Hoping the Circles are Gyres

Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems 1965-1975 begins with a section entitled “from The Circle Game.” Not surprisingly, the dominant symbol in this section is the “circle,” a complex symbol that seems to have at least two distinct meanings for her. First, as used in the title poem, it seems to represent community, a group of children holding hands while going round and round. Second, as used in “A PLACE: FRAGMENTS” it seems to represent an inner unity that gives meaning to life. And, of course, these two definitions are interlinked.

While the title poem is a little too diffuse for my taste, I do like many of the images and lines in it. Her use of the image of children playing merry-go-round goes beyond the mundane when she states “We might mistake this/tranced moving for joy/but there is no joy in it” and “the whole point/for them/of going round and round/ is (faster/slower)/going round and round.”

I can certainly identify with this image of an activity that is supposed to be fun but ends up merely being another way of going round and round meaninglessly. She extends this symbol to an old fort and asks, “Why is it…that in this time, such/ elaborate defences keep/ things that are no longer/ (much) /worth defending.” It is hard to let down our defenses to others, even when the secrets no longer seem very important. From here, it’s only a short step to the description of someone significant in her life who is “…glad/ to be left/ out by himself/in the cold/ (hugging himself). Being a manly man, and an introvert, I can certainly identify with that image. Luckily, though, I’m also sensitive enough to identify with the ending lines of the poem, “and as we lie/ here, caught/in the monotony of wandering/ from room to room, shifting/ the places of our defences” … “I want the circle/ broken.” I love the subtle placement of “lie” at the end of the line to suggest the kinds of defences that people use with loved ones to protect that inner self.

Although I prefer sections of the longer poems to any single poem that appears in this section of the book, “Journey to the Interior” suggests one of the major themes in this section of the book:


There are similarities
I notice: that the hills
which the eyes make flat as a wall, welded
together, open as I move
to let me through; become
endless as prairies; that the trees
grow spindly, have their roots
often in swamps; that this is a poor country;
that a cliff is not known
as rough except by hand, and is
therefore inaccessible. Mostly
that travel is not the easy going

from point to point, a dotted
line on a map, location
plotted on a square surface
but that I move surrounded by a tangle
of branches, a net of air and alternate
light and dark, at all times;
that there are no destinations
apart from this.

There are differences
of course: the lack of reliable charts;
more important, the distraction of small details:
your shoe among the brambles under the chair
where it shouldn’t be; lucent
white mushrooms and a paring knife
on the kitchen table; a sentence
crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log
I’m sure I passed yesterday

(have l been
walking in circles again?)

but mostly the danger:
many have been here, but only
some have returned safely.

A compass is useless; also
trying to take directions
from the movements of the sun,
which are erratic;
and words here are as pointless
as calling in a vacant wilderness.

Whatever I do I must
keep my head. I know
it is easier for me to lose my way
forever here, than in other landscapes

I generally prefer a sharper focus than this in poems, but I find the overall metaphor interesting, and this sounds a lot like the trip all of us must take. Most of us that have started the trip would agree that “travel is not the easy going/from point to point” kind of travel. I particularly liked “a sentence/ crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log/ I’m sure I passed yesterday” for I find those kinds of sentences all the time in my writing, especially when looking in past journals. Atwood even manages to give another meaning to circles in the line “(have l been / walking in circles again?). Certainly we would agree that it is easier “to lose my way/forever here, than in other landscapes.”

Atwood seems to come as close to “breaking the circle” in part seven of “A Place: Fragments” as she does anywhere else in this selection of poems:


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.

The reason the people in the circle go nowhere is likely because they don’t understand themselves enough to ever break out of that circle. Without this understanding, they are incapable of conquering that feeling that life is just going round and round in endless circles.

How can you have a sense of direction if you don’t know who you are and what you want? Of course, it’s easier to sense that this “key” is missing than it is to find it. Perhaps, Atwood will give more clues to its location in later sections of the book. I’ll keep looking for it there for the next few days.

Loren Webster

19 thoughts on “Hoping the Circles are Gyres”

  1. good website but it would be good if you could send me some more information on youre thoughts regards to the poem- journey to the interior! thanks

  2. would it be possible to send me some inormation about the meaning of “journey to the interior” by margaret atwood

  3. I like the site…it gives good opinions about poems. Is it possible for you to send me more information about the meaning of ‘Journey to the Interior’ please?

