Skip to main content

I went down to Fredericton to meet Alden Nowlan, the man from Desolation Creek, N.S., a founding member of the Flat Earth Society, whose charter relinquishes Earth to the abyss somewhere off the further coast of Newfoundland; member of the inner court of King James Stewart, the Stewart monarchy in exile (yes Stewart -- the French changed the spelling to Stuart); honorary doctor of laws, like one of his heroes, Sam Johnson -- both prodigious towering men, with grave knowledge and a curious softheartedness, a more curious vulnerability to be a target of their times; like Sam as well, a brilliant conversationalist -- or more precisely, what is a Maritime trait, a "monologist"; a cook, and a good one; a secret watcher of daytime soaps, an intentional lover of bad movies -- which is, to my way of thinking, always a sign of greatness; a self-taught reader by 4 years of age, with, by the age of 35, a library containing thousands of volumes of works on every possible subject, and thousands of his own poems; a reader of five newspapers a day, who quit school in Grade 5 to work in the woods, which made him the only poet in the country deemed functionally illiterate by Statistics Canada -- a fact he was whimsically proud of; a large, imposing, generous, self-deprecating, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, complex, irascible, irritating wonder of a man, who had been born in poverty, the son of a woodsman and a teenage girl, in the Depression year of 1933 in rural Nova Scotia.

I went down to meet Alden Nowlan, which might have been a title of one of his own poems, and I could quote dozens of them.

I would quote his poems and watch in Sydney, Australia, or Brisbane, or Virginia, or New Orleans, or London, peoples' faces light up for the first time at the man's genius -- recognize themselves in him, and hear in his simple, straightforward words some great eternal wisdom.

Story continues below advertisement

It was a wisdom tinged with sorrow, that always came, it seemed, in the form of a parting between friends said at the door on a cold winter evening.

The last time I quoted them (I leave it to others now), people asked about him, at the writers' conference in Brisbane, Australia, in 1993:

"Where is he from?"

"Where can we get his poems?"

"What are the names of his books?"

"Did he win the Nobel Prize?"

One middle-aged woman, whispering in my ear: "His Cousins -- you know a secret -- I grew up like that, here in Australia, that's what I've been trying to say in my work, but I never heard anyone say it like that. Can I write to him? Is he Canadian?"

Story continues below advertisement

"He would love you to -- and he would answer -- but he is gone from us," was the only answer I could give.

He lived at best a precarious childhood, growing up in the Mosherville-Stanley area of central Nova Scotia. There are scenes in the novel about his childhood, The Wanton Troopers, that are truly horrific. But as he once said, children can exist in a world adults would go mad in.

By the time Alden Nowlan was 33, he would have the first of his major operations for throat cancer -- the doctor telling him that the chances of his living through it were about the same as a Canadian soldier living through the landing at Dieppe in 1942. When the doctor told him he had cancer, he burst out laughing. It seemed so strange. He had gone to see about a sore throat.

He lived through the first operation, and a second one, and a third -- losing the muscles in his shoulders as a result -- and as a result of that growing a lion-like beard to hide the scars on his throat that his closer friends would sometimes see whenever he sat in his den in his housecoat and leather slippers. He did not quit smoking.

Still, why would he not live through these operations? He had lived through so much before this. Abused as a child of poverty -- tormented, abandoned, beaten. Thought of as retarded, and mocked by men and boys he knew, spending years in isolation -- discovering mocking came because of their fear of him. He learned over time how prevalent this would be.

Finally he left home at 19, never to return, to take a job at the newspaper in Hartland, N.B., The Hartland Observer, lying about certain qualifications he never had and, as it turned out, never needed. There he formed friendships with people such as Hugh John Fleming and young Richard Hatfield, the latter being a friend he would not desert. In fact, Nowlan would desert so few in his life. Even his father, who treated him cruellest of all, he did not desert. His poems about and his letters to his father reflect this. In his 1974 novel, Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien, he admitted that he was the only person in the world who ever feared his father, one line that says more about the excruciating circumstances of an impoverished child's life than any report on the subject ever could.

