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Circle Game

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The appearance of Margaret Atwood's first major collection of poetry marked the beginning of a truly outstanding career in Canadian and international letters. The voice in these poems is as witty, vulnerable, direct, and incisive as we've come to know in later works, such as Power Politics, Bodily Harm, and Alias Grace. Atwood writes compassionately about the risks of love in a technological age, and the quest for identity in a universe that cannot quite be trusted. Containing many of Atwood's best and most famous poems, The Circle Game won the 1966 Governor General's Award for Poetry and rapidly attained an international reputation as a classic of modern poetry. This beautiful new edition of The Circle Game contains the complete collection, with an introduction by Sherrill E. Grace of the University of British Columbia.

96 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1964

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About the author

Margaret Atwood

583 books78k followers
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth ­ in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.

Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Associations: Margaret Atwood was President of the Writers' Union of Canada from May 1981 to May 1982, and was President of International P.E.N., Canadian Centre (English Speaking) from 1984-1986. She and Graeme Gibson are the Joint Honourary Presidents of the Rare Bird Society within BirdLife International. Ms. Atwood is also a current Vice-President of PEN International.

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5 stars
248 (25%)
4 stars
360 (37%)
3 stars
276 (28%)
2 stars
64 (6%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 100 reviews
Profile Image for Brittney Andrews (beabookworm).
135 reviews233 followers
November 22, 2017
Attagirl, Atwood - 3.5 STARS

I have nothing against this style of poetry, however, this book left me feeling pretty disoriented. It's a shame because--while I appreciated certain poems--I just couldn't appreciate this collection as a whole. I will say this though, when it comes to punctuation, stanzas, and tone: Margaret Atwood gets it!

Look, I don't expect everyone to like traditional poetry like I do, and I am also quite picky which is probably why I'm not super satisfied with this. That being said, while I didn't overall enjoy Ms. Atwood's collection, her talent as a writer is commendable, which is why she has my respect. Her poetry has substance to it, while most modern poetry these days seems to be lacking this aspect. This is one of the reasons why I refuse to hop on any mainstream bandwagons that think catchy, romantic Tinder pick-up lines equals poetry, it doesn't. *cough* Atticus *cough*. I am not saying you can't enjoy someone's work that is styled like a poem but there are a lot more authentic poets out there who write beautifully that deserve recognition. Obviously, this is just my personal opinion.

Now, let me end this review on a positive note.

This particular part in An Attempted Solution for Chess Problems created quite a visual and left me with chills:

The shadows of the chessmen
stretch, fall across her: she
is obsessed by history;
each wooden totem rises
like the cairn of an event
Profile Image for Sammy Mylan.
121 reviews3 followers
October 18, 2022
queen of parenthesis

even though i really liked some of the poems, it has that atwood tone that i can only describe as overly detached/observational, which i only like sometimes?? idk i feel like it was perfect for half the poems but the other half were less impactful

this is a photograph of me
evening train station, before departure
a descent through the carpet
the circle game
letters, towards and away
against still life
104 reviews2 followers
April 30, 2020
"(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion
but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)"
Profile Image for Delmy .
148 reviews
June 8, 2016
Normally, I love Margaret Atwood but this one just gave me a headache. If you read this pace yourself, do not try to read it all in one sitting. I find that reading poetry should be done in stages, at least in my case.
Profile Image for Chinook.
2,260 reviews19 followers
November 1, 2019
I really enjoyed the title poem. There were also several that were about travelling west by train, across the prairies into the mountains. I think then there’s one set perhaps in a Stanley Park in Vancouver, amongst the totem poles. Having done that trip, I really enjoyed those. Generally I found them very symbolic, which is something I often find difficult about poetry.
Profile Image for Mehmet.
60 reviews
June 25, 2021
I don't understand the parantheses, but I'm sure I will, one day.
Profile Image for Diane.
555 reviews8 followers
March 21, 2017
I am not really one that appreciates poetry on the whole, though now and then I'll read something I like. I didn't really like this collection though I thought, it being Margaret Atwood, that I would. There's a fairly long foreward that explains the meaning of a number of the poems, what the writer is saying, how it fits the theme of the title of the book. I reckon if it has to be explained to me, I'm not going to "get" it. And I didn't. I'm admitting the fault lies entirely on me. I would read a poem, sort of understand where it was going and then, wait, what? The next line would be completely off the wall and make no sense and it ruined the rest of it. I don't get that you can write a pretty sentence, put the words on different lines and it's now a poem. Apparently, how it's broken up into lines says something. *shrugs* It's kind of like modern art. The artist might say it means this but you really can make it mean anything you want. Vague and esoteric, symbolism and metaphor, it doesn't mix with the way my brain works. I don't insist that a poem rhyme but it has to make a bit of sense to me. These just confused me for the most part.
Profile Image for Carmen.
137 reviews51 followers
April 4, 2017
I'm still not sure I "get" poetry. But this wasn't a bad read. There were a few bits I really liked, and it wasn't too hard to get through. I'd probably need to spend more time analysing the poems than I did.

