Cynthia Macdonald was born on February 2, 1928 in New York City. Her father was a screenwriter, and she was raised in New York City and Beverly Hills. After receiving a BA in English from Bennington College in 1950, she studied voice at Mannes School of Music and began a career in opera as a dramatic soprano. She married Shell Oil executive Elmer Cranston Macdonald in 1954, and together they had two children, Jennifer and Scott, before divorcing in 1976. Despite her family’s frequent relocation due to her husband’s job in the oil industry, she continued pursuing her musical career and was a winner of the San Francisco Opera’s open auditions in the early 1960s.
In the early 1960s, Macdonald began devoting herself to poetry, encouraged to write by Anne Sexton. She received an MFA in writing and literature from Sarah Lawrence College in 1970 before publishing her first book, Amputations (George Braziller, 1972). William Grimes notes in the New York Times that Amputations “introduced readers to the dark fun house of her imagination, populated by freaks and misfits whose harrowing circumstances she described with a light tough and verbal inventiveness.” She went on to publish several more collections of poetry, including I Can’t Remember (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997); Living Wills (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); Alternate Means of Transport (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985); (W)holes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980); and Transplants (George Braziller, 1977).
Many reviewers have reflected on the progression of Macdonald’s work over her career, noting that her later collections encompass more complexity than her early, darkly funny books. Reviewing Living Wills in the New York Times Book Review, Liz Rosenberg writes, “Happily, the new poems show a movement toward a finer, deeper, more compassionate work.” Across her career, her poetry remains full of mythology, transformation, and starling imagery.
Macdonald was the recipient of three NEA grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award.
Macdonald taught writing at Sarah Lawrence and Johns Hopkins University before joining poet Stanley Plumly to found the creative writing program at the University of Houston in 1979. She directed the program, the first of its kind in the Southwest, until her retirement in 2004. In addition, she was certified as a Freudian psychoanalyst in 1986 and joined the faculty at the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute, where she specialized in treating patients suffering from writer’s block.
Cynthia Macdonald died of heart failure on August 3, 2015 in Logan, Utah.