Dissolving Jail-Break in Avison." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 25 (1989): 21-37.
  • Redekop, Ernest H. "Sun/Son Light/Light: Avison's Elemental Sunblue." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. 7 (1980): 21-37.
  • Somerville, Christine. "The Shadow of Death: Margaret Avison's 'Just Left or The Night Margaret Laurence Died.'" New, W. H. (ed.). Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1992: 55-59.
  • Sullivan, R. "The Territory of Conscience: The Poetry of Margaret Avison." Literary Half-Yearly." 32.1 (1991): 43-55.
  • Zezulka, J. M. "Refusing the Sweet Surrender: Margaret Avison's 'Dispersed Titles'" Canadian Poetry 1 (1977): 44-53.
  • Zichy, Francis. "'Each in His Prison/Thinking of the Key': Images of Confinement and Liberation in Margaret Avison." Studies in Canadian Literature. 3 (1978): 232-43.

Source for list of publications: "100 Canadian Poets" and the Margaret Avison page at Canadian Poetry Online.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Michael Gnarowski, "Avison, Margaret," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 156.
  2. ^ a b "Margaret Avison," Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica Online, Web, Apr. 3, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c "Margaret Avison: Biography," Canadian Poetry Online,, Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  4. ^ "Alma College Composite Class Photograph, 1935 - Margaret Avison," Elgin County Archives, Web, Oct. 21, 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d e Zachariah Wells, "Book Review: I Am Here and Not Not-There," Quill & Quire (December 2009), Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Margaret Avison, Canadian Poet Archived 2011-07-23 at the Wayback Machine.," Argot Language Centre, Web, Apr. 3, 2011. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "argot" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  7. ^ a b c d "Margaret Avison (1918-2007)," Poetry Foundation, Web, Apr. 3, 2011.
  8. ^ "Margaret Avison,' Canadian Books & Authors, Web, Apr. 2, 2011
  9. ^ a b c d "Margaret Avison,", Web, Apr. 11, 2011.
  10. ^ a b c "Canadian poet Margaret Avison dies at 89," CBC News: Arts and Entertainment, Aug. 10, 2007, Web, Apr. 4, 2011.
  11. ^ Noor Javed, "Poet Avison's 'incalculable' contribution to Canadian literature," Globe & Mail, Aug. 10, 2007. Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  12. ^ "Canada loses 'national treasure' with death of prize-winning poet Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.," Vancouver Sun, Aug. 11, 2007. Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  13. ^ "Margaret Avison: Published Works," Canadian Poetry Online,, Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  14. ^ "Margaret Avison: Criticism," Canadian Poetry Online,, Web, Apr. 2, 2011.

External links[edit]