Story continues below advertisement

His life as a child, he once said, was the life of Huckleberry Finn -- not the romantic freckle-faced kid -- that, he said, was Tom Sawyer. No, the world of Huck Finn was both violent and terrifying, and Twain made sure he let us know it was. So, too, did he.

I was on my way to see Alden Nowlan, on my motorcycle on a summer's night, shifting down through the turns on the Killarney Road in Fredericton, during one of the last summers of his life -- I did not know this then, of course, though I now suspect he must have. Looking back, he was probably 48 years old, so he had done some living. And more than his share of suffering, though he almost never complained and, like James Joyce, had a resolute will to forge out of the smithy of his soul his own destiny. There is something great in that attribute, that rare ability to be one's own man, and to (as Chekhov said) "squeeze the slave from my soul."

Destiny it was. And it was his great intellect, matched with a brave heart, that saw him through. He was a friend of Hatfield and Dalton Camp, of Irving Layton, knew Ernest Buckler, and Pat Lane, and John Newlove; conversed with Morley Callaghan and corresponded with Henry Miller; a friend also of Stompin' Tom Conners; a friend of ordinary men and women everywhere. Sometimes he would pick an area code out of the telephone book late at night and phone the operator in a small town in Virginia or New Mexico to have a chat. Knowing loneliness and human nature, he knew they were often happy to have a person listen to them for a change.

He said he would make a great old man -- but he said it the way people do who test the waters, hoping God is listening. At times he matched his age against those whose work he respected, and felt some achievement in outliving them, because death was always so intimate a presence.

He had outlived Keats (and once he smiled and said to me, "Well, except for Thomas Chatterton, who hasn't?"). He had outlived Emily Bronte, Shelley and Byron, and D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan and Malcolm Lowry. He was the last to think that earthly longevity was the measure of any man or woman (just look at the names mentioned), but it was no less true that to keep going and keep writing would be fine with him.

Of them all, Keats was his favourite. Not the Keats of schoolbook misinformation, the wispy English Romantic, but the tough, life-loving, 5-foot-4 boxer and walker, glorious champion of the underdog, nicknamed "Junkets" by Leigh Hunt, writer of brilliant sonnets and odes who died forsaken by the public an age before. "The magnificent Red-haired Runt," Alden Nowlan called him. Nowlan shared more in common with him than he himself might have thought. Both early on were such bleak prospects and suffered illness, in silence, to almost the same degree.

Story continues below advertisement

There is a picture of Nowlan taken when he is about 13 -- a runny nose, a malbuttoned checked woollen bush jacket, a desolate landscape behind him, a lonely gaze out at the camera toward some faraway place. A haunted sadness encompasses everything.

From this picture it would seem amazing to some that he wrote at all -- that he wrote poems, astonishing. But that he wrote many of the finest poems ever written by anyone in Canada -- a country that in very many ways he loved and in many ways ignored him -- miraculous.

His first poems were traditional, but infused with great power and perception. Think of that ill-fed skinny kid looking at the camera, with scared and haunted eyes, his jacket missing buttons and his clothes tattered, and then read those poems conceived in that childhood of beatings and tattered clothes, and written in youth.

He went to the Saint John's Telegraph Journal in 1963 on the strength of his editorial ability, to Fredericton in 1968 on the strength of his poetic genius, as writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, after he won the Governor-General's Award for a collection called Bread, Wine and Salt.

In Fredericton came his golden age, or golden moment -- the flourishing of his genius, of his temperament, the legend surrounding both his enormous talent and his drinking. His poetry continued to change, to become more analytical, observant and objective, a strong narrative voice emerged, psychologically penetrating, always sympathetic to its subject. He was trying in a way for pure poetry -- which meant pure truth. As always, humanity is everywhere in his work -- in his world you cannot exist without it.

