UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
The work of MacEwen, more than that of any other writer, has restored the
value of mythology to Canadian poetry. She has demonstrated that it need not
be merely a system by which one escapes worldly events, but in fact can be
found emanating from these events and providing understanding for our very
sensual and Heraclitan world. For Canadian writers, the most salutary union
of opposites MacEwen has achieved is this one in which the mythological and the
experiential become inseparable faces of one reality.
—Frank Davey, From There to Here
There are few Canadian poets with a grasp as broad as MacEwen's of the poetic
dimensions of history.
—George Woodcock, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature
Nearly 200 years ago, William Wordsworth lamented the fate of so many of his fellow writers of verse. "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness," he wrote, adding that far too often they end their lives in "despondency and madness". His lines might stand as a commentary on the life of Gwendolyn MacEwen, the Canadian poet who died in 1987 of alcohol-related causes. MacEwen was only 46 at the time, poor, deeply depressed and largely forgotten. Yet this was a woman who in 1970 had won her country's highest literary prize, the Governor General's Award, for her collection The Shadow-Maker. She spoke several languages, had written highly praised novels and children's books and, at the height of her career, had been considered one of the most vital and original presences on the Canadian literary scene.
The question of how such an accomplished human being came to grief animates Shadow Maker, a biography of the poet by author and University of Toronto professor Rosemary Sullivan. Like Sullivan's moving 1991 biography of writer Elizabeth Smart, Shadow Maker has an incisive, empathetic immediacy that raises it above the cumbersome, overly detailed work of so many biographers. And while it reveals a great deal about MacEwen, it never presumes to explain everything. The slim, secretive poet with the kohl-lined eyes who rises from its pages remains — as she would have wished — something of a mystery.
Sullivan, 48, first met MacEwen in 1982, at a time when both frequented The Trojan Horse, a Toronto coffeehouse. (MacEwen was former owner; Sullivan, also a poet, was dating a musician who played there.) "Like a lot of people, I felt Gwen was a friend," Sullivan told Maclean's. But after MacEwen's death, the author discovered that she "hadn't been an intimate friend at all." As with so many others, MacEwen had kept hidden the more troubling elements of her personal story. It was only years later, as Sullivan worked on Shadow Maker, that she finally began to understand what she calls in her book "the pain that life exacted as the price of being Gwendolyn." Yet, at the same time, the biographer insists that the poet's life was not completely unhappy. Comments Sullivan: "Those who would look at Gwendolyn with pity would be vastly underestimating how exciting it can be to live in the mind."
MacEwen was born in 1941, into a working-class Toronto family. Her mother, Elsie, was intelligent but mentally unstable and spend much of her life in institutions. Her father, Alick, took to drink as a consolation for his wife's sickness and the failure of his ambitions. (He had wanted to become a professional photographer, but had to content himself with being a sales representative for Kodak.) Unlike her older sister, Carol, Gwendolyn grew up harboring enormous insecurity — an inner darkness that, as Sullivan shows, was both a determining factor in her art and the slough of despair into which she eventually sank.
For much of her life, MacEwen executed a brilliant dance of the intellect in defiance of her own demons. Although she dropped out of Toronto's Western Technical-Commercial School, she had already immersed herself in the esoteric Jewish mysticism of the cabala, taught herself Hebrew and studied Jewish history in preparation for writing a novel set in Palestine. (It was never published.) And she was working tirelessly at perfecting her uncannily incisive poetry, with its evocation of exotic spiritual landscapes. Never enamored of reality, she once complained to a friend, "In Canada there seems so little of the surreal, the bizarre, the dream."
Sullivan does a superb job of conjuring up the fledgling Toronto literary scene of the 1960s, especially The Bohemian Embassy, the coffee and poetry club where MacEwen made friends with other rising poets, including Milton Acorn and Margaret Atwood. The biographer also treads sensitively in the matter of MacEwen's unhappy love relationships. She married Acorn, who was 19 years her senior, in 1962, but the marriage quickly foundered because of verbal abuse and possessiveness. She seemed happy for a time with her second husband, Greek musician Niko Tsingos, but they drifted apart as MacEwen turned increasingly to drink. Sullivan's narrative suggests that there was an unconscious self-destructive streak in the poet, who sabotaged her good relationships (or established bad ones) because she believed she did not deserve to be happy.
The great gift of Shadow Maker is the sense of honor and legitimacy it confers on a life that — by mainstream standards — must seem unimportant and even wasted. MacEwen never made much money. Beyond a certain limited circle, she was never famous. She dedicated herself to an art — poetry — on which the consumerist society of North America had largely turned its back. But as Sullivan shows, she wrote poems of a high order, accomplishments that at other times, or in other societies, would have been far better rewarded. And she pursued her craft with a ferocious integrity that can only be admired. MacEwen believed, to quote Sullivan, that poetry "was a form of magic that could change lives." Sullivan thinks that her subject lost that belief in her final years. It is a pity that MacEwen cannot read Sullivan's biography. This exquisitely appreciative book might have helped the poet regain her faith in words.
Gwendolyn MacEwen's works copyright © to the Estate of Gwendolyn MacEwen.
The information provided here is by permission of David MacKinnon, executor for The Estate of Gwendolyn MacEwen.