‘Is/Not’ by Margaret Atwood is a twenty-two line poem that is separated into unrhymed couplets, or sets of two lines. These lines are of vastly different lengths, some containing as few as three, or as many as eight words.
One of the most prominent techniques Atwood uses in ‘Is/Not’ is juxtaposition. This is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to speak to a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. In ‘Is/Not’ the two contrasting things are science and love.
Atwood uses a number of scientific words within the text. These include “cauterized”, “disease” and “cavities”. Each time one of these words pops up, it is with the purpose of showing how unlike love science is. Despite the best efforts of some, it cannot be tagged and categorized like elements of the natural world. It has something beyond human, and certainly scientific, understanding.
Poetic Techniques in Is/Not
Another important technique that is commonly used within poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight.
Atwood also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, in lines five and six with “you are not my”.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Is/Not
The poem begins with Atwood’s speaker stating that love is not a “profession”. One cannot study it as one can other things. It becomes clear that the speaker does not depend on a lover or partner as one might a “doctor”. They cannot save her, and she refuses to treat her partner as if they could. The speaker tells them that they need to stop acting as though they are superior, or understand the world more clearly than she does.
Lastly, she add that everything associated with love and human interactions does not need to be “understood”. The speaker wants love to “be said and said”. It simply needs to exist in the “present” and that’s enough.
Analysis of Is/Not
In the first lines of ‘Is/Not’ the speaker makes it very clear that she’s going to be talking about love and what it is and is not. It is not, she immediately states, a “profession”. One can not embark upon a life of studying love, no matter who he or she is. Even those fit for “genteel”, or upper-class jobs, can’t study love as one can other things.
The third line is striking, and humorous. Atwood’s speaker makes the funny comparison between “sex” and “dentistry”. As one might assume, she doesn’t think they’re conceptually similar. There might be physical similarities, the “filling of aches and cavities,” but the two are not equal. The next two lines say a lot about the text and the implications of understanding love as the speaker does. She does not depend on a lover or partner as one might a “doctor” or the cure delivered by that doctor. Her lover or partner cannot save her and she refuses to treat them as if they can.
While this is a powerful statement, the next lines make it clear Atwood is more interested in discussing love as a force and its differences from science rather than making a blanket declaration of independence.
The seventh line of ‘Is/Not’ informs the listener, someone who would like to have power over her, that it’s not possible. “Nobody” she says, “has that / power”. Any whom she loves or engages with is simply “a fellow traveler” on the path of life. Everyone is equal.
She goes on, continuing to address this person. The speaker tells them that they need to stop acting as though they are superior, or understand the world more clearly than she does. This is not the case and she will not take advice from them. She is allowed her “anger” and they are allowed theirs. The speaker does not want to be talked out of feeling one way or another.
Atwood’s speaker makes another powerful statement in lines thirteen and fourteen of ‘Is/Not’. She declares that she does not need her partner’s approval or their “surprise” in order to feel validated. Her life and emotions do not need to be examined and approved by anyone. Lastly, she adds that everything associated with love and human interaction does not need to be “understood”. There’s no reason for anyone to treat “Love” as a natural element capable of study, because its not.
In the last lines of ‘Is/Not’ she speaks in cold terms of the way science and scientists would handle love and contrasts that handling with her own. The speaker wants love to “be said and said”. It simply needs to exist in the world, in the “present” and that is enough.