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Athabasca University

Alden Nowlan, Something Rare and Beautiful: A Memoir

by Greg Cook

"No reader ever wanted Alden Nowlan to stop talking
because his humane, intensely moral tone
always enriched our experience,"
- Fraser Sutherland, The Globe and Mail, June 28,1983

Ideas dramatized with passion’s magic give a writer life. Here I trace only one idea: the sacrament of healing the child inside.

I reminisce about a friend. He was a wise and gentle being, a proud tradesman, and a haunted man: poet, Alden Nowlan (1933-1983). For the most part I let Alden speak for himself, as if our first talk continues.

Praise of love and ancestry, courage to face evil within, and an all-embracing compassion for others are the qualities in his poetry that first attracted me. Instead of at his boarding house of 11 years, we met at the office of the weekly Observer, Hartland, New Brunswick. The tape recorder between us became the sound of grass growing in June, 1963.

Alden gave working class answers to cultural and literary questions. He wished praise would create "a position as a lecturer in poetry where I'd make enough money to get married and still have a little time in which to write poems and stories. My father ... used to say talk is cheap but it takes money to buy rum." (Cook 25)

The interview was suspended with the arrival of a nine-year-old boy. Alden was taking him swimming. Their shyness of me and my camera was not enough to hide their love for each other. Nowlan’s love was an envelope, protecting an angry young man. His anger, in part, was for what life had dealt men who beat their children because they were out of work.

He had written his coming of age, out of a childhood of "anguished loneliness" (Brown): "I had three choices: madness, death or verse." (Early 160) He wrote to a friend, "It’s hellish what the sicknesses of our culture have done to us all. So that love sometimes becomes simply protection against loneliness when it should be an exchange of gifts." (Greer)

Alden developed alter-egos in his work – such as the imaginary brother, or the figures of animals, like the bull moose – to salve his wounds. His pain was relentless.

It originated from the same source as his compassion – the nightmares of the boy inside that he necessarily kept alive long enough to heal, the boy who chants: "When I grow up ... there ain't nothin' ever gonna hurt me. " (Miracle 17)

His "madness," at first a will to exercise power, becomes subdued in a celebration of love, where the narrator tells "Therese" that he would like to set the haystacks on fire at dusk: "I call that poetry. / But she smiles: / you'll never grow up, she says." (Playing 37)

Back in the villages of his childhood, some of the boys did burn their neighbour’s hay. Alden escaped reform school at the end of that road – not because he was "better, but because I was clever." (Greer)

Stanley, Hants County, Nova Scotia, a backwoods of 19th-century survival farms and seasonal forestry employment, was the incubator for a champion of the working class. To feature its isolation, poverty, and rejection of sensitivity, Alden called Stanley by various names, like Desolation Creek, Katpesa (smelt) Creek, and Lockhartville. All our lives are fictions, he reminded us, "my birthplace is a myth, like everyone else's." (Double 17)

Alden waxed eloquent about the story-telling power of his grandmothers –– particularly of "Old Em." Emma Nowlin (1877-1947), daughter of Martin Atwell of Black River, Nova Scotia. He wrote: "She, too, was heroic. Ulysses might well have stopped to talk with her like during his travels. Near the end of a life of almost medieval poverty, she danced the jig and sang ribald folk songs." (Maclean’s 17)

His mother Grace (daughter of Nora) Reese was of Welsh descent. When Alden was born his "mother was, quite literally, a child" (Greer) of 15 years. He recalls a preschool moment of mystery when he found a wild orchid, a Lady’s Slipper. Struck by its beauty, he set out to take the blossom home to his mother: "The sense of possessing something rare and beautiful ... in a crazy kind of way I think it was the day I became a poet." (Greer)

His mother left her husband and took her two children, Alden and his younger sister, to her mother’s home. Following her mother’s death in 1940, she was unable to provide a home for the children. Alden and his mother were separated for the rest of his life. Alden was raised by his grandmother, Emma, and his father, Freeman. Freeman, born in 1904, had left school at 14 for work in the sawmill. He "never in his life had a permanent year-round job... never owned or learned to drive a car." (Double 17,19)

Alden told the first writer of a thesis on his work how his father improvised stories, while pretending to read to his son, and how he made pencil sketches, "But all the storytelling and sketches ended before I was six years old. He was ashamed of both, because in his world grown men didn’t draw and make up stories." (Greer)

Other family mentioned in Alden’s documentary writing and interviews, included aunts, uncles and cousins in a wild and free childhood. His only sibling, sister Harriet, was younger. She appears to be a frequent companion of Alden’s fictional persona, Kevin O'Brien. Harriet refers to her brother as "my protector." (Ottie) Alden began writing, at age eleven, as children invent imaginary playmates in their first myth-making.

