Anyone who is familiar with Canadian writing will certainly have read Alden Nowlan. He is a giant among the creative minds of this country and, in my opinion, is one of the greatest poets that this harsh environment (both physical social) has produced.
Nowlan’s poetry is well crafted and thought provoking. I must admit to being inspired a number of times in my own writing after reading a few selections from Alden Nowlan: Selected Poems (Ed.Crozier & Lane). Quite often the physical environment stands tall and imposing in the early poems, showing the poet’s direct connection to place. The small town atmosphere is one that Nowlan drew from readily though, at times, it appears as a yoke (I think of such poems as “All Down the Morning”, “The Hainesville Cemetery”, “The Fynch Cows”, and “Warren Pryor”).
Later the poems take a focus on the social environment, showing the closed interactions between various groups. “Britain Street” is perhaps my favourite of these – a place where harsh words, yelling, and discipline go hand in hand. The love of parent for child is understated, nearly unrecognizible.
There are poems about poetry and writing. “Johnnie’s Poem” about a boy who writes a poem about his grandfather dying and the speaker in the hospital. This hits the nail on the head, so to speak. Poetry is not always about superior craft and the technicals of writing, but can be about something that truly means more than how it is said. Following the hospital theme, the end of the collection focuses often on Nowlan’s own illness, his time in hospital, and the knowledge of his coming death. Reading these poems remind me of Keats’ “When I Have Fears”, which follows thusly:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teaming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love; – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
I imagine Nowlan himself in such a contemplative mood when, as Keats, he could see his end coming.
This is one of my favourite collections and I’d encourage any and everyone to thumb through its pages.