Short and Sweet: Margaret Atwood’s Poetry and Short Fiction

This post is part of our Margaret Atwood Riot Reading Day, a celebration of one of our favorite authors on the occasion of the publication of her new novel, MaddAddamCheck out the full line-up here.

I read my first Margaret Atwood novel about two years ago. It wasn’t the first time I had read something that she’d written. That was more than 10 years before, when a professor recommended one of her short stories during a class discussion. I wandered over to the library, looked her up, and found the collection that housed that story and several others. I found a comfortable chair in the corner, and I devoured that story and a few others.

I went straight back to the shelf, and I picked up another book of short stories and a collection of poetry. Over the next few days, I read when I could and even when I shouldn’t have been. Atwood really made an impact on me. There was this one poem in particular that has stuck with me ever since – “Variations on the Word Sleep.” The last four lines still pop into my head when I least expect it:

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

I started noticing that Margaret Atwood was included in my lit anthologies and in magazines. I came to rely on her for short, sweet doses of literary sustenance. To me, she was a poet who also wrote short stories. Not all writers are capable of switching back and forth between literary forms like that. I was impressed.

Atwood has a way of revealing the truth in a way that is surprising, sometimes shocking. She’s blunt. Take these lines from near the end of her story “Happy Endings” :

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:

John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun.

Or these from one of her earliest poems, “This is a Photograph of Me.” These lines are the beginning of a parenthetical statement that follows a description of the photograph in question:

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

Over the years, I’ve kept returning to the library shelves for Atwood’s short story collections. I’ve hunted down her newer stories when they appear in magazines and online. And I have reveled in every word. I was afraid that her novels wouldn’t live up to my expectations, so I avoided them for a long time. To date, I’ve only read four of them – The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy. They’re good. Really, really, really good.

But I fell in love with Margaret Atwood because she understands that good things come in small packages.


Need convincing? Here she is at the 2008 Prague Writer’s Festival, reading a few selections that aren’t really poetry or stories. They exist somewhere in between.


She has included audio of her reading several poems, including the two I mention above, on her website. A new collection, called Thriller Suite, is available via WattPad.

And there are a few stories out there on the web for all the world to see.  Take a look:

Headlife (Byliner, May 2012)

Stone Mattress (The New Yorker, December 2011)

Pretend Blood (The Independent, August 2009)

Serial fiction is making a comeback, and Atwood is just one of the authors who is leading the charge. She’s delivering big stories in bite-size portions. Check out The Happy Sunrise Zombie Home, a collaboration with Naomi Alderman, and Positron.

These are just a few of my favorites.  If you’ve got a favorite Atwood story or poem, I’d love to hear about it.


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