  4. I usually write individuals and tell them this personally, but I’ve got so many requests on this poem that I’ll just state that I taught far too many years to help students analyze poems that they’re supposed to be doing on their own.

    Hopefully my analysis will help you get started on your own analysis, but what I think is certainly not going to be a substitue for what you think,

  5. Dear Loren,
    i too am trying to find some background information of Margaret Atwood’s “Journey to the Interior” and personally found it quite funny reading the messages on your website which all request the same poem. i would just like to congratulate you on the beautifully articulate way you said: ‘think for yourself!’ Well done!

  6. hehe~ i agree with what Bianca says ne ^-^
    i am too,starting to study this poem, find it a bit hard to get my hands on…well,thanks for your tips on the analysis of this poem,i’ll try to come up with some ideas of my own about this poem…^0^…maybe reading it a few more times would help me understand the poem a bit better~

  7. Thanks for the analysis, however im still finding it difficult to deconstruct the poem ‘Journey to the Interior’….any pointers?

  8. Hopefully you read the poem closer than you read the comments, Gee Ann.

    If you gain some great insights from your study, come back and leave some comments here so that others will gain from your work.

  9. I see this site is popular among year 12s graduating in 2004. I too, am out and about trying to fathom some info about Magaret Atwood. During a conversation, a peer of mine claimed her “house wife” role in life played an important influence in her writing, and hence in “Journey to the Interior”, but is it true and to what aspect,?,…Lorren, would you please let me know on what you think of this matter…

  10. So what words or phrases do you see in the poem that suggest “housekeeping” or “wifely” or “cooking” or “raising children” in this poem?

    I suspect that any role as important as being a “house wife” would play an important part in how we see the world. The statement seems true on its face, but you would be hard pressed to find concrete evidence of that in most of her poems that I look at.

  11. i am a year 12 student studying journeys at school and i was wondering if there is any background info i can get for the poem, Journey To The Interior, By margaret Atwood.

  12. people please leave this poor person alone! seriously, you dont completely get the poem, i’m pretty sure noone does, and thus there could be many interpretations. . . . “the lack of reliable charts”. so the way i see it is, make it up then back it up. anything goes as long as you can prove it and be consistent throughout your answer. . . . “it is easier for me to lose my way”. find all the background you can . . .BY YOURSELF so as to add integrity to your answer, the write it. say what does that word mean to me, then look at YOUR info on Atwood’s life and say what those word could mean for her and bingo. context. . . .sorry it appears i am rambling. Good luck.

  13. Well u all, im in yr 12 too atm and i will have to agree with millie. Lorene will not spoon feed anyone, and she’s already provided pointers to give us ideas on Journey to the interior. With poems, u can basically make any thing up jus make sure u BACK IT UP. Dont stress too much, most ppl dont get poems. Good luck all in the HSC (althoug this is kinda early wishes)

  14. As the same as everyone that posted…i’m in yr12 now as well..and struggling to analysis this poem..mayb because of the use of some terms that i’ve not come across before or just because i cant see the MEANING and DEPTH behind it..Thanx for the part about the Journey Loren..helped..^^

  15. I’m a yr 12 student doing English Extension 2, and the meaning of the poem is quite elementary. What you guys are all failing to do is look at FORM. I’m not telling you the answer, because that WILL spoil all the fun. Note the juxtaposition created at the start of the first two stanzas. Essentialy from the literal, lower-order interpretation it appears to be a physical journey (boring). Just look at the first two sentences of those paragraphs and the meaning will come. Though, Niwa’s posit was quite true to an extent (backing up an interpretation), but sometimes they can be too far fetched and convoluted. Good luck. 🙂

  16. ANYONE , anyone please HELP! Please send me some info on Journey to the Interior, this is a matter of urgency, i’ve picked out the techniques but find difficulty in linking the techniques to the meaning and the concept of journey. Thanks!

  17. Scott, what a tosser you are. So what if you do Extension 2??? I do too and i dont get the damn poem, so quit acting like you’re “so above” those who do general english or whatever it is

  18. Sorry folks, this is not a high school help line. I’ve said all I have to say about this poem.

    As of today, all comments on this item are closed.

  19. Thank you so much for providing some very good entry points into these poems. I love poetry, and I’m usually very good at understanding it, but something about Atwood’s poetry seems to be lost on me most of the time. Thanks for your help!

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