“A soul is something that is earned through hard work and sweat, not merely received at birth.” This quotation is an example of how each individual must undergo a quest for self-identity. This theme is prominent in Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Procedures for Underground”. In this poem, Atwood describes a universe in which objects are the inverse of actual reality. The poem takes a shamanistic approach to a quest that results in self-identity. The speaker of the poem ventures on a seemingly heroic quest; however, the heroic figure is eventually revealed as somewhat of a monster. This leads to the underlying theme of the temporal fleshy world versus the spiritual natural world.
The tone of this poem can be described as calm. Atwood uses organic imagery to a great extent in describing the setting. For example, the “flowing rivers” and “green sun” are mentioned. However, the tone shifts in the later paragraphs as darker imagery is used. For example, Atwood mentions “tunnels” and a “cave” as well as “burrows”. This creates a seductively calm mood that is also sinister. This contrast creates an ironic outlook on the poem. This is perhaps best described in the last few stanzas in which Atwood states, “Few will seek your help with love, none without fear” (30). This shows how the heroic figure is disclosed as somewhat of a monster. This is not primarily due to the fact that the speaker is a monster, but the ones who ask for help are fearful of those who can help and that those who seek help do it out of a need for it, and not because of the positive feelings of love.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $14
Prices start at $12
In many of Atwood’s poetry, there is a shamanistic approach that results in the quest for self-knowledge. This particular poem is full of self-conflict which is portrayed through the paradoxical and ironic tone present. The shamanistic motif is exemplified by the setting placed in the parenthesis at the beginning of the poem, The Northwest Coast. This is an area that is away from civilization- possibly a place where one is healed through the processes of nature due to the native cultures that reside there. The tribes that inhabit this place believe in the shaman beliefs that are evident in the poem. The shaman is able to transcend both worlds, something which Atwood believes she herself is capable to do due to being an artist. The poem is structured in the form of directions as is implied by the title (“Procedures…”). This poem can be interpreted as a fellow shaman giving directions to another shaman on how to be able to transcend both worlds and come back, similar to how Atwood can bring us to the spiritual world through the use of her poetry as her medium.
This is seen in the line “if you can descend and return safely.” “Procedures for Underground” can be considered to be an extended metaphor where one’s journey to the “underground” is really a search for psychological depth and identity. Unfortunately, in a typical quest for knowledge, the outcome is ironically hopeless. Margaret Atwood’s presentation of the underground in her poem reflects the human psyche, allowing the development of one’s mind, also known as a metamorphosis. This is most obviously demonstrated with the portrayal of imagery as the speaker attempts to search for knowledge describing this desire as “always hungry” The entire poem can be regarded as an extended metaphor reflecting the speaker’s journey to the underground in search of her identity. Atwood’s description of the underground as a landscape is an inversion of reality, as she reverses the perceptual anticipation with the sun perceived as green and the backwards flowing of the river (Atwood, 2-3).
The poem alone is symbolic of the mythical unconscious, with several Greek allusions including the legend of Persephone and the Lethe River. For instance, the speaker notes, “never to eat their food.” (17) These references as well as the development of the psyche suggest the necessity of these two aspects with the mind. Atwood presents the underground in such a way that the tone of this poem is tense. She chooses to do this with the inversion of reality, creating a sense of confinement. Ironically, the speaker also treats her journey with anti-mythic tension, whereby the speaker’s quest for identity leads to no meaning in a hostile environment. In addition, this is further enforced with the cacophony in the poem. For instance, Atwood notes, “complaints beckoning you”. From this, we notice that she is allowing the repetition of the harsh “k” sound. The tension created allows psychological entrapment established through Atwood’s attitude toward the poem.
In conclusion, Procedures for the Underground illustrates many of the themes and literary devices used by Margaret Atwood in a majority of her poems. This includes the reoccurring concept of self-discovery and self-knowledge in a ‘technological society,’ which is evident with the impersonal and mechanical title itself. Not only are the characters threatened by external enemies of nature, but with aspects of themselves as well, which helps the reader and the speaker gain the insight they are striving for. However, in this case, insight is not gained. The calm yet evil ironic tone within the poem expresses itself clearly in the last stanza and portrays to the reader that it is not the procedure to the underground that is sinister, but the never-ending search for psychological depth and identity in a world that doesn’t allow it and the world that does allow it is seen as unnatural and beyond our reach.