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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Margaret Atwood

Atwood at Eden Mills Writers' Festival 2006, Blackwattle Bay
Born November 18, 1939 (1939-11-18) (age 70)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Occupation Novelist, Poet
Nationality Canadian
Period 1960s to present
Genres Romance, Historical fiction, Speculative fiction, Dystopian fiction
Notable work(s) The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, Surfacing
Official website

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC, O.Ont, FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian author, poet, critic, essayist, feminist and social campaigner. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history; she is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award seven times, winning twice.[1] While she may be best known for her work as a novelist, she is also an award winning poet, having published 15 books of poetry to date.[2][3] Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which were an interest of hers from an early age.[4] Atwood has also published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, Playboy, and many other magazines.


Early life

Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (née Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist.[5] Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was 11 years old in sixth grade. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto and graduated in 1957.[5]

Atwood began writing at age six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and minors in philosophy and French.[5]

In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for 2 years, but never finished because she never completed a dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance” in 1967. She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967-68), the University of Alberta (1969-70), York University in Toronto (1971-72), and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.She is not a good author.

Critical reception

The Economist called her a "scintillating wordsmith" and an "expert literary critic", but commented that her logic does not match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,[6] a book which commences with the conception of debt and its kinship with justice. Atwood claims that this conception is ingrained in the human psyche, manifest as it is in early historical peoples, who matched their conceptions of debt with those of justice as typically exemplified by a female deity. Atwood holds that, with the rise of Ancient Greece, and especially the installation of the court system detailed in Aeschylus's Oresteia, this deity has been replaced by a more thorough conception of debt.

In 2003, Shaftesbury Films produced an anthology series, The Atwood Stories, which dramatized six of Atwood's short stories.

Atwood and science fiction

The Handmaid's Tale received the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." and on BBC Breakfast explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled among advocates of science fiction, and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed.[7]

Atwood has since said that she does at times write science fiction, and that Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, while admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth", and said that science fictional narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.[8]

Contribution to the theorizing of Canadian identity

Atwood’s contributions to the theorizing of Canadian identity have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. Her principal work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, is considered outdated in Canada but remains the standard introduction to Canadian literature in Canadian Studies programs internationally.[9] In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival.[10] This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship.[11] The "victor" in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim[12] Atwood’s Survival bears the influence of Northrop Frye’s theory of garrison mentality; Atwood instrumentalizes Frye’s concept to a critical tool.[13] More recently, Atwood has continued her exploration of the implications of Canadian literary themes for Canadian identity in lectures such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995).

Atwood’s contribution to the theorizing of Canada is not limited to her non-fiction works. Several of her works, including The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Surfacing, are examples of what postmodern literary theorist Linda Hutcheon calls “Historiographic Metafiction”.[14] In such works, Atwood explicitly explores the relation of history and narrative and the processes of creating history.

Ultimately, according to her theories in works such as Survival and her exploration of similar themes in her fiction, Atwood considers Canadian literature as the expression of Canadian identity. According to this literature, Canadian identity has been defined by a fear of nature, by settler history and by unquestioned adherence to the community.

Personal life

In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk, whom she divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto. In 1976 their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born. Atwood returned to Toronto in 1980. She divides her time between Toronto and Pelee Island, Ontario.[citation needed]

In March 2008 it was announced by Atwood, via television hookup between Toronto and Vancouver, that she had accepted her first chamber opera commission. 'Pauline' will be on the subject of Pauline Johnson, a writer and Canadian artist long a subject of fascination to Atwood. It will star Judith Forst, with music by Christos Hatzis, and be produced by City Opera of Vancouver. 'Pauline' will be set at Vancouver, British Columbia, in March 1913, in the last week in the life of Johnson.[citation needed]


Political involvement

Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term.[15] Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are currently members of the Green Party of Canada and strong supporters of GPC leader Elizabeth May, whom Atwood has referred to as fearless, honest, reliable and knowledgeable. In the 2008 federal election she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in Quebec.[16] In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.[17]

Atwood has strong views on environmental issues,[18] such as suggesting that gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers be banned, and has made her own home more energy efficient by installing awnings and skylights that open, and by not having air-conditioning. She and her partner also use a hybrid car when they are in the city.

