MacEwen, Gwendolyn (1941–1987)

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MacEwen, Gwendolyn (1941–1987)

Canadian writer who published poetry, novels, short stories, radio plays, and children's fiction . Born Gwendolyn Margaret MacEwen on September 1, 1941, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; died on November 30, 1987, in Toronto; daughter of Alick James MacEwen and Elsie Doris (Mitchell) MacEwen; married poet Milton Acorn (divorced); married Nikos Tsingos (a Greek singer), in 1971 (divorced 1978).


Canada Council Arts Scholarship (1964–65); CBC Prize (1965); Arts Bursary (1966–67); Governor-General's Award for Poetry (1970); Canada Council grants (1973, 1977, 1981); A.J.M. Smith Award (1973); DuMaurier Gold and Silver Awards (1983); Governor-General's Award for Poetry (1987).

Selected writings:

(poetry) Selah (Aleph, 1961); (poetry) The Drunken Clock (Aleph, 1961); (poetry) The Rising Sun (Contact Press, 1963, published as The Rising Fire , 1964); Julian the Magician: A Novel (Corinth Books, 1963); (poetry) A Breakfast for Barbarians (Ryerson, 1966); (poetry) The Shadowmaker (Macmillan, 1969); King of Egypt, King of Dreams: A Novel (Macmillan, 1971); (short stories) Noman (Oberon, 1972); (poetry) The Armies of the Moon (Macmillan, 1972); Magic Animals: Selected Poems Old and New (Macmillan, 1974, published as Magic Animals: Selected Poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen , Stoddart Publishing, 1984); (poetry) The Fire-Eaters (Oberon, 1976);(travel) Mermaids and Ikons: A Greek Summer (Anansi, 1978); The Trojan Women: A Play (Playwrights' Co-op, 1979); (translator, with Nikos Tsingos) Trojan Women: "The Trojan Women" by Euripides and "Helen and Orestes" by Ritsos (Exile Editions, 1981); (juvenile fiction) The Chocolate Moose (illustrated by Barry Zaid, NC Press, 1981); (poetry) The T.E. Lawrence Poems (Mosaic, 1982); Earthlight: Selected Poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen, 1963–1982 (General Publishing, 1982); (translator, juvenile fiction) The Honey Drum: Seven Tales from Arab Lands (Mosaic, 1983); Noman's Land: Stories (Coach House Press, 1985); (poetry) Afterworlds (McClelland & Stewart, 1987); (juvenile fiction) Dragon Sandwiches (Black Moss Press, 1987); The Birds: A Modern Adaptation of Aristophanes' Comedy (Exile, 1993); The Poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen (2 vols., edited by Margaret Atwood and Barry Callaghan, Exile, 1993, 1994).

Poet and author Gwendolyn MacEwen was born on September 1, 1941, in Toronto, Canada, the daughter of Alick James MacEwen and Elsie Mitchell MacEwen . She published her first poem at the age of 17 in The Canadian Forum and left school a year later to become a writer, because, as she said, "I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time having to learn what literature was all about. I simply wanted to make it myself." A prolific writer, MacEwen produced volumes of poetry, novels, children's fiction, a travel documentary, radio plays, and verse dramas. She was also a frequent contributor to literary journals, and her work has been included in many anthologies.

MacEwen helped edit the journal Moment from 1960 to 1962 with Al Purdy and poet Milton Acorn. She was briefly married to Acorn before the publication of her first two chapbooks of poetry in 1961, Selah and The Drunken Clock. Her reputation as a poet was established with A Breakfast for Barbarians (1966) and further enhanced with The Shadow-maker (1969), which won the 1970 Governor-General's Award for Poetry.

In 1971, MacEwen married Greek singer Nikos Tsingos and entered a phase in which her output was largely informed by mythology. During this time, she published a novel about Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, King of Egypt, King of Dreams (1971), the poetry collections The Armies of the Moon (1972), Magic Animals (1975), and The Fire-Eaters (1976), as well as the travel documentary Mermaids and Ikons: A Greek Summer (1978). With Tsingos, she also translated two long poems by Greek writer Yannis Ritsos, which appeared in her Trojan Women in 1981. Twentieth-Century Poetry in English noted that "the voice she developed during this period is haunted by doubts about the border between dream and reality."

During the 1980s, MacEwen served as a writer in residence at the University of Western Ontario (1984–85) and at the University of Toronto. That decade also saw the publication of what critics regard as the most complete synthesis of her canon, The T.E. Lawrence Poems (1982). Told in the first person, this sequence of poems in three parts recreates Lawrence's experiences from boyhood to death. Calling this work an "extraordinary feat of empathy," George Woodcock noted in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature that "the voice seems to be Lawrence's own."

In a statement included in Contemporary Poets (1985), MacEwen noted, "I write to communicate joy, mystery, passion … not the joy that naively exists without knowledge of pain, but that joy which arises out of and conquers pain. I want to construct a myth." Her poetry has been praised for its combination of surrealism and realistic imagery vividly rendered, and for a fluid, playful use of language. One critic called her poems "a balancing act between convictions and questions."

MacEwen's last work was a collection of poetry entitled Afterworlds, published in 1987. Twentieth-Century Poetry in English called this "a hauntingly poignant book" and suggested that several of the poems anticipated her death in November of that year. The work was posthumously awarded the 1987 Governor-General's Award for Poetry.


Bartley, Jan. "Dedication: Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941–1987)," in Canadian Woman Studies. Summer 1988.

Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. Edited by Claire Buck. NY: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1992.

Contemporary Poets. 4th ed. Edited by James Vinson and D.L. Kirkpatrick. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Creative Canada: A Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Creative and Performing Artists, Vol. 1. Compiled by Reference Division, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, British Columbia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Grace, Sherrill E. "Gwendolyn MacEwen," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53: Canadian Writers Since 1960. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Edited by William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1983.

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Edited by Ian Hamilton. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California

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MacEwen, Gwendolyn (1941–1987)

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