"Backdrop addresses cowboy" by Margaret Atwood
Creating a masterful poetic movement through the American mythos, Atwood skewers "manifest destiny" by embodying the voice of the Other, the discarded "I am."
Writing political poetry that artfully confronts dominant ideology – thus exposing the motivation and effects of misrepresentation – is a difficult challenge. The process can easily be derailed by temptations to write strident, overly didactic verse that elevates sentiment above nuance and craft. While passion is certainly important, it is the poem itself that transforms political intent into a dynamic act of oppositional literature. To be effective as a statement, it must first be effective as a poem. In "Backdrop addresses cowboy," Margaret Atwood delivers a scathing indictment of imperialist power that, through its elegant craft and conceptual framework, is also a breathtakingly vibrant poem. The core message, a potent denunciation of reckless power from the perspective of those who suffer its consequences, is simultaneously unequivocal and oblique. Though Atwood’s indictment is readily apparent, close reading reveals a brilliant poetic foundation comprised of nuanced language, double-meanings, and a metaphorical structure that satirically lambasts American exceptionalism by skewering the individualist 'cowboy' myth with imagery from its own construction. In short, Atwood's poem succeeds as a political statement because she allows the demands of exceptional poetry to drive its articulation. From the outset, Atwood chooses language that economically expands the meaning of each phrase. For example, "Starspangled," the poem’s first word, focuses a personification of ‘cowboy mentality’ into a subtle critique of nationalist manipulation. In addition, other connotations come to mind, like "starry-eyed," or the gaudiness of "spangles." Even elements internal to the American anthem apply: bombs bursting, a nation under siege, victory against all odds. Though...
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