During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal, including an essay she wrote opposing the agreement.[19]

Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope."[20]



Poetry collections

Short fiction collections

Anthologies edited

  • The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1982)
  • The Canlit Foodbook (1987)
  • The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1988)
  • The Best American Short Stories 1989 (1989) (with Shannon Ravenel)
  • The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1995)

Children's books

  • Up in the Tree (1978)
  • Anna's Pet (1980) with Joyce C. Barkhouse
  • For the Birds (1990) (with Shelly Tanaka)
  • Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995)
  • Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003)
  • Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (2006)


  • Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972)
  • Days of the Rebels 1815-1840 (1977)
  • Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982)
  • Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995)
  • Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002)
  • Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982-2004 (2004)
  • Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose--1983-2005 (2005)
  • Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)


  • Kanadian Kultchur Komix featuring "Survivalwoman" in This Magazine under the pseudonym, Bart Gerrard 1975-1980
  • Others appear on her website.

Television scripts


Audio recordings

  • The Poetry and Voice of Margaret Atwood (1977)
  • Margaret Atwood Reads “Unearthing Suite” (1985)
  • Margaret Atwood Reading From Her Poems (2005)

Awards and honours

Atwood has won more than 55 awards in Canada and internationally, including:


Honorary degrees

Further reading

  • Carrington de Papp, I. Margaret Atwood and Her Works. Toronto: EWC, 1985.
  • Cooke, N. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto: ECW, 1998.
  • Hengen, Shannon and Ashley Thomson. Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. Margaret Atwood. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-521-54851-9
  • Rigney, B. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1987.
  • Rosenburg H. J. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
  • Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out. Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 1998. ISBN 0-00-255423-2


  1. ^ "Honor roll:Fiction authors". Award Annals wiki. 2007-11-17. Retrieved 2009-08-09. 
  2. ^ "Margaret Atwood". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 2009-08-09. 
  3. ^ Holcombe, Garan (2005). "Margaret Atwood". Contemporary Writers. London: British Arts Council. Retrieved 2008-10-22. 
  4. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol. 'Margaret Atwood: Poet', New York Times, May 21 1978
  5. ^ a b c "Luminarium Margaret Atwood Page". Retrieved 2009-10-26. 
  6. ^ "Premium content". 2008-10-16. Retrieved 2009-10-26. 
  7. ^ Langford, David, "Bits and Pieces" SFX magazine #107, August 2003 [1]
  8. ^ Atwood, Margaret. "Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction" [[The Guardian, 17 June 2005]
  9. ^ Moss, Laura; John Moss and Tobi Kozakewich, Eds. (2006). "Margaret Atwood: Branding an Icon Abroad" in Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. p. 28. 
  10. ^ Atwood, Margaret (1972). Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi. p. 32. 
  11. ^ Atwood, M. (1972), 36-42.
  12. ^ Atwood, M. (1972), 36-42.
  13. ^ Pache, Walter; Reingard M. Nischik, Ed. (2002). "A Certain Frivolity: Margaret Atwood's Literary Criticism" in Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Toronto: Anansi. p. 122. 
  14. ^ Howells, Coral Ann; John Moss and Tobi Kozakewich, Eds. (2006). "Writing History from The Journals of Susanna Moodie to The Blind Assassin" in Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. p. 111. 
  15. ^ Mother Jones:Margaret Atwood: The activist author of Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale discusses the politics of art and the art of the con. July/August 1997
  16. ^ "Canada Votes - Atwood backs Bloc on arts defence". 2008-10-04. Retrieved 2009-10-26. 
  17. ^ Margaret, Atwood. Anything but a Harper majority. Globe and Mail. October. 6, 2008.
  18. ^ Tancock, Kat. "Interview with author Margaret Atwood". Retrieved 2009-10-26. 
  19. ^ [2]
  20. ^ "Sudbury a symbol of hope: Margaret Atwood". Northern Life, November 23, 2009.
  21. ^

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography — but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.

Margaret Eleanor Atwood (born 18 November 1939) is a Canadian novelist, poet, and literary critic.