This was one of my favourite bits, from "Some Objects of Wood and Stone"

"and when we spoke /
we spoke /
the sounds of our voices fell /
into the air single and /
solid and rounded and really /
there /
and then dulled, and then like sounds /
gone, a fistful of gathered /
pebbles there was no point /
in taking home, dropped on a beachful /
of other coloured pebbles"
Profile Image for laura.
117 reviews
December 17, 2020
not perfect, but mountains of potential. im excited to read some of her later poetry.

and how about this:

It is not available to us
is not available, I said
closing my house against you.

I live in a universe mostly paper.
I make tents
from cancelled stamps.

are permitted but
don't touch me, I'd crumple

I said

everything depends on you

staying away.
Profile Image for Bonny.
753 reviews26 followers
April 29, 2020
While I've enjoyed much of Margaret Atwood's fiction, this volume of poetry left me feeling mainly puzzled and disoriented. Many of the poems interested me, but I didn't feel that I could relate or understand. I'm fairly sure the fault lay with this reader.
Profile Image for Fi.
27 reviews
February 24, 2023
Atwood’s writing is very beautiful. She is extremely creative in using various analogies and metaphors throughout her work. However, I found it hard to follow the main points/ themes found in this poetry collection
Profile Image for Marianne Barron.
963 reviews35 followers
August 16, 2017
Variabel denne. Noen dikt er absolutt nydelige. Andre, nokså ubegripelige. En samling som kan og bør leses flere ganger.
Profile Image for Sachin  Prabhu.
78 reviews73 followers
January 29, 2020
It's collection of poems, dark yet engaging metaphors.
I liked couple of poems
Profile Image for Melissa.
62 reviews
December 31, 2020
in deze bundel is er altijd iets aan het broeien of spoken, een huis verandert in een landschap of andersom, een juist helder beeld blijkt een optische illusie. over hoe moeilijk het is om dichtbij anderen te komen, of bij jezelf. met een overvloed aan moerassen, takjes en flesjes in de vensterbank waar een orakel in huist, (en veel haakjes)
Profile Image for Ally.
436 reviews13 followers
October 16, 2017
Published in 1964, this is Margaret Atwood's first commercially-published poetry collection. Her first, DOUBLE PERSEPHONE, was self-published in 1961. CIRCLE GAME explores womanhood, colonialism and indigenous peoples, environmentalism, and many other topics. The titular poem has seven parts, but Part 1 concerns a group of children who have joined hands and are going round-and-round in a circle, in a "ring around the rosie" fashion. They are singularly focused on their game, ignoring the natural world that is all around them - the grass underfoot, a nearby lake, etc. Through this, Atwood is using this game as a metaphor for modernization and its devastating impacts on the Earth's environment. The children feature in many of the other parts, and Part 7 circles back to the initial game. She continues the circle as a metaphor for the propulsion of society away from connection. She ends the poem with -

"I want to break
these bones, your prisoning rhythms
all the glass cases,

erase all maps,
crack the protecting
eggshell of your turning
singing children:

I want the circle

Profile Image for Jane.
151 reviews6 followers
February 1, 2021
My fav poem:

"Letters, Towards and Away
It is not available to us
is not available, I said
closing my hours against you.
I live in a universe
mostly paper.
I make tents
from cancelled stamps.
are permitted but
don’t touch me, I’d
I said
everything depends on you
staying away.
I didn’t want you to be
How could you invade
me when
I ordered you not
Leave my evasions
stay in the borders
I’ve drawn, I wrote, but
you twisted your own wide spaces
and made them include me.
You came easily into my house
and without being asked
washed the dirty dishes,
because you don’t find
my forms of chaos,
inverted midnights
and crusted plates,
restoring some kind of
daily normal order.
Not normal for me:
I live in a house where
beautiful clean dishes
aren’t important
Love is an awkward word
Not what I mean and
too much like magazine stories
in stilted dentists’
waiting rooms.
How can anyone use it?
I’d rather say
I like your
lean spine
or your eyebrows
or your shoes
but just by standing there and
being awkward
you force me to speak
You collapse my house of cards
merely by breathing
making other places
with your hands on wood, your
feet on sand
creating with such
generosity, mountains, distances
empty beach and rocks and sunlight
as you walk
so calmly into the sea
and returning, you
taste of salt,
and put together my own
body, another
for me to live
I don’t wear gratitude
well. Or hats.
What would I do with
veils and silly feathers
or a cloth rose
growing from the top of my head?
What should I do with this
peculiar furred emotion?
What you invented
what you
with your transient hands
you did so gently
I didn’t notice at the time
but where is all that wall-
I’m roofless:
the sky
you built for me is too
send me some more letters."

