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Athabasca University

Afterword "My Family Was Poor": Thinking About Alden Nowlan and Class

by Thomas R. Smith

Canadian readers sometimes ask what drew me, as an American poet, to Alden Nowlan's work. Most of my reasons I've outlined in the introduction to this book. In North American literature, Nowlan is a curiously amphibious creature, having as much to say to Americans about their history as to Canadians about theirs. While it's generally true that Canadians know far more about the politics and culture of the U.S. than vice versa, I recognized in Nowlan an extraordinary grasp of affairs "south of the border" that illuminated not only the outward history of my own nation, but, so to speak, its inner, hidden, psychological and spiritual history. In particular, there are poems specifically grounded in American events which I was convinced U.S. readers could profit from knowing, such as "The Night Editor's Poem," about the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

Since writing the 1993 introduction, I've realized that one of the things speaking to me most forcefully in Nowlan' work has been his enormous bravery and truthfulness in confronting the reality of class, a subject that 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. In this afterword I would like to address more fully Alden Nowlan's awareness of class and his refusal to ignore the poor.

Class is a word that contemporary Americans often ignore, apparently believing it is not relevant to our society. We do so against our own best interests, in the same way that many working class people voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Didn't the American Revolution overturn the class system once and for all? "We have no royalty, we are a democracy," insist the publishers of (People Magazine, network TV producers, and the CEOs of the multinational corporations, whom no one in the media seriously challenges. Meanwhile, inequities continue to flourish in the shadow of our denial of class. Wendell Berry has provocatively argued in (The Hidden Wound that the evil we call racism is also, frequently, an unexamined class bias: A prejudice against Black manual laborers masks a class prejudice against all manual laborers, for instance.

I am continually in awe of the clean, honest and alert way Nowlan confronts and assumes the reality of class in poems such as "Britain Street," "Warren Pryor," and many others, without left-wing hand-wringing and without right-wing blaming of the poor for their poverty. In fact, Nowlan provides a model of remarkably compassionate though unsentimental clarity in his willingness to speak truthfully for and about the poor. As he says, "there' no point in poetry / if you withhold the truth / once you've come by it." He knows that portraying what is admirable about the underclass without portraying their flaws is worse than a lie–it is a more insidious form of condescension. In this recognition, he has few peers, especially among recent poets (Wesley McNair in Maine is an exception, as are the novelists David Adams Richards and Carolyn Chute in Canada and the United States, respectively).

In "What Color Is Manitoba?" Nowlan jumps fearlessly into his personal experience of class, undeterred by the shame that usually inhibits our attempts to speak of it:

My family was poor.
Not disadvantaged–curse
that word of the sniffling
middle classes, suggesting
as it does that there's
nothing worse than
not being like them.

This idea "that there's / nothing worse than / not being like them" is the secret engine driving the advertising industry; in reinforcing consumer insecurity, advertising contributes to a cultural uniformity in which the poor are viewed, increasingly, as being (economically incorrect. In a "new world order" in which economics, and not religion or morality, has the 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.

In his empathy with clerks, soldiers, pulpcutters, prisoners, and illiterate people-all of those whom Whitman loved and urged us to befriend–Nowlan escapes the class prejudice by which many liberal, college-educated whites claim tacit superiority over persons who do the actual physical work of maintaining society.

In all periods of his writing, from the early story-telling poems set in rural Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, through his last in which he courageously and often humorously grapples with his own psychological complexities, Nowlan is keenly aware of an inherent cruelty in human relationships, a great many of which are informed–or deformed–by class differences. He recognizes the cruelty in regional prejudices, as perpetrated by the CBC commentator who reports patronizingly of the poet's visit to Toronto:

...The purpose of such readings is to give writers
from unlikely places like Hartland, New Brunswick,
the chance to communicate
with others
of their own kind.
("A Mug's Game")

I should make clear that I don't believe Nowlan consciously approached the act of composing poems with the sense of agenda my examples might suggest. Rather, he seems to have habitually written from an emotional immediacy that permitted direct access to all of the great themes present in his life, which included his cumulative experience and observation of class injustice. On a level more fundamental than that of class awareness, Nowlan's moral universe consists of the countless acts, both small and large, of cruelty and kindness which make up human life. Class prejudice falls firmly within the category of that public cruelty present in Nowlan's upbringing, which he identified early, and honorably anatomized and deplored throughout his career.