He described Stanley as "a rural environment identical in many respects to that evoked in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936) by James Agee and Walker Evans.... In other parts of the continent my people would have been called crackers, red necks, straw hatters or peckerwoods: the spiritual survivors of legendary lost colonies, frontiersmen in an era when there is no longer a geographical frontier." (Guggenheim)

Although Alden adventured in a beautiful and haunted Huckleberry Finn world, he was often truant from the thrashings and threats bullies held over the sensitive at school. The year World War II ended Alden left school in the second month of grade 5, "which means I'm the only professional writer who would be classified as functionally illiterate by Statistics Canada." (Pride)

He had begun his career by making his credo clear: "I think it blasphemy / to write poems / about pain not experienced." (Playing, 37)

Alden went to work in the saw mill, "but I wrote (as I read) in secret." On Saturday nights he might take in a movie, or, "I hitch-hiked [30 kilometers] to town and came home with armloads of books .... waiting to be read, pressing hard against the body ... as sensuous as the memory of a sleepy young girl’s head against a young boy’s shoulder, his lips in her hair." ("Something" 8)

By mail-order he bought a guide of the writer’s market and a typewriter. A poem was accepted for publication, by a little literary magazine in Oregon. He was 17. Two years later he pretended to be a high school graduate and landed a job at the Observer in rural town Hartland, N.B..

During his Hartland years Alden adapted socially, read with a voracious appetite for any literature available, saw his first four books of poetry published and wrote his first novel. He was hailed as "one of the New World’s most effective poets." He told Dawn, one of the 30 U.S. literary magazines to have published him by 1957, "there can never be a Utopia larger than a single human being." ("Personality")

Soon, however, that singularity became family, in perhaps the most critical crossroads of his life. As my interview went to press, late summer, 1963, Alden wrote to say that he was employed by the daily Telegraph-Journal and Times-Globe in Saint John. He introduced Claudine [his fictional "Therese"or "Nancy] by letter: "we love one another, and, yes, the little boy is Johnnie." (Cook Papers) Alden married Claudine and adopted her son Johnnie, who I had met at the interview.

They lived on a working class "street at war," as he lets the neighbourhood speak its violence in "Britain Street," and later, more devastatingly, in the short story become a long poem: "That Year on Salisbury Street." Yet, in a tribute to family love, "Great Things Have Happened," almost 20 years later, he described a moment in their Saint John flat where: "there was nobody in this country / except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder / of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love." (An Exchange 272) Now there was a five-year pause between books. New job, new community, and instant family took time. As well, Alden had offered his first novel to a major Canadian publisher. He was waiting.

At the end of a gloomy winter he wrote: "I have been having very depressing difficulties with my own writing ... feeling that perhaps, after all, writing is a damned silly business."

In March, 1966, Alden was diagnosed with carcinoma of the thyroid gland. He had three major operations in six weeks. Faced, not with madness, but with death, he made his first pilgrimage to the ancestral homeland: Ireland.

His primary financial security was the Telegraph-Journal. Retaining him as a weekly columnist maintained his medical insurance. During his recovery, his growing confidence transcended sentimentality L— a depth to which lesser writers are afraid to dive — and encapsulated his affirmation of life, since he was:

... a man never wholly removed from man’s echo
and reflection...
... a man never at peace with the inhuman:
heir of Greeks and Jews whose gods were men and conquerors.
The Son of Man ate honey and fish,
I, a man, have tamed even death. (Bread 60)

In August, 1967, I visited him for the third time in Saint John and introduced Anne Greer. The next day she explored going to Acadia University to write the first thesis on Alden Nowlan.

I sent him a copy of Ernest Buckler’s preview of his stories that I had hoped to publish. Alden was lifted with his typical gift of ironic humour and determination: "I love the place where he sort of says that I'm good despite my being a poet... I need to get this book out. I guess to assure myself I can write prose publishable in book form."

Following his visit in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in late March, 1968, his letter was the big one: "When we were in Wolfville you predicted that I would win ... I laughed ... you are now listening to the slightly drunken ramblings of the 1967 winner of the Governor-General’s Award for poetry."

The next letter was sensitive to a review of his stories — one about pedophilia, in particular: "The central character in The Guide has violated children.... he goes on and on until, at last, he kills. Yet he is pathetic, rather than horrible. His act is a form of love —that is what makes it so terrible. Pure evil is not terrifying, just hateful. What is terrible is that evil comes from good, and good comes from evil.... I sometimes suspect that my most original writings are those in which I explore this very theme."

Alden was writing poems for The Mysterious Naked Man, conjuring up one of his most effective alter-egos – one that bares his soul. The book explores the animals that invaded his childhood, his medical fears, and his constant worry for financial security. The last poem in the book includes the lines: "I don't like / to be splashed by death." (An Exchange 138)

Five years in Saint John concluded, however, with a wish fulfilled. He would be writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton – the first institution of higher learning to legitimize the study of both Canadian literature and creative writing.