I wonder is there somebody smarter than Atwood? I don't think so.

Another poem I liked.

On the Streets, Love
On the streets
these days
is a matter for
either scavengers
(turning death to life) or
(turning life
to death) for predators
(The billboard lady
with her white enamel
teeth and red
enamel claws, is after
the men
when they pass her
never guess they have brought her
to life, or that her
body’s made of cardboard, or in her
veins flows the drained
blood of their desire)
(Look, the grey man
his footsteps soft
as flannel,
glides from his poster
and the voracious women, seeing
him so trim,
edges clear as cut paper
eyes clean
and sharp as lettering,
want to own him
are you dead? are you dead?
they say, hoping )
Love, what are we to do
on the streets these days
and how am I
to know that you
and how are you to know
that I, that
we are not parts of those
people, scraps glued together
waiting for a chance
to come to life
(One day
I’ll touch the warm
flesh of your throat, and hear
a faint crackle of paper
or you, who think
that you can read my mind
from the inside out, will taste the
black ink on my tongue, and find
the fine print written
just beneath my skin.)

So beautiful...Actually my fav was This is a Photograph of me and Against Still Life oh and Camera oh and The Circle Game and A meal. yeah too many...I know.

Profile Image for Sunrise.
495 reviews14 followers
September 15, 2021
The best poems here are simply fantastic -- the kind of poems where you wouldn't want to change a single word. This category would include Atwood's famous "This Is a Photograph of Me," a real tour de force that knocked my socks off as a teenager. The less-good poems are still pretty decent and help uphold the overall tone of the book, filling out interesting variations on the theme.

I was surprised at how few of these poems take place in "reality" because my youthful reading of the book left me with memories of brick facades, rooms, train stations and lakes. But in almost every case we enter these landscapes as if they were dreamscapes, ordinary details given a surreal intensity. I think some reviewers tried to peg her as a follower of Frye's "mythopoeic school," and I guess you could see the surrealism as a kind of mythic dimension too.

The overall effect of the book is very subjective -- the speaker of the poem is almost inevitably isolated, even from the "you" or "we" that gets invoked. So we feel like we're joining her in her head, getting her states of mind and perceptions, but perhaps not tapping into collective truths or experiences.

There's a weird duality to the speaker's mental states -- on the one hand, she seems dissociated from the world, utterly apart from it, and everything in it is alien and inscrutable. The speaker is always trying to "read" the world and the people in it but coming up short. It's a state of alarming derealization and sometimes paranoia.

On the other hand, though, the speaker seems so present with what's around her. When I read it I feel like I'm sinking into Atwood's life, smelling the evening, feeling what it's like to walk down the sidewalk, as if it all happened to me before and I'm remembering it rather than reading it. (That might partly be due to having first read it as a teenager... but I don't think that's the only factor.) The poems are so powerful because Atwood draws you so confidently into this world where everything radiates its own thereness.

I don't know if any excerpt can capture what I'm talking about, but try this:

"They lir side by side
Under a thick quilt of silence.
The air silts up with snow.

The drifting land
Merges with the inside room
Gradually through the window

And the white sheet
Swells and furrows
In the wind: no things
In this deep sleep are solid

Only perhaps this floating
Bed which holds them up, a life-
Raft where they weather seas
That undulate with danger." (from "Winter Sleepers," 44)

Yes, it's truly an astonishing book, and I plan on being astonished by it again after a few years.
Profile Image for Douglas.
342 reviews
November 21, 2019
First of all, it is remarkable that Atwood was only 27 years old when this was published. Second, we got to listen to her at an author reading here in San Antonio last year and she was so intelligent, relatable, and clever. Her poetry has a sense of haunting eeriness to it at times, almost foreboding. Here are some of the poems and part of a poem that impressed me most.

The Explorers
The explorers will come in several minutes and find this island. (It is a stunted island, rocky, with room for only a few trees, a thin layer of soil; hardly bigger than a bed. That is how they’ve missed it until now) Already their boats draw near, their flags flutter, their oars push at the water.
They will be jubilant and shout, at finding that there was something they had not found before, although this island will afford not much more than a foothold: little to explore; but they will be surprised
(we can’t see them yet; we know they must be coming, because they always come several minutes too late)

(they won’t be able to tell how long we were cast away, or why, or, from these gnawed bones, which was the survivor) at the two skeletons

Letters, Towards and Away
Love is an awkward word Not what I mean and too much like magazine stories in stilted dentists’ waiting rooms. How can anyone use it? I’d rather say I like your lean spine or your eyebrows or your shoes but just by standing there and being awkward you force me to speak love.