  • I would rather dance as a ballerina, though faultily, than as a flawless clown.
    • Lady Oracle (1976)
  • He's just a contact of hers, which is not the same as a friend. While she was in the hospital she decided that most of her friends were really just contacts.
    • Bodily Harm (1981)
  • He had that faint sick look in his eyes, as if he wanted to give her something, charity for instance.
    • Bodily Harm (1981)
  • the policemen's faces glisten too, they're holding themselves back, they love this, it's a ceremony, they're implementing a policy
    • Bodily Harm (1981)
  • We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball net were still in place, though the nets were gone.
  • Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
  • There is more than one kind of freedom... Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.
  • Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
    • Cat's Eye (1988)
  • Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
    • Cat's Eye (1988)
  • I am certain that a Sewing Machine would relieve as much human suffering as a hundred Lunatic Asylums, and possibly a good deal more.
    • Alias Grace (1996)
  • Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left but charred smithereens.
    • The Blind Assassin (2000) first lines

Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1976)

  • The weapons
    that were once outside
    sharpening themselves on war
    are now indoors
    there, in the fortress,
    in glass cases

    Why is it
    (I’m thinking
    of the careful moulding
    round the stonework archways)
    that in this time, such
    elaborate defences keep
    things that are no longer
    worth defending?

    • "The circle game"
  • Your righteous eyes, your laconic
    people the streets with villains:
    as you move, the air in front of you
    blossoms with targets

    and you leave behind you a heroic
    trail of desolation
    beer bottles
    slaughtered by the side
    of the road, bird-
    skulls bleaching in the sunset.

    • "Backdrop addresses cowboy" (1974)
  • I am the horizon
    you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso

    I am also what surrounds you:
    my brain
    scattered with your
    tincans, bones, empty shells,
    the litter of your invasions.

    I am the space you desecrate
    as you pass through.

    • "Backdrop addresses cowboy" (1974)
  • When you hear me singing
    you get the rifle down
    and the flashlight, aiming for my brain,
    but you always miss

    and when you set out the poison
    I piss on it
    to warn the others.

  • I am yours. If you feed me garbage,
    I will sing a song of garbage.
    This is a hymn.
  • In view of the fading animals
    the proliferation of sewers and fears
    the sea clogging, the air
    nearing extinction

    we should be kind, we should
    take warning, we should forgive each other

    Instead we are opposite, we
    touch as though attacking,

    the gifts we bring
    even in good faith maybe
    warp in our hands to
    implements, to manoeuvres

  • In restaurants we argue
    over which of us will pay for your funeral

    though the real question is
    whether or not I will make you immortal.

    • "They eat out"

Selected Poems 1976-1986 (1987)

Marrying the Hangman

Originally published in Two-Headed Poems (1978) Full text online
  • She has been condemned to death by hanging. A man
    may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a
    woman by marrying the hangman. But at the present
    time there is no hangman; thus there is no escape.
    There is only a death, indefinitely postponed. This is
    not fantasy, it is history.
  • To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To live
    without mirrors is to live without the self.
    She is
    living selflessly, she finds a hole in the stone wall and
    on the other side of the wall, a voice. The voice
    comes through darkness and has no face. This voice
    becomes her mirror.
  • In order to avoid her death, her particular death, with
    wrung neck and swollen tongue, she must marry the
  • She must
    transform his hands so they will be willing to twist
    the rope around throats that have been singled out
    as hers was, throats other than hers. She must marry
    the hangman or no one, but that is not so bad. Who
    else is there to marry?
  • You wonder about her crime. She was condemned
    to death for stealing clothes from her employer, from
    the wife of her employer. She wished to make herself
    more beautiful. This desire in servants was not legal.
  • He was not condemned to death, freedom awaited
    him. What was the temptation, the one that worked?
    Perhaps he wanted to live with a woman whose life
    he had saved, who had seen down into the earth but
    had nevertheless followed him back up to life. It was
    his only chance to be a hero, to one person at least,
    for if he became the hangman the others would
    despise him. He was in prison for wounding another
    man, on one finger of the right hand, with a sword.
    This too is history.
  • My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
    which cannot be believed and which are true. They
    are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
    they have not yet happened to me, they have
    happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
    unbelief with horror.
  • He wants only the simple things: a chair,
    someone to pull off his shoes, someone to watch him
    while he talks, with admiration and fear, gratitude if
    possible, someone in whom to plunge himself for rest
    and renewal. These things can best be had by marrying
    a woman who has been condemned to death by other
    men for wishing to be beautiful. There is a wide
  • Everyone said he was a fool.
    Everyone said she was a clever woman.
    They used the word ensnare.
  • The fact is there are no stories I can tell my friends
    that will make them feel better. History cannot be
    erased, although we can soothe ourselves by
    speculating about it.
  • NOTES: Jean Cololère, a drummer in the colonial troops at Québec, was imprisoned for duelling in 1751. In the cell next to his was Françoise Laurent, who had been sentenced to hang for stealing. Except for letters of pardon, the only way at the time for someone under sentence of death to escape hanging was, for a man, to become a hangman, or, for a woman, to marry one. Françoise persuaded Cololère to apply for the vacant (and undesirable) post of executioner, and also to marry her.
    —Condensed from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume III, 1741-1770

