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Athabasca University

Imposing Order / Poet’s Class Work: A Bio-Critical Glimpse of Alden Nowlan 1933-1983

by Greg Cook, April 2002

I am not a doctrinaire of any kind. I'm still searching.
Sometimes I call myself an anarchist, but I know
that anarchism is not a final answer.
Sometimes I lean toward Marx, but
more often I lean toward Ghandi-Tolstoi-Thoreau. (Nowlan to Acorn)

Alden Nowlan is born out of abject poverty, 25 January 1933, at Stanley, Nova Scotia, from an alcoholic father and a young mother who abandons her son when he is eight. A scapegoat for his parents' models, Nowlan experiences his fill of schoolyard torture:

Shouting the name our parents whispered,
we circled him in the school yard ...
... offering our gods
a dripping handful of his heart. (Early, 20)

Seeing himself variously as orphan, refugee and child-slave, Nowlan fights back by retreating into literature from the harsh realities of "life at the edge of the woods." Out of his child’s will to be an old testament prophet he weaves his own King David myth of a shepherd boy whose philistine demons will be slain by awe for his art.

As Nowlan’s early rejection of servitude evolves, his first modern role model arrives with the movie The Life of Jack London (1943). Adoption of his new literary hero, the author of War of the Classes, is pivotal. He tells poet Milton Acorn, "I began writing poems and stories when I was still in short pants (1944 to be exact)."

By now Nowlan is also a vulnerable peer-group target for both his bookishness and his gangly stature. The underfed six-footer drops out of public school at age 12 – before completing the fifth grade. The descendent of "dispossessed peasants" and "wild Celtic brigands" finds his empowerment as a writer.

In his first auto-bio-critical essay, he explains the origins of his whispering love lyrics and equally healing satiric lines:

I couldn't help being a part of my race. A race that continued to be tough. It was possible for me to accept myself, finally, only when I realized - emotionally - that poetry is tough too, that a poem can contain as much fury and power as a fist or a blackjack. It still seems to me that the greatest wonder of poetry is that it combines toughness with the tenderness of love, and the one is impossible without the other.

Reading a paperback collection of Guy de Maupassant’s stories at age 13 Nowlan realized "that you could write about people like the ones in my village."

At age 14, on the death of his surrogate mother (his paternal grandmother), suffering anemia and depression, Nowlan is admitted for several months to the Nova Scotia Hospital for the mentally ill. In this first exile from his home community, the medical staff encourage him in his ambition to study and write. There he also observes the phenomena of being an outsider, a stranger, a foreigner, an "other" – as he had felt himself to be in the school yard. He learns the incurable existentialist lesson: "being a foreigner is not a disease."

Nowlan’s struggle with the real world and his imaginative retreats continue, leading to the inevitable conclusion of the expatriate/emigre:

To be a stranger is enough, to be a stranger / in two worlds:
that is the ultimate loneliness.

Nowlan himself seeks familiarity with both worlds to understand better the real one, but its price exacts the shut-in seclusion to create art.

At seventeen his art graduates from letters to the editor - and socialist verse in union and political journals - to poetry. Working class poet D. H. Lawrence becomes his latest hero, as one of Nowlan’s early poems is published in a U.S. literary magazine. Following stints of unhappy labour as farmhand, highway worker and sawmill night-watch, Nowlan begins a book and movie column for the community newspaper, attends a winter folk-art school; and, at 19, he leaves home for a job as reporter for the weekly Observer in small, rural town Hartland, New Brunswick, in 1952.

Following two years of social and trade adjustments Nowlan re-dedicates himself to publishing extensively in U.S. literary magazines. By 1958 he has fallen in love (with typesetter Claudine Orser) and met his first live poet (Fred Cogswell of the University of New Brunswick). The two events are major turning points in his career, ultimately freeing his verse line and enriching his fiction.

Of his early short stories he says: "Off hand the only North American writers I can think of who have come from a background of rural poverty and gone on to write about it have been Negroes. Richard Wright, for instance." Meanwhile, he is recognized as one of the most promising new poets of mid-century, as his emulation of Canadian poets Raymond Souster and Irving Layton earns their respect and that of their colleagues Louis Dudek, Jay Macpherson, F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith, who introduce Nowlan to his widening readership in Canadian magazines, anthologies, and book presses.

A Canada Council grant in 1961 allows him leave from the weekly newspaper to write his first novel (The Wanton Troopers, posthumous: 1988). On the eve of his leaving for an editorial position with the daily newspapers in Saint John, in 1963, Nowlan achieves a personal goal: to become the father of his own family. He marries Claudine Orser and adopts her nine-year-old son, John.

