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Reviewed by:
  • Alden Nowlan: Essays on His Works
  • George Elliott Clarke
Gregory M. Cook , editor. Alden Nowlan: Essays on His Works. Guernica. 144. $15.00

US poet Robert Bly acclaims Nova Scotia–born, New Brunswick–located poet Alden Nowlan as 'the greatest Canadian poet of the twentieth century,' while New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards deems him 'the greatest poet of his generation, one of the few great literary figures this country [Canada] has produced.' (Intriguingly, his assessment reduces Bly's.) For Gregory M. Cook, a Nova Scotian–New Brunswicker writer and poet, a disciple of Nowlan since meeting him in 1963, Nowlan is a 'great artist,' for two reasons: (1) his forging of 'the most courageous confessional voice in North American poetry in English,' and (2) his status as 'a working-class poet.' Cook finds right impressive Nowlan's rise from the scathing poverty of backwoods Nova Scotia – 'the microcosm of psychopathic capitalism' – and a Grade 4 schooling to become a Guggenheim Fellow, a Governor General's Award for Poetry laureate, an honorary doctor of letters, and, in earning his daily bread, a university creative-writing instructor and a newspaper [End Page 445] columnist, one who boozed with the premier of New Brunswick and schmoozed with royalty.

Cook first promoted Nowlan by penning a hagiographical 2003 biography, One Heart, One Way / Alden Nowlan: A Writer's Life. Now he has assembled and introduced Alden Nowlan: Essays on His Works, a compendium of interviews, reviews, reminiscences, and bibliography. Cook's aim echoes a desire of English Conservative scribe Thomas Hooker to ensure '[p]osterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.' Cook seeks to coax a new generation of English-Canadian readers to recognize Nowlan's eminence before his present proponents themselves pass away.

Cook's task is commendable, for Nowlan is a compelling poet, and the proof is that, a quarter-century after his death, his corpus is soundly alive, with four posthumous collections (including two issued in the United States and United Kingdom), and the admiration of stellar, young poets like the editor's own son, Geoffrey. Indeed, for Cook fils, Nowlan's continued relevance stems from his establishment of 'a "Canadian voice" in poetry – the dominant form of which is the narrative of everyday life in free verse . . . '

Born near Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1933, in aptly named Desolation Creek, Nowlan matured into a dreamy autodidact, one moody enough to be interned briefly in the provincial insane asylum, and, prior to that, to scheme to rape a twelve-