Morning in the Burned House (1995)

  • There is so much silence between the words,
    you say. You say, The sensed absence
    of God and the sensed presence
    amount to much the same thing,
    only in reverse.

    You say, I have too much white clothing.
    You start to hum.
    Several hundred years ago
    this could have been mysticism
    or heresy. It isn’t now.
    Outside there are sirens.
    Someone’s been run over.
    The century grinds on.
    • "In the Secular Night"

The Loneliness of the Military Historian

Full text online
  • Confess: it’s my profession
    that alarms you.
    This is why few people ask me to dinner,
    though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
  • If I roll my eyes and mutter,
    if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
    like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
    I do it in private and nobody sees
    but the bathroom mirror.
  • In general I might agree with you:
    women should not contemplate war,
    should not weigh tactics impartially,
    or evade the word enemy,
    or view both sides and denounce nothing.
    Women should march for peace,
    or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
    spit themselves on bayonets
    to protect their babies,
    whose skulls will be split anyway,
    or, having been raped repeatedly,
    hang themselves with their own hair.
    These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
    That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
    and a sort of moral cheerleading.
    Also: mourning the dead.
    Sons, lovers, and so forth.
    All the killed children.
  • Instead of this, I tell
    what I hope will pass as truth.
    A blunt thing, not lovely.
    The truth is seldom welcome,
    especially at dinner,
    though I am good at what I do.
    My trade is courage and atrocities.
    I look at them and do not condemn.
    I write things down the way they happened,
    as near as can be remembered.
    I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.
    Wars happen because the ones who start them
    think they can win.
  • Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
    or none that can be finally buried.
    Finish one off, and circumstances
    and the radio create another.
    Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
    to God all night and meant it,
    and been slaughtered anyway.

    Brutality wins frequently,
    and large outcomes have turned on the invention
    of a mechanical device, viz. radar.
    True, valour sometimes counts for something,
    as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right —
    though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,
    is decided by the winner.
    Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
    and burst like paper bags of guts
    to save their comrades.
    I can admire that.
    But rats and cholera have won many wars.
    Those, and potatoes,
    or the absence of them.
  • In the interests of research
    I have walked on many battlefields
    that once were liquid with pulped
    men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
    shells and splayed bone.
    All of them have been green again
    by the time I got there.
    Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
    Sad marble angels brood like hens
    over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
  • I’m just as human as you.

    But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
    As I say, I deal in tactics.
    Also statistics:
    for every year of peace there have been four hundred
    years of war.

On Writing Poetry (1995)

Poetry Lecture, Hay On Wye, Wales (June 1995)
A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately.
  • It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography — but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off. This last may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course — being also a novelist — am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?
  • I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.
  • The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house — the only other reason for going there — but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem — a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sinister at the same time. I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don't want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.
  • I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female. I did not know that "poetess" was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment. I didn't know — yet — that black was compulsory. All of that was in the future. When I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me — yet — the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.
  • As for my birth month, a detail of much interest to poets, obsessed as they are with symbolic systems of all kinds: I was not pleased, during my childhood, to have been born in November, as there wasn't much inspiration for birthday party motifs. February children got hearts, May ones flowers, but what was there for me? A cake surrounded by withered leaves? November was a drab, dark and wet month, lacking even snow; its only noteworthy festival was Remembrance Day. But in adult life I discovered that November was, astrologically speaking, the month of sex, death and regeneration, and that November First was the Day of the Dead. It still wouldn't have been much good for birthday parties, but it was just fine for poetry, which tends to revolve a good deal around sex and death, with regeneration optional.
  • My English teacher from 1955, run to ground by some documentary crew trying to explain my life, said that in her class I had showed no particular promise. This was true. Until the descent of the giant thumb, I showed no particular promise. I also showed no particular promise for some time afterwards, but I did not know this. A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately. If I had not been ignorant in this particular way, I would not have announced to an assortment of my high school female friends, in the cafeteria one brown-bag lunchtime, that I was going to be a writer. I said "writer," not "poet;" I did have some common sense. But my announcement was certainly a conversation-stopper. Sticks of celery were suspended in mid-crunch, peanut-butter sandwiches paused halfway between table and mouth; nobody said a word. One of those present reminded me of this incident recently — I had repressed it — and said she had been simply astounded. "Why?," I said. "Because I wanted to be a writer?" "No," she said. "Because you had the guts to say it out loud."
  • The one good thing to be said about announcing yourself as a writer in the colonial Canadian fifties is that nobody told me I couldn't do it because I was a girl. They simply found the entire proposition ridiculous. Writers were dead and English, or else extremely elderly and American; they were not sixteen years old and Canadian. It would have been worse if I'd been a boy, though. Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I'd read at that time had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death — poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging. If I'd been male I would probably have had to roll around in the mud, in some boring skirmish over whether or not I was a sissy.
  • I will pass over my flirtation with journalism as a way of making a living, an idea I dropped when I discovered that in the fifties — unlike now — female journalists always ended up writing the obituaries and the ladies' page. But how was I to make a living? There was not a roaring market in poetry, there, then. I thought of running away and being a waitress, which I later tried, but got very tired and thin; there's nothing like clearing away other people's mushed-up dinners to make you lose your appetite
  • After a year or two of keeping my head down and trying to pass myself off as a normal person, I made contact with the five other people at my university who were interested in writing; and through them, and some of my teachers, I discovered that there was a whole subterranean Wonderland of Canadian writing that was going on just out of general earshot and sight
  • Like all twenty-one-year-old poets, I thought I would be dead by thirty, and Sylvia Plath had not set a helpful example. For a while there, you were made to feel that, if a poet and female, you could not really be serious about it unless you'd made a least one suicide attempt. So I felt I was running out of time.
  • A lot of poets published their own work then; unlike novels, poetry was short, and therefore cheap to do. We had to print each poem separately, and then disassemble it, as there were not enough a's for the whole book; the cover was done with a lino-block. We printed 250 copies, and sold them through bookstores, for 50 cents each. They now go in the rare book trade for eighteen hundred dollars a pop. Wish I'd kept some.
  • I no longer feel I'll be dead by thirty; now it's sixty. I suppose these deadlines we set for ourselves are really a way of saying we appreciate time, and want to use all of it. I'm still writing, I'm still writing poetry, I still can't explain why, and I'm still running out of time. Wordsworth was sort of right when he said, "Poets in their youth begin in gladness/ But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Except that sometimes poets skip the gladness and go straight to the despondency. Why is that? Part of it is the conditions under which poets work — giving all, receiving little in return from an age that by and large ignores them — and part of it is cultural expectation — "The lunatic, the lover and the poet," says Shakespeare, and notice which comes first. My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit. I have avoided this by being ambidextrous: I write novels too. But when I find myself writing poetry again, it always has the surprise of that first unexpected and anonymous gift.

Ophelia Has a Lot to Answer For (1997)

Speech at the Stratford Festival (September 1997)
  • It must be said at the outset that the field of mental illness has always been debatable ground. Who is sane, who isn't, and who is qualified to judge? Standards have fluctuated wildly, and abuses have been numerous. In the last century, in the United States, a wife could be committed to an asylum on the say-so of her husband and two easily-paid-off doctors alone, and there are cases on record of wives who were "put away" for holding theological opinions that differed from those of the husband, or for refusing to have as much sex as he would like.
  • That old standby of melodrama, the rich uncle shoved into the bin so the greedy relatives could get their hands on his estate, had a sound basis in fact. The Victorians cleaned up the straw and the chains of the old Bedlam-like institutions of the eighteenth century, but they didn't always clean up the practices. Patients were drugged, starved, drained of vast quantities of blood, beaten up, swung from ropes, immersed in cold water and whirled around in the air upside-down, all in the belief that it would improve their mental states. Ask yourself whether this is likely to have been true.
  • For every age there is a popular idea about what madness is, what causes it, and how a mad person should look and behave; and it's usually these popular ideas, rather than those of medical professionals, that turn up in songs and stories and plays and books.
  • For a thousand years, the Bible was almost the only book people read, if they could read at all. The stories that were officially told and portrayed were Biblical and religious stories. That other fount of Western civilization as we know it today — the Greek classics — went largely unknown until the Renaissance. For our purposes, there's a noteworthy difference between these two literatures: in the Bible people are hardly ever said to be mad as such, whereas in Greek drama they go off their rockers with alarming frequency. It was the rediscovery of the classics that stimulated the long procession of literary madpeople of the past four hundred years.
  • However, there are all sorts of behaviours in the Bible that might be called mad now, but aren't designated as insanity by the text itself. People see visions — of angels going up and down ladders, of fiery chariots — and, like Moses, who hears a bush talking, and Balaam the prophet who has a conversation with his donkey, they hear voices of those who cannot be said to be present in any usual sense of the word. They also speak in tongues, as the disciples do at Pentecost. Like madness, the visions, the voices and the speaking in tongues are due to external and usually divine agencies. In a world so permeated with supernatural powers, there are no accidents, and in one so riddled with prophets — who went into a frenzy while prophesying — many more kinds of behaviour were accepted as normal, at least for a prophet or an inspired person, than would be the case now. John the Baptist, dressed in animal skins and wandering around in the wilderness denouncing his social superiors, was not thought of as a de-institutionalized street person who's gone off his medications, but as a saint. And this was the pattern for mediaeval views of aberrant behaviour — if you were acting crazy it was a divine punishment, or else you were possessed, by powers either divine or demonic — perhaps aided, in the latter case, by witches.
  • What Elizabethan playwrights learned from the Greek classics was not theories of insanity, but dramatic practice — that is, madness is a dandy theatrical element. It focuses the audience's attention and increases suspense, since you never know what a mad person may get up to next; and Shakespeare himself makes use of it in many forms. In King Lear, there's a scene in which one man pretending to be mad, another who has really gone mad, and a third who has probably always been a little addled, are brought together for purposes of comparison, irony, pathos, and tour de force acting. In Hamlet, there are two variations — Hamlet himself, who assumes madness, and Ophelia, who really does go winsomely bonkers. In MacBeth, it's Lady MacBeth who snaps.
  • When women let their hair down, it means either sexiness or craziness or death, the three by Victorian times having become virtually synonymous.
  • We tend to think of Freud as a great innovator, but the truth is that he himself rested, like a ship on an iceberg, on a huge body of theory and knowledge which had accumulated before his time. Even the famous Unconscious had made its appearance at least seven decades earlier. As for such supposedly modern phenomena as multiple personalities, the vogue for them began in the first half of the nineteenth century; and the first case in which the perpetrator of a murder pleaded amnesia, and got off, was in the eighteen eighties.
  • As I was writing about Grace Marks, and about her interlude in the Asylum, I came to see her in context — the context of other people's opinions, both the popular images of madness and the scientific explanations for it available at the time. A lot of what was believed and said on the subject appears like sheer lunacy to us now. But we shouldn't be too arrogant — how many of our own theories will look silly when those who follow us have come up with something better? But whatever the scientists may come up with, writers and artists will continue to portray altered mental states, simply because few aspects of our nature fascinate people so much. The so-called mad person will always represent a possible future for every member of the audience — who knows when such a malady may strike? When "mad," at least in literature, you aren't yourself; you take on another self, a self that is either not you at all, or a truer, more elemental one than the person you're used to seeing in the mirror. You're in danger of becoming, in Shakespeare's works, a mere picture or beast, and in Susanna Moodie's words, a mere machine; or else you may become an inspired prophet, a truth-sayer, a shaman, one who oversteps the boundaries of the ordinarily visible and audible, and also, and especially, the ordinarily sayable. Portraying this process is deep power for the artist, partly because it's a little too close to the process of artistic creation itself, and partly because the prospect of losing our self and being taken over by another, unfamiliar self is one of our deepest human fears.

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Margaret Eleanor Atwood, OC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian writer.


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