Adjustment to family life, urban living and editorial duties is interrupted in 1966 with an extended leave to recover from radical surgeries for cancer of the thyroid. Nowlan’s growing literary family – the Canada Council (special grant in 1967), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (for a 1967 fellowship), Governor General’s Awards (Bread, Wine and Salt, 1968), and the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton), which appoints him writer-in-residence (1968) – liberate him from the daily demands of journalism.

During his 15 years as writer-in-residence he averages better than a book per year: six new volumes of poetry, including the Canadian Authors' Association Silver Medal winning Smoked Glass (1977); two books of selected poems; four plays, including the CBC radio poem for voices, Gardens of the Wind; three works of fiction, including the fictional memoir, Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien, an excerpt winning the University of Western Ontario’s President’s Medal for Fiction, 1970; and one volume each of history and selected essays – the latter, Double Exposure (1978), winning the Evelyn Richardson Memorial Literary Trust Award.

Nowlan also writes for radio, television, film, and the government of New Brunswick – particularly speeches for his long-time friend Premier Richard Hatfield. Economic and literary success instills Nowlan with a fierce pride in his versatility as a tradesman and an artist – a rarity in North America, especially for one who is – by statistical definition - "functionally illiterate". Honors accrue to confirm his achievements: Honorary Doctorate of Letters, University of New Brunswick, 1971; Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Dalhousie University, 1976 and Queen’s Jubilee Medal, 1979.

Louis Dudek’s advice that Nowlan should "never forget your identity is a greater gift than any education can provide," (Library of Canada, Dudek fonds (Delta magazine / Contact Press)). pinned over the yong writer’s desk in 1960, sustains him. Despite the pressures of post-modern fashion, Nowlan never rides away from his people (his working class roots), as Frank O'Conner (The Lonely Voice) claims D. H. Lawrence did. American poet Thomas R. Smith, in his "afterword" to the second U. S. edition (2000) of his selected Nowlan, convincingly argues recognition of quintessential Nowlan:

one of the things speaking to me most forcefully in Nowlan’s work has been his enormous bravery and truthfulness in confronting the reality of class, a subject most American poets – especially today, when many succumb to the trend to reinstate poetry to its mid-century status as an accoutrement of the privileged life – studiously avoid.... Nowlan provides a model of remarkably compassionate though unsentimental clarity in his willingness to speak truthful for and about the poor. As he says, "there’s no point in poetry / if you withhold the truth / once you've come by it. ... In a "new world order" in which economics, and not religion or morality, has a final say, being poor implies some fundamental wrongness of being: It’s as if a chemist / had analyzed a river / and declared that its water / was an inferior form of fire."

Nowlan’s choice of poem to adapt from the Roumanian in his last volume of poetry reinforces Smith’s recognition of Nowlan’s class consciousness:

So that I could change a spade into a pen,
our ancestors suffered together with their oxen,
and gathered the sweat of a hundred years to give me ink.

Even with this cultural distance in translation, the confessional poet Dudek called for remains faithful to his identity. Reaching for a contemporary term to sum up Nowlan’s work, I find an Italian novelist, making a search to justify himself at about the moment Nowlan is finding his full stride:

I would call it existentialist. But the name has little importance; what is important is to define the mental disposition of the new writer.

He doesn't observe reality, he contemplates it. He is passively receptive in front of it. He is, if you wish, a mystic: someone who awaits the revelation of truth from the silent language of things. What drives him to write is not psychological curiosity or social interest but a metaphysical need. He is also a realist, of course; but in the same sense that he extracts from reality the fragments that concern him — the images, that is, on which his existential sentiment can be projected. The literary result which he aspires to above all is that purity of perception which enables him to express with the greatest possible truth (or, better, with the least approximation) the emotion which life fills him with.

Or, as David Adams Richards says of Nowlan, "Well, you see he took the truth where he found it. That’s the mark of a wise person."

In his 50th year, humouring family and his newspaper public with the claim that he was in his ninth decade, as was "Aunt Jane," Nowlan dies from complications following pneumonia – not before he had written to an admirer:

Man is the only animal that creates forms that don't exist in nature. The longer I live the more convinced I am that the great function of the writer is to create form, impose order on chaos. I strongly suspect that ultimately the universe is not only formless but meaningless .... My consciousness of formlessness and meaninglessness doesn't cause me to despair. On the contrary, I not only accept the mystery of my existence but welcome it.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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