Tuesday 24 May 2011

Gwendolyn MacEwen: Mythic Poet

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.


  1. I've not heard of her but will certainly now seek her out. Don't you think characters are far more interesting when not idolized or victimized; it makes them seem more rounded beings somehow? Thanks for the thumbs up Lynn :-)

  2. I completely agree, Kate, it's so much more interesting to see them as people - full and flawed and complex. (Like the rest of us!) Something that Atwood is so good at with her fictitious characters, I find.

  3. Wonderfully informative post, thanks!

    Oh, and I just must share that my word verification word is "elliment".... I like that!

  4. As a (ahem) bookseller I see that not only don't we have any of the books that you mentioned---except of course Ms. Atwood's---but that many are out of print. Sigh.

    Will no doubt check out that website that you mentioned. Ta!

    Sounds like Gwendolyn also suffered from mental illness (like her often institutionalized mother.) A lot of bipolar sufferers used alcohol before there was a steady meds treatment. I'm sure my own mother took care of her imbalances that way, thereby creating even greater swings.

    Good post Lynn!

  5. Oh my god, such wonderful poems!

  6. Thank you, Valerianna. And, aren't the word verifications amazing sometimes? I've had a few which were uncanny - both the word and the context.

    Jan, thank you for looking into that. Shame some are out of print. It must be so difficult in both the publishing industry and in book shops to know what to keep printing and what to buy: there are just so many good books out there.

    I think you might be right about Gwendolyn and mental illness-drinking. It can become a chicken and egg thing, where one sets off the other and it becomes more and more extreme. Sounds like you have an understanding of what she was going through. It also sounds like you have a deep and non-judgemental insight into it. That's not always easy - takes a lot of strength and wisdom.

    So glad that the poems spoke to you, Katherine. This is one thing I love about the internet and about blogs: it is so easy to share things like this.

  7. I have to confess I'd never heard of MacEwan until now, but I can promise you I will be looking her up. She sounds absolutely fascinating! What a life story. Thanks so much for writing this post and bringing her to our attention. I will let you know when I get a chance to acquaint myself with her work.

  8. Thank you for posting this, Lynn. I'd never heard of Gwendolyn MacEwen before, and it's a pleasure to explore her wonderful poems!

  9. She's not even that well known within Canada, Roisin - which is a shame. A fascinating character and wonderful poetry.

    Glad you're enjoying her work, Donna!

  10. Hi Lynn, Great post on a rather unknown Canadian poet...
    As for Atwood, I read Wilderness Tips soon after seeing her speak at an anti-Free Trade Rally at the Rivoli back in '87-'88... Were you with me that night? I sorta remember The Rheostatics being there, and Jane Sibbery (with her mom!) and some other T.O. artist types. However, it was Atwood who spoke the most passionately about protecting Canada's natural resources from willy nilly import/export. And boy, was she ever in the right!
    I also thought that "Hollywood" did a pretty good job of the film version of The Handmaid's Tale (starring Robert Duvall, and the late, great Natasha Richardson), but her "vision" about surrogates, government control and reproductive rights was, well, visionary.
    She is truly the Aldous Huxley of our times!
    Any other recommendations?

  11. Hi Kristin. No, I wasn't there that night, but I wish I had been! Sounds fantastic. (I've never seen the Rheostatics play - closest I ever got was hanging out - writing - at the same cafe in the Annex West as Dave Bidini a few times.)

    I would love to have heard Margaret Atwood's talk. There was so much pro-free-trade propaganda flying around.

    On your recommendation, I'll see if I can find that film here. I only read "The Handmaid's Tale" a few months back for the first time - having thought that I'd read it years ago. Not the case. (I posted about it here as it completely blew me away.)

    I'll think about further recommendations and let you know. Likewise, I'd love to hear any of yours!

    Oh - did you get my e-mail?