Monday, July 28, 2014

Poetic Musings: "Found Tanka" by Margaret Atwood

Opening Quatrain of Power Politics by Margaret Atwood

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye

Found Tanka:

You fit into me
like a hook
into an eye ...
a fish hook
an open eye

The untitled quatrain above is the opening poem of Margaret Atwood's Power Politics, a "groundbreaking book and cultural document,.. characterized by a typical Atwoodian blending of genre and gender revisions" (Reingard M. Nischik, Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood, p. 18). It is one of her most famous poems and successfully sets the tone for the whole collection, in which Atwood incisively criticizes love as an "earthly religion" and dismantles all the ideals and conventions of love poetry (Nischik, p. 7).

Structurally speaking, Atwood's "found tanka" is made up of five poetic phrases (five ku in Japanese), and the two parts of the poem consist of similes, separated by "..." that gives the reader a longer pause to reflect on the significance of the superimposed image of psychological and physical brutality through the double meaning of "eye/I." And the use of enjambment in L2 helps foreground the image of a hook that creates different thematic and psychological effects in the two parts of the poem.

Thematically speaking, the opening simile suggests a complementary combination in which two people join together to form a loving relationship (between the active "you" and the passive "me"), and symbolically speaking, this emotionally positive simile embodies a sexual dimension -- a "scenario of possible penetration" (Nischik, p. 25). However, the superimposition of the second part of the poem makes a dramatic shift in theme and tone. It erases all the positive connotations of the first part by  specifying the meaning of "hook" and "eye" as fish hook and human eye and relating to each other in a brutally different way (Nischik, p. 25). The image of a fish hook in an open eye reveals a destructive and painful nature of the union. Through the skillful juxtaposition of these two different views of gender relations, Atwood's visually stunning and thematically unsettling "found tanka" stirs the reader's emotions and reflection on what a loving relationship/love is.

1 comment:

  1. Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. The resulting poem can be defined as either treated: changed in a profound and systematic manner; or untreated: virtually unchanged from the order, syntax and meaning of the original. The concept of found poetry is closely connected to the revision of the concept of authorship in the 20th century.

    -- excerpted from the Wikipedia entry, Found poetry, which can be accessed at

    Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

    A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.

    Examples of found poems can be seen in the work of Blaise Cendrars, David Antin, and Charles Reznikoff. In his book Testimony, Reznikoff created poetry from law reports, such as this excerpt:

    Amelia was just fourteen and out of the orphan asylum; at her

    first job--in the bindery, and yes sir, yes ma’am, oh, so

    anxious to please.

    She stood at the table, her blond hair hanging about her

    shoulders, “knocking up” for Mary and Sadie, the stichers

    (“knocking up” is counting books and stacking them in piles to

    be taken away).

    Many poets have also chosen to incorporate snippets of found texts into larger poems, most significantly Ezra Pound. His Cantos includes letters written by presidents and popes, as well as an array of official documents from governments and banks. The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot, uses many different texts, including Wagnerian opera, Shakespearian theater, and Greek mythology. Other poets who combined found elements with their poetry are William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky.

    The found poem achieved prominence in the twentieth-century, sharing many traits with Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheels and urinals. The writer Annie Dillard has said that turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. “The original meaning remains intact," she writes, “but now it swings between two poles.”

    -- "Poetic Form: Found Poem,", which can be accessed at