At his house on Windsor Street in Fredericton, called of course, Windsor Castle, Nowlan entertained, met other writers and poets, started his pet projects and societies (the world was so utterly self-absorbed as round, why shouldn't we claim it flat); it seemed to have still had purpose then. So many of his friends were descendants of Irish and Scottish clans who had fought the British at every turn -- why not reclaim the throne, even if in exile in New Brunswick?

Story continues below advertisement

He was interviewed about these claims by rather literal people who did not catch on to the seriousness of it all, or the joke. And Nowlan was a master of the understated in both.

Like the seriousness accompanying the joke played on the world when he was given the task, as a young man, of measuring the Hartland Bridge, to reassert its claim as the longest covered bridge in existence. Nowlan measured it from one side of the Saint John River to the other and then, for good measure, he continued across the street, proceeding until he came to a stop at his desk in the Hartland Observer office. Walking backward all the way, he finished his measuring when he was able to sit down.

And though he helped reassert the right to the throne for the descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he was, in the end, no British hater -- that was a small man's part. Besides, he cared too much about British literature and tradition.

Meeting Prince Charles in the 1970s, he commented that he liked his beard.

"But my mom disapproves," the Prince said.

"Ah, Sir, what mom doesn't?" Alden Nowlan offered.

Story continues below advertisement

When meeting June Carter Cash, he said: "Miss Carter I have long been of the opinion that you have the sexiest right knee in all of show business."

"Thank you very much for noticing," Carter Cash said, and lifted her dress to show him the knee.

His parties were filled with people from disparate walks of life, who had totally different opinions and political stripes, who might not speak to each other anywhere else. At Alden Nowlan's they found safety. The premier could be there, and so too members of the Opposition, a single mother on welfare sitting beside a young corporate lawyer, sound poets adrift in the world, and young men with their daddies' money, rural-bred soldiers from Gagetown sitting beside urban pacifists, wearing peace beads, sharing cigarettes from the same pack. As Gorky said of Tolstoy, so someone might have said of Nowlan: "As long as this man lives no one will be an orphan."

Of course he could not live. That is always the secret.

Someone once told me that Alden Nowlan only attracted youngsters, and that people his age were wary of him. Although he had a great many older friends, that is still true in part, but it was not Nowlan's fault. The young sought him out, as the young must have sought out Emerson, or Socrates. Why? It is simple. The young have to.

He was comfortable with the young. They came to him because for many he was the first adult they had ever heard speak like an adult should speak. Many were would-be poets, and he was a mentor.

Some his own age, especially from the university, were wary of him because, just like Beethoven with the nobility, he could not bow easily to those who had not come to knowledge within the harsh life-and-death parameters he himself had faced.

But the young came. He never so much instructed them, but listened to them. Perhaps, who knows, they were taken seriously for the very first time in their lives. It is literally true that there was a time his house was filled with people young enough to be his sons or daughters.

I went down to meet Alden Nowlan, but the lights were out, and I did not want to wake him at the door. I turned my motorcycle around in the summer air, and shifted through the avenues of people already asleep.

He did not know of this impromptu visit, and the next time I visited was one of my very last.

He was watching Peter Ustinov's documentary on Russia: " 'Lo Davy," he said, and got up to turn the television off.

"No, Alden," I said, not wanting to disturb his program. "Please leave it on."

"Nonsense," he said. "If Peter Ustinov is on TV and David Adams Richards enters the room -- off goes the television." And he made that great jerking motion with his arms.

I sat down. He was silent a long moment. Then he look over at me and, with a kind of cherub-like smile, shyly added: "Mind you, Davy, if David Adams Richards was on television and Peter Ustinov walked in -- well then, what I mean to say is, well, you know -- the TV just might go off, too."

