If there’s a Canadian poem readers know by heart, chances are it’s Margaret Atwood’s four-liner “You Fit into Me”. A quick start: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye.” A quicker ending: “A fish hook / an open eye.” As short lyrics go, it’s flawless: perfectly judged and perfectly ruthless.
“You Fit into Me” was published in 1971, and its sting is a fair example of Atwood’s method at the time. The lovey-dovey snugness we associate with hooks and eyes is exactly the conditioned response she uses to draw blood. But you really have to go back to the late sixties and mid-seventies–when her fish hooks were at their sharpest–to understand why she caused such a stir when she came on the scene. _The Circle Game_ appeared in 1966 looking more or less like any other slim mid-century debut. But the differences were important. Daughter of an entomologist and student of Northrop Frye, Atwood fronted a poetry whose soundings of female consciousness were forensic and archetype-obsessed. She was, at heart, a young poet with an unstoppable knack (six books in the eight years from 1966 and 1974) for writing striking descriptions of extreme emotional states. Some of it recalled Anne Wilkinson, who also overhauled romantic emblems and came to conclusions that, for their time, were just as unflinching (“I’d love this body more / If graved in rigid wood / It could not move.”) But while Wilkinson’s poems simmered without boiling over, Atwood remade her anger into a series of attacks with no retreat….