Nevertheless, he wrote me: "I hate going to new places. A neurotic heritage from my unstable childhood."
In "The Dream of the Chocolate Dog," he writes:

I ask myself
the point
of writing poems except
to hide my fear
from the others
and even they see
my hands are shaking. (The Mysterious 76)

The Nowlans became public figures. Alden was surrounded by young people. Soon Johnnie was old enough to befriend some. Others wanted to be Alden Nowlan, who had been "a hermit so long it seems ... I'm like a Trappist on furlough."

He was world-famous. A Canadian novelity: his first selected poems was published in the United States. American poet Robert Bly called the writing, "the work of a brave man." (Playing 6)

Claudine, whom Alden described as one of society’s rarities – an adult having no condescension towards small children – worked at the Pre-School Centre on the edge of the campus. In a sense Claudine assisted his access to a dream world where, "I am an old man who through magick / has entered the body of a young boy," (Between, 64) the poet transcends lost childhood.

Alden’s immense shyness, however, persisted. It amounted to his fear of being inarticulate in formal and institutional situations: "If I didn't get drunk I'd likely be so damn tongue-tied they'd think I was an idiot." Entering his most productive period, he wrote: "Have carried dedication to the point of virtually giving up the grog temporarily. Abstaining from booze makes me feel very chaste." (Bowering)

On his November, 1973, visit to Wolfville to promote his fictional memoir, of a life in "Lockhartville," we discussed an eight-year-old child observed. In the post office, the child signs the father’s cheque for him, and they go to the bank, where the poet cannot see, but imagines: "Father and son – it would be impossible / to decide which of them is prouder." ((I'm a Stranger 54)

He was devastated by his own father’s death, and continued to be haunted that "loneliness," his father’s only companion, "the only companion he'd trust," (Greer) might overcome Alden himself. He immersed himself in new work and new forms of writing.

I can hear him holding forth today: Oh, Gregory, I'm a tradesman, his hand rising from the wrist on his armrest to operate his thoughts like an abacus, I write, Oh, poetry, plays, fiction, news columns, and, oh, books of prose and magazine articles, and, oh, books of history, continuity scripts for television, radio plays; translations, perhaps sucking a little air between his teeth, like his grandfather looking at the scars of the tools on his workbench, I write political speeches:this is the losing speech, and this is the winning speech,’ winking, ‘don't get them mixed up.’ I'm a tradesman. It’s just the same as if I could make you a shoe.

The walls of the Nowlan home began filling up with portraits of Alden and Claudine, photographs of meetings with the likes of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Prince Philip — on the same occasion; copies of books, anthologies, and magazines of his work. John attended his father during some interviews, involving folk heroes, like Stompin’ Tom Conners. President Giscard d’ Estaing’s private stock brandy was in the cabinet. But success is famous for its loneliness: "All the old gang that used to drop in at all hours have gone on pilgrimage or are following the caravan routes."

Following a two-year period in which five books were published, not to mention continued magazine journalism, he still had time to write friends: "The mail strike did bad things to me psychologically. I'm being serious. I'm alone so much that I need the mail as a life-line to the outer world." He enclosed "Full Circle," where:

In my youth, no one spoke of love
where I lived, except I spoke of it,
and then only in the dark... ‘I love you,’ I said.
Whispered it, painfully, and was laughed at;
hid until the wounds healed.... (An Exchange 182)

Sometimes Alden simply wrote a note on the back of a carbon copy of a poem in progress, as one sends a postcard. One such, was "A Walk in Spring" — published in a periodical as "The Games of Spring," but uncollected — about how children teach what no adult can, because:

We came to this planet as adults
but we were invisible at first
and each one
was assigned a child to spy upon
so that when the time came it would
be less difficult
for us to pass as human.... (Cook Papers)

While this reminiscence reveals one of the sombre dimensions of Alden’s work, discovery of any insight into the mysteries of our inner lives brings a kind of magical pleasure that relieves us, moves us through tears and laughter. Even Alden had to get used to the laughter he evoked in audiences: "Just now I heard my father’s laughter. / That too came from my mouth." (An Exchange 277)

We saw each other in the later years at public and professional events, too seldom in our homes. On visits to Nova Scotia the hotel would have no record of his being there when he tried to sign out. Or his flight home would be rescheduled. Or he might miss his plane. He explained:

I really am tempted to believe in superstitious things – tied in with my recurring nightmare of being back in Desolation Creek and not being able to escape from there.... Poor Nova Scotia. The real fault lies in me. Do you remember D. H. Lawrence’s Richard Sommers had spent twenty years wrestling with the problem of himself and calling it Australia?