However, Nowlan cannot comfortably be drafted into the ranks of such consciously proletarian poets as Milton Acorn and Thomas McGrath. Staunch Marxists both, they rose from similarly impoverished roots to become "people's" poets. As a rule, Nowlan leaves the politics to us; his job is to portray human beings of all kinds–including the poor–in all their frightening complexity, humanity, and similarity.

It is easier to distance ourselves from the poor if we consider them an inferior species, "an inferior form of fire," rather than persons like ourselves, conceived in the full potential of a human life and whose nature has been acted upon by mysterious forces, only some of which are sociopolitical. In his novel (For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, David Adams Richards remarks of his protagonist Jerry Bines that "nothing [he] did or said, or how he acted, could make any difference, in ways that are real." This is a heartbreaking sentence, one that Nowlan would have understood perfectly. An unspoken societal agreement that the poor can do nothing that will make a difference "in ways that are real" breeds an impotence that, perhaps even more than stark economic desperation, drives individuals to acts of "senseless" violence. Given such a premise, naturally a CBC commentator’ utterance will count for more than any "provincial" poet's! Seen from this perspective, Nowlan's poems are an attempt to redeem the struggles of people of low station and limited resources to make "real" differences.

On a psychological level, Nowlan understands that there is a poor person–or even several–inside each of us, adding a necessary dimension to Christ's statement, "The poor you always have with you." If this weren't so, if poverty did not somehow exist at every person's core, no matter their degree of outward affluence, we would probably find the literal poor far less threatening.

Despite a compassion for the poor bred in the bone, Nowlan seems never to have fallen into the trap of debilitating class resentment. One might say his imagination never went the politically correct route of symbolic regicide. A Canadian poet who was a friend of the Nowlans once showed me a charming piece of memorabilia, an invitation to a party at their house in Fredericton celebrating the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. I remember my puzzlement at this Canadian fascination, this contradictory reverence for royalty on the part of a poet who has spoken as well as anyone in this century for the downtrodden. More recently I recognize as a sign of health that Nowlan's sympathy with the poor did not obliterate what psychology might call his "grandiosity," which allowed him from boyhood to fantasize himself conqueror, Emperor, or even God. Although Nowlan all his life sustained the wounding of early poverty, his inner sense of grandeur was apparently not one of the casualties. Had Nowlan lost his capacity for vicarious participation in nobility, it's doubtful he'd have maintained, in conditions overwhelmingly hostile to self-esteem, the gentle arrogance necessary for becoming an artist.

Psychologically, Nowlan's triumph over the meanness of his origins lay partly in his ability to accept both the high-born and low-born persons in himself, the king and the outlaw, the wielder of power and the victim of power, a tolerance which, in turn, bred tolerance for others. His artistic achievement was to create an oeuvre broad, deep, and diverse enough to include the whole community of his clamoring selves.

I sense that this radical inclusiveness runs against the grain of current literary tastes in the U.S. (and unfortunately in Canada, too), which seem to tend now toward the upscale and the superficial. The poet Alice Van Wart brought What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread to national visibility in Canada in an essay in The Globe and Mail, but no publication of similar standing in the U.S. has recognized this book to date. One would be naive, in the present climate of affectless, theory-dominated writing promoted by postmodern English departments, to expect academic critics to look up from their Jorie Grahams and John Ashberys long enough to notice a plain-spoken Maritimer who eschews abstraction and aims for the heart.

Yet Nowlan now enjoys, at the very least, a vigorous underground reputation in the U.S.. Readers who value emotional candor and generosity of spirit buy multiple copies of What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread to give as intimate gifts; therapists read the poems at professional conferences; ministers incorporate them in their sermons; people not identified with literary movements or circles embrace Nowlan as a long-lost brother. Occasionally I hear from or about them. Nowlan's poetry continues to find passionate advocates among poets and poetry lovers weary of the aridity and self-centeredness that make so much current poetry thin, unrewarding fare. When readers tire, as they inevitably must, of our period poetry's gentrification and numbness, Alden Nowlan's fully human poems will still be there for them. In this respect, it may be that Nowlan's time has yet to arrive.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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