This is a Photograph of Me
“In the background there is a lake, and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken the day after I drowned. I am in the lake, in the centre of the picture, just under the surface. It is difficult to say where precisely, or to say how large or small I am: the effect of water on light is a distortion but if you look long enough, eventually you will be able to see me.)”

The City Planners
“That is where the City Planners with the insane faces of political conspirators are scattered over unsurveyed territories, concealed from each other, each in his own private blizzard; guessing directions, they sketch transitory lines rigid as wooden borders on a wall in the white vanishing air tracing the panic of suburb order in a bland madness of snows.”
Profile Image for Pants.
59 reviews
September 4, 2016
So there’s an episode of Parks and Recreation where the main character, Leslie Knope, criticizes slam poetry because it doesn’t rhyme. She goes on to say

anything can be a slam
if you say it
like this.

I agree with Leslie’s comment despite liking slam poetry. That’s not a criticism of slam poetry so much as an admission of my own limitations as a reader when it comes to poetry. I never studied poetry in an academic setting, which means I often don’t understand what a poet is trying to convey through pauses and breaks. I overlook symbols through the tangle of words. Rhythm and meter is lost on me. I mean, what’s the point of breaking up a string of words if they make better sense as a paragraph?

Sometimes I think my mind is just too literal for something like poetry.

The point I’m trying to make is that I struggled through The Circle Game. Thankfully there were poems that broke through the fog of my confusion and said something to me. Take this excerpt from Against Still Life as an example:

(there are mountains
inside your skull
gardens and chaos, ocean
and hurricane; certain
corners of rooms, portraits
of great-grandmothers, curtains
of a particular shade;
your deserts; your private
dinosaurs; the first

all I need to know:
tell me
just as it was
from the beginning.

And it all started with an orange.
Profile Image for Slaidey Valheim.
Author 6 books3 followers
May 13, 2022
I read some Margaret Atwood poetry when I was younger and it went entirely over my head. And by younger I mean late high school into university. Still, I wanted to give it another try.

What shines about Atwood's poetry collection, to me, is not the poetry. You can see through her choice of words what a poignant writer she is, in general, but it did not suite my taste for poems.

Some of the line breaks and punctuation disrupted flow more than created it, and it would have suited her to have long wordy prose poetry lines than the small chopped up ones we get.

I'm not an expert in poetry, but this collection is an example of WHY poetry always felt out of the average Joe's reach. There's so much imagery in Atwood's poems it's hard to follow along, most of the time I can't decipher what's happening or the story being conveyed. It's too "poetic" if you know what I mean. I really enjoyed some of Atwood's construction of images, but it was more than I could handle majority of the time.
Profile Image for Heather.
524 reviews
July 17, 2021
"This Is a Photograph of Me

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)"

When I read something like this, from a master of words, it dawns on me that I don't read poetry very often -- or enough. Beautiful, eerie, unexpected -- all the words!
Profile Image for Siddarth Gore.
246 reviews17 followers
January 13, 2019
The photograph was taken the day after I drowned.

Honest to God I don't understand poetry. Least of all, English.
What is it really? How do I make sense at all

The weapons
that were once outside
sharpening themselves on war
are now indoors
there, in the fortress,
fragile in glass cases;

If you miss the metre you miss the meaning
I read and reread till I got an inkling

among the shattered
memories of battles
only the cold jewelled symmetries
of the voracious eater
the voracious eaten

Then I had a notion that all of poetry is just an emotion
And only the most inept
make it rhyme
at the cost of their creation

The world is turning
me into evening.

I’m almost ready:
this time it will be far.

But seriously. Wonderful poems that strike deep. You need to have the depth for it to work though.
Profile Image for Shirley.
55 reviews2 followers
November 27, 2017
i don't think i "get" poetry, especially margaret atwood, which requires a higher level of literary analysis than i am capable of. i'll revisit this one day, but based on my superficial/visceral first reading, these are some of the poems that stood out to me:

- this is a photograph of me
- evening trainstation before departure
- the city planners
- the circle game
- a sibyl
- migration: c.p.r.
- against still life
Profile Image for Alexa.
486 reviews118 followers
January 14, 2015
There is so much richness hiding under the surface of these poems – for me, determining their meaning is like trying to make out forms under murky water – just one of Atwood’s own metaphors. Journeys to the interior of countries and personalities and relationships – I read these, and I read these and I read them again, and I know I’ve only barely made out their surface outlines.
256 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2016
I was thinking the other day that there should be more ebooks for poetry and this was one of the books I managed to find from my library's ebook collection and I like Atwood and I want to read more of her so I decided to read this (not expecting much because I really don't get poetry that well) and holy smokes! I am in love. Atwood's poetry is the best! Gonna reread these poems right now.
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