In the poem "What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread," which lends its title to Alden’s second book of selected poems (1993, 2000) published in the U.S., he finally writes of his fear that "it might even seem to me now / that there was never anything to escape from." (An Exchange 248)

In the final poems he invites his son to laugh with him, and his wife to know his love from his the point of view — the one always expecting, when she comes home, "Christmas parcels, even in July and even if / they're only books from the public library." (An Exchange 274)

In the mid-fifties Nowlan had written, "My father died of an excess of virtue, / a surfeit of self-sacrifice ... Man of no debts, no worries and no thoughts / Who died unnoticed one summer’s day." ("My father") His devastation — that his "prophecy" was fulfilled 20 years later — is understood, in part, in the sequel: "My Father’s Body was Found by Children," where he re-creates his father in the image of a child:

In his last years he lived
the way a small boy would
if allowed to live alone.
Huck Finn at seventy. (An Exchange 29)

What Nowlan continued to fear is that he might suffer the loneliness of his father and the things he tried to protect his father from — "the things I fear most... destitution and humiliation, because that is what I suffered from the most when I was a child." (Pride)

What did I learn from Alden? On Heritage Day in 1989, I was reading poems to children in grades five and six in a school in suburban Toronto. At the end of the day a boy put up his hand and asked me: "Do you write to fix things that are broken in your life?"

I took pause. I could see Alden Nowlan about to leave school. I answered, "Yes, you know, I think I do."

Every day someone new reads his work, the "ambassador" – as a University of New Brunswick president called him – is at work in a world too large for any one of us to confine him in a specific village, town, city, province, region, or country.

Nations cannot possess and hold great writers. Their work grows, like Alden's, long after we have stopped on the hill to visit the grave of "An O Nuallin Mor," or The Big Nowlan, as his ancestral clan chief was called in the days of old, of Irish heroes, because it seems that in the whispering of a few wisps of grass you can hear, "I will keep on / writing this poem for you / even after I'm dead." (An Exchange xix)

In his final book Nowlan wrote: "we each of us become father or mother of the child we once were." (Everybody 37) And his final words to that child, published posthumously, are clear: "I address the rest of this: / to the boy I was: / I could never laugh at you unkindly." (An Exchange 25)

Works Cited (Chronological, as They Appear in the Text)

Cook, Gregory "An Interview with Alden Nowlan." Amethyst 2.4 (summer 1963): 15-25.

Brown, David. Correspondence with Alden Nowlan. Alden Nowlan Papers Msc. #40.3.31. University of Calgary.

Early Poems. Fredericton, N.B.: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983.

Greer, Anne. Correspondence with Alden Nowlan. Alden Nowlan Papers Msc. #40.13. University of Calgary.

Miracle at Indian River. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1968.

Playing the Jesus Game: Selected Poems. Trumansburg, NY: New/Books, 1970.

Double Exposure. Fredericton, N.B.: Brunswick Press, 1978. Maclean's, "Alden Nowlan’s Canada." June, 1971, 15-17.

Ottie, Harriet (Nowlan). Telephone interview, 30 April 1996.

Guggenheim (John Simon) Memorial Foundation fellowship application. "Supplementary Statement No. 1." Alden Nowlan Papers Msc. #40.15.41. University of Calgary.

Pride (Reese), Rachel (Sylvia) [Sherman], correspondence with Alden Nowlan. Alden Nowlan Papers Msc. 40.26. University of Calgary.

"Something to Write About," Canadian Literature, Nos. 68-69 (Spring 1976), 7-12.

Personality Sketch," Dawn:Young Writers' Magazine 2.2 (Jan-Feb 1957): 15. [Lamoni, Iowa]

Cook Papers: Nowlan’s early correspondence is contained in my papers. Later (post-1966) letters are found in Alden Nowlan Papers Msc. 40.9.10-12 and other fonds. University of Calgary. Subsequent, unattributed quotations in the text of this essay are found in these files.

An Exchange of Gifts: Poems New and Selected. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Gibbs. Toronto: Irwin, 1985.

Bread, Wine and Salt. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1967.

The Mysterious Naked Man. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1969.

Bowering, George. Correspondence with Alden Nowlan. Msc. 40.3.15 Alden Nowlan Papers, University of Calgary.

Between Tears and Laughter. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1971.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1974.

"My Father Died of An Excess of Virtue," Alden Nowlan. Flame, v. 2, Spring 1955, p. 4. Msc. 40.89.31 Alden Nowlan Papers, University of Calgary.

I Might Not Tell Everybody This: poems. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin,1982.

Gregory M. Cook, whose fifth book of poems is Untying the Tongue (Black Moss Press 2002) is writing a biography of Alden Nowlan and may be reached at (In its original form, this essay was first published by the New Brunswick Reader, 29 April 1995)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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