At the last of his life he was left alone, as old friends departed for other places, and lives changed. The great court was over and often he sat in his den in solitude.

Some made excuses, saying he was difficult and his best days were over. Noble of them . . . to be entertained by him on his best days.

And he -- well, he was still writing great poems, about the martyrdom of Bobby Sands, about going to a "school for the retarded" to speak to children, or summing up Boswell's 200,000-word biography of his old friend Sam Johnson.

I have often wondered what Canada gave Alden Nowlan. I have never come up with a satisfactory answer.

In his great poem Ypres: 1915, he asked, in a curious way, if he even had a country -- and more subtly, though never spoken, if Canada of today deserved the bravery of those kids fighting along the line, the first time the Germans used gas:

Perhaps they were too scared to run.

Perhaps they didn't know any better

-- that is possible, they were so

innocent,

those farmboys and mechanics,

you only have to look

at old pictures and see how they smiled.

Perhaps they were too shy

to walk out on anybody, even Death.

Perhaps their only motivation

Was a stubborn disinclination.

Private MacNally thinking:

You squareheaded sons of bitches,

you want this God damn trench

you're going to have to take it away

from Billy MacNally

of the South End of Saint John, New Brunswick.

And that's ridiculous, too, and nothing

on which to found a country.

Still

It makes me feel good, knowing

that in some obscure, conclusive way

they were connected with me

and me with them.

As I say, I do not know what Canada really gave him; but I know in my heart and soul what he gave it. He was the greatest poet of his generation, one of the few truly great literary figures this country has produced. But so like his literary hero Junkets, he always made an awkward bow.

I went down to visit Alden Nowlan, on that summer night long ago. Who knows, maybe to thank him. But it was too late, the curtains were drawn, and the lights were out.

He took a heart attack at his home on June 11, 1983, and, putting on old and tattered clothes that he would know from the days of his youth, walked unaided to the ambulance, just as he long ago told God he would do for Him -- die with courage.

He slipped into a coma from which he never recovered, and died June 27, 1983, at the age of 50. Two years younger than I am now.

David Adams Richards, author of Mercy Among the Children , has a new novel, River of the Brokenhearted , due out in August. He lives in Toronto.

An outsider's sympathy for Mishima

"As always, humanity is everywhere in his work," says D.A. Richards. "In his world you cannot exist without it." In a poem to Yukio Mishima, after his ritualistic suicide, Nowlan gives sympathetic understanding to an outsider so misunderstood:

But perhaps I understand you better than most, Yukio

Mishima,

wanting to restore the sword

to its place beside the

chrysanthemums,

the worst way to die

is as a prisoner at the hands

of a pitiless human enemy.

next to the worst

is death of natural causes.

there are no pacifists

in the Cancer Ward.

Thus I was made'

The early poems of Alden Nowlan are traditional, but infused with great power and perception, conceived in a childhood of beatings and tattered clothes.

Beginning

From that they found most lovely, most abhorred,

my parents made me: I was born like sound

stroked from the fiddle to become the ward

of tunes played on the bear-trap and the hound.

Not one, but seven entrances they gave

each to the other, and he laid her down

the way the sun comes out. Oh, they were brave,

and then like looters in a burning town.

Their mouths left bruises, starting with the kiss

and ending with the proverb, where they stayed;

Never in making was there brighter bliss,

followed by darker shame. Thus I was made.

Marian at the Pentecostal Meeting

Marian, I cannot begrudge

the carnival of God,

the cotton candy of her faith

spun on a silver rod

to lick in bed; a peaked girl,

neither admired nor clever,

Christ pity her and let her ride

God's carousel forever.

Summer

It's summer yet but still the cold

coils through these fields at dusk, the gray Atlantic

haunting the hollows and a black bitch barking

between a rock pile and a broken fence

out on the hill a mile from town where maybe

a she-bear, groggy with blueberries, listens

and the colt, lonesome, runs in crooked circles.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter