Get Your Premium Membership

Margaret Atwood Biography | Poet

Photo of Margaret Atwood

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, is the author of The Handmaid's Tale and inventor of the Long Pen. She has also written sixteen books of poetry and four collections of Selected Poems.  

Atwood's poems were first collected in Double Persephone, The Circle Game, Expeditions, Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, The Animals in That Country, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Procedures for Underground, Power Politics, You Are Happy, Two-Headed Poems, True Stories, Love Songs of a Terminator, Snake Poems, Interlunar, Morning in the Burned House, and The Door. Her first collection of Selected Poems appeared in 1976. This was followed by Selected Poems 1966-1984 in Canada, Selected Poems II 1976-1986 in the U.S., and Eating Fire: Selected Poems 1965-1995 in the U.K. Her poem "You Begin" was recited separately and included in the three more recent selections.

Her prose works include short and long fiction and nonfiction and some children's stories: The Edible Woman, Surfacing, Survival, Lady Oracle, Days of the Rebels 1815-1840, Up in the Tree, Life Before Man, Anna's Pet, Bodily Harm, Second Words, Bluebeard's Egg, Murder in the Dark, The Handmaid's Tale, Through the One-Way Mirror, Cat's Eye, For the Birds, Wilderness Tips, Good Bones, The Robber Bride, Good Bones and Simple Murders, Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, Strange Things, Alias Grace, The Labrador Fiasco, The Blind Assassin, Negotiating with the Dead, Oryx and Crake, Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, Moving Targets, The Penelopiad, Writing with Intent, Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda, Moral Disorder, The Tent, Payback, The Year of the Flood, In Other Worlds, Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery, Choke Collar, I'm Starved for You, Erase Me, Maddaddam, The Heart Goes Last, Scribbler Moon, Stone Mattress, and Dancing Girls. Of these The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Surfacing, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin are often cited as the most important.

Atwood is also the editor of The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, The Canlit Foodbook, The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, and The Best American Short Stories 1989. She has written television scripts and libretti for opera. Her early studies in biology have contributed to her drawings as well as her writing, and she even had some success in Canada as a cartoonist. While on tour, promoting Oryx and Crake, she conceived the technology of the Long Pen and has patented and produced this robotic writing device.

Politically and philosophically, Atwood resists simple classification. Her early novels reflect involvement with left-wing movements (she remained active in Amnesty International), but she later self-identified as "a Red Tory in the historical sense." If, as contemporary U.S. poet Wendell Berry posits, the key philosophical distinction is between greedy exploiters of the Earth and "Green" practitioners of reverence for life, Atwood can fairly be classified as "Green"; she has been active in Canada's Green Party. Some of her early work reflected anti-U.S. feeling, but Atwood has lived, worked, and written in the United States. Often considered one of the most important twentieth century feminist writers, Atwood has written extensively about her distance from other feminist organizations, and describes herself as a humanist. The nonfiction book Payback, which expresses Atwood's mature political philosophy, invites criticism but explains the ideas behind Atwood's writing better than a misapplied label can.

Atwood's studies of Canadian literature are often regarded as an important part of the developing "Canadian identity," which she has defined in terms of nature, "the settler history" of Canada, and loyalty to the community.

Among Atwood's notable poetic works, Double Persephone, her first book, was self-published and author-illustrated; its seven poems described Persephone as a "girl with the gorgon touch."

The Journals of Susanna Moodie added imagined "feelings" to the work of an early Canadian diarist, including feelings Mrs. Moodie might have been likely to have had about events that took place after her lifetime.

"Song of the Worms," a memorable poem from You Are Happy, was used as a study for the G.C.S.E. examination; its revolutionary sentiment begins with "We have been underground too long" and ends with "When we say Attack / you will hear nothing / at first."

Two-Headed Poems uses the images of Siamese twins, deaf singers, and unhappy lovers as metaphors for culturally divided Canada.

Morning in the Burned House is an intensely dark collection of poems written while Atwood's father was dying of cancer. For readers who had noted how easily, even glibly, characters in Atwood's novels referred to the deaths of their parents, this 1995 collection of thoughts on torture and death reflected a progression to a new level of maturity that can be noticed in her more recent work.  

In The Door, Atwood discussed her own encroaching old age and her experience of fame, as well as her awareness of the environment, loss, despondency, and love.

Atwood's parents, entomologist Carl Atwood and nutritionist Margaret Killam Atwood, encouraged her to study biology or medicine. Her degrees, from Victoria College and Radcliffe, were nevertheless in English, philosophy, and French. She has been in demand as an English teacher, teaching at four Canadian and two U.S. universities. Often considered Canada's most influential living writer, Atwood is married to Graeme Gibson, also a respected writer; they have a daughter, Eleanor.

Though well aware of her elder status at seventy-five, Atwood remains interested in young people and new things. She has a web site and a Twitter account, and contributed a novel to a "Future Library" time capsule to be opened and published in the year 2114. 

Margaret Atwood: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes

Book: Shattered Sighs