19 pages 38 minutes read

Margaret Atwood

Backdrop Addresses Cowboy

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide


“Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” is an unrhymed lyric poem of 37 lines by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. First published in 1974 in Atwood’s collection of poems Selected Poems 1965-1975, “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” is a postmodernist critique of imperialist America. The poem uses satire and irony to deconstruct the Hollywood cliché of the heroic American cowboy. Its speaker is the personified land the cowboy desecrates. The speaker’s tone ranges from playful to mocking to accusatory and acts as the voice of those sidelined by myopic notions of development.

An early example of Atwood’s political poetry, the poem also explores the theme of ecological damage by humans, a key concern in the writer’s work. Like much of Atwood’s political poems, “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” uses vivid imagery, metaphors, and references from popular culture to state its position.

Poet Biography

One of the most important voices in 20th-century North American literature, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is a two-time recipient of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction as well as the Governor General's Awards, Canada’s foremost prize in literature. Over a career spanning seven decades, Atwood has written more than 50 books of fiction, poems, essays, and graphic narrative. Many of her novels have been adapted for film and television, including The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Alias Grace (1996). Her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, was published in 1961 to instant acclaim and won the E.J. Pratt Award. Since then, her poetic output has been prolific and regular. In 2020, she published Dearly, her 15th book of poems. Atwood’s writes across genres, from dystopian fiction to classic literary writing. Her novels and poems often explore themes like the complex relationship between women and men, the social cost of technological development, and feminism. Atwood is also an environmental activist.

Atwood credits her concern for the environment in part to a childhood spent close to nature. She was born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939, to Margaret Dorothy and Carl Edmund Atwood, a forest entomologist. Because of her father’s research, Atwood spent most of her early childhood in the woods of North Quebec. Atwood formally joined school only at seven, when the family settled in Toronto. She studied at the University of Toronto and moved to Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, USA for her Master’s degree. Atwood had already begun to publish poetry by the time she went to the United States on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship. Since completing her Masters, she has been a full-time professional writer. In 2019, her husband, the novelist Graeme Gibson, passed away from dementia. Atwood has one daughter and lives in Toronto. She is a vice-president of the global literary organization, PEN International.

Poem Text

Atwood, Margaret. “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy.” 1974. Poetry Foundation.


The poem imagines a cowboy entering the frame of a painting, a stage or a movie screen. The backdrop against which the cowboy is depicted is the speaker of the poem. Describing the cowboy as “starspangled” (Line 1) or festooned with stars, the backdrop addresses the cowboy as “you” (Line 7). “Starspangled” (Line 1) could also refer to “The Starspangled Banner,” the National Anthem of the United States. According to the backdrop, the cowboy walks with a swagger out of the American west, a “porcelain” (Line 4) perfect smile on his face. The west is supposed to be grand but is “almost-/ silly” (Lines 2-3) or ridiculous. The cowboy drags a cactus made out of papier mâché behind him on a string. The cactus moves smoothly, as if sitting in a wheelbarrow or a wheeled cart. According to the backdrop, the swaggering cowboy is “innocent as a bathtub/ full of bullets” (Line 7-8) or innocent as an object.

Despite his innocence, the cowboy is sure of his sense of righteousness, which is reflected in his eyes. His fingers are eager to shoot guns at enemies and fill the streets with the corpses of the villains. As the cowboy moves ahead, he finds newer and endless targets to shoot. Left behind him is a trail of wreckage: empty and broken beer bottles and the skulls of birds.

The backdrop now depicts a shootout between the cowboy and some villains, as if in a Hollywood movie. When the shootout begins, the backdrop admits that it should be watching the cowboy passively and admiringly, from behind a cliff or a movie simulation of a storefront. But, the backdrop confesses, it is somewhere else.

The speaker pauses to ask the cowboy if he has ever considered the existence of the backdrop. The backdrop is not just the cowboy’s background but also his destination. It is the horizon the cowboy will never reach and the border which confronts the cowboy, always ahead of him. The backdrop compares itself to something the cowboy can never lasso.

Not only is the backdrop the thing the cowboy wishes to acquire, it is also the natural landscape that “surrounds you” (Line 31). This landscape engulfs the cowboy, but the cowboy soils it through the desolation and debris he creates. Feeling violated by the cowboy’s intrusive presence, the backdrop says its very brains are crowded by the cowboy’s litter, his “tincans, bones, empty shells” (Line 34). The backdrop is the very space the cowboy desecrates as he travels through it.

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