Like many Canadians - or perhaps I should say anyone interested in contemporary literature, regardless of where they're from - I've read and enjoyed many of the poems, short stories, essays, and novels of Margaret Atwood. She's a writer whom I have tremendous respect for. This post, however, is not about her, though it does begin with one of the short stories which appears in her highly, highly recommended collection: Wilderness Tips.
I read “Isis in Darkness” for the first time in Toronto years ago and was enthralled. It’s about a bohemian, female poet in Toronto in the early 60’s: a time when there weren’t any bohemian, female poets in that city - at least, none that the establishment would have given the time of day to.
It was only a couple of years later that I would realize that Atwood based her character upon an actual poet and contemporary of hers: Gwendolyn MacEwen.
The Toronto of Gwendolyn’s youth was the epitome of Waspy don't-rock-the-boat. Not the best of places - one wouldn’t think - for a young, creative, intellectually inquisitive woman. But Gwendolyn was one of those autodidactic, unconventional thinkers who didn’t let a conservative town, an alcoholic father, or a mother whose mental illness landed her in the mental hospital over and over again, stifle her artistic genius.
Early on, she realized that she wanted to be a poet. A few months short of finishing high school, she up and walked out of class one day, never to return. She spent the rest of her life learning languages (Hebrew and Greek among them), and studying cultures and magic and belief systems (including ancient Egyptian mythology and Gnosticism) she also had a fascination with T. E. Lawrence aka. Lawrence of Arabia. All of this made its way into her mythic, emotionally intense, and sometimes downright funny poetry.
Like so many poets, she died too early, at the age of 46; the result of years of alcohol abuse.
I learned about the poet and the world she rose out of in Rosemary Sullivan's remarkable biography: Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen. Sullivan is herself a poet, and it shows in this beautifully written and researched book. She presents her subject with respect: without idolizing or victimizing her. (It won the Governor General's award, which is the highest literary honour to be given a Canadian writer; an award which, incidentally, both MacEwen and Atwood have received for their poetry.)
There is a website put together by the University of Toronto (located in a fabulous part of town called The Annex, where I have lived more than once, where MacEwen lived, and where Margaret Atwood continues to live) with a collection of poetry by Canadian poets. Some of MacEwen's poetry can be found there. (I'm afraid I don't know about copywrite issues with respect to blogs, and haven't yet heard back regarding a query I made, so I haven't taken the liberty of posting any of her work here.)
Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry was born of a brilliant, fascinating, fragile character which overcame certain obstacles, but not others. For all of that, she was a very human writer, one whose works continue to intrigue and inspire.