Top of page

Literary Treasures: Margaret Atwood reads her poetry at the Library of Congress, 1970

Share this post:

The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Margaret Atwood / photo by Graeme Gibson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps best known for her fiction, including the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood first rose to public literary attention as a poet. In fact, Atwood published five poetry collections—beginning with Double Persephone in 1961—before she published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969.

In 1970, still early in her career, Consultant in Poetry William Stafford invited Margaret Atwood to the Library of Congress to read her work. On November 2, as part of the Library’s public Gertrude Clarke Whittall Series, Atwood read and discussed her poetry in the Coolidge Auditorium alongside poet Galway Kinnell. Introducing Atwood to the stage, Kinnell said:

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian born in Ottawa in 1939 and raised, as they call it up there, “in the bush” in Northern Quebec. She’s written a novel, The Edible Woman, and her books of poetry are Double Persephone, The Circle Game, The Animals in That Country, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and last month Atlantic Little Brown brought out her Procedures for Underground. In reading Margaret Atwood’s poems, I find real things, actual creatures, living persons, and I also find a sense of their strangeness, and our own strangeness, and our own strangeness among them. And I also find a true tenderness toward existence, and I guess when I read poetry these are among the things I look for most and value most in poetry, and so I’m looking forward, as I know you are, to hearing her read to us now.

That night, Margaret Atwood read poems from her just-published collection, Procedures for Underground (1970), as well as seven unpublished love poems. The following day, on November 3, she recorded a wider range of her poetry in the Jefferson Building Recording Laboratory—including poems from The Circle Game (1964), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), as well as from Procedures for Underground.

In the 48 years since her readings at the Library of Congress, Margaret Atwood has published nine poetry collections (not including a few collections of her selected work), 13 novels, seven children’s books, 10 books of nonfiction, as well as graphic novels, television scripts, and libretti. In 2013, she returned to the Library of Congress for the National Book Festival to talk about MaddAddam, the concluding work in her dystopian trilogy (preceded by Oryx and Crake in 2003 and The Year of the Flood in 2009).

This Sunday, November 18, marks Margaret Atwood’s birthday. Why don’t we celebrate with a little of her poetry?