by George J. Dance


Margaret Avison (1918-2007). Courtesy Brick Books.

Margaret Avison
Born April 23, 1918
Galt, Ontario
Died July 31, 2007 (aged 89)
Toronto, Ontario
Language English
Citizenship Canada Canadian
Genres poetry
Notable work(s) Winter Sun, The Dumbfounding, Concrete and Wild Carrot, No Time
Notable award(s) Governor General's Award, Order of Canada, Griffin Poetry Prize

Margaret Avison, OC (April 23, 1918 - July 31, 2007) was a Canadian poet who won Canada's Governor General's Award and 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. As a teenager she was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa.[4]

She attended Victoria College at the University of Toronto, getting a B.A. in 1940 (and returning to pick up an M.A. in 1965).[3] She began publishing poetry in the college magazine, Acta Victoriana.[5]

"Despite the fact that Avison dedicated her life to poetry, she 'never wanted to "be a poet."'"[4] She "worked as a librarian, social worker, and teacher, writing her poetry in the evenings."[6] "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.'"[4]

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."[5]

"In addition to her own poetry, Avison translated poems and short stories from Hungarian to English."[7]

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.)[4]

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.[8]

It was not until 3 years later that her debut collection 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.[4] She wrote about that experience in her next 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."[9]

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]

Her fourth collection of poems, No Time, came out in 1990, and won her a second Governor General's Award.[10]

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."[6] "Many critics compare her work to the great metaphysical poets of the 17th century."[9]

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."[5] "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."[8]

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."[8]

"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."[8]

"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."[5] "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."[9]

"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."[5]

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."[6]


Avison's first book of poetry, Winter Sun won the Governor General's Award for English language poetry or drama for poetry in 1960.[1]

She became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984.[6]

Her 4th collection of poems, No Time (1990), won her a 2nd Governor General's Award for English language poetry.[10]

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.'"[11]



  • Winter Sun. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 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 Press, 1970.
  • sunblue. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1978.
  • Winter Sun / The Dumbfounding: Poems, 1940-66. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982.
  • No Time. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1989; London, ON: Brick Books, 1998.
  • Selected Poems. Toronto: Oxford University Press , 1991.
  • Not Yet but Still. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1997; London, ON: Brick Books, 1998.
  • Concrete and Wild Carrot. London, ON: Brick Books, 2002.
  • Always Now: Collected poems (3 volumes), Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill, 2003-2005.
  • Momentary Dark. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.
  • Listening: last poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009.[12]

Non-fiction Edit

  • History of Ontario [for Grade VII] (illustrated by Selwyn Dewdney). Toronto : W.J. Gage, 1951.
  • The Research Compendium: Review and abstracts of graduate research, 1942-1962. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, [1964?]
  • A Doctor's Memoirs (from papers and conversations with Dr. A.I. Wolinsky). Toronto: Macmillan, 1960
  • A Kind of Perseverance. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1994
  • I am Here and Not Not-There: An autobiography. Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill, 2009.


  • Acta Sanctorum (translated with Ilona Duczynska & Peter Owen), 1966.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the University of Toronto..[13]

Poet Margaret Avison reads from Concrete and Wild Carrot

Poet Margaret Avison reads from Concrete and Wild Carrot

Margaret Avison reads from Not Yet but Still (Brick Books)

Margaret Avison reads from Not Yet but Still (Brick Books)

See alsoEdit



  • Kent, David, ed. Lighting Up The Terrain: The Poetry of Margaret Avison. Toronto: ECW, 1987.
  • 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.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Michael Gnarowski, "Avison, Margaret," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 156.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Margaret Avison," Encyclopaedia Britannica, Britannica Online, Web, Apr. 3, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Margaret Avison: Biography," Canadian Poetry Online,, Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Zachariah Wells, "Book Review: I Am Here and Not Not-There," Quill & Quire (December 2009), Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 "Margaret Avison, Canadian Poet," Argot Language Centre, Web, Apr. 3, 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 "Margaret Avison (1918-2007)," Poetry Foundation, Web, Apr. 3, 2011.
  7. "Margaret Avison,' Canadian Books & Authors, Web, Apr. 2, 2011
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "Margaret Avison,", Web, Apr. 11, 2011.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "Canadian poet Margaret Avison dies at 89," CBC News: Arts and Entertainment, August 10, 2007. Web, Apr. 4, 2011.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Noor Javed, "Poet Avison's 'incalculable' contribution to Canadian literature," Globe & Mail, Aug. 10, 2007. Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  11. "Canada loses 'national treasure' with death of prize-winning poet," Vancouver Sun, Aug. 11, 2007. Web, Apr. 2, 2011.
  12. Margaret Avison, Listening: last poems (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009), Print.
  13. "Margaret Avison: Published Works," Canadian Poetry Online, University of Toronto Libraries,, Web, Apr. 2, 2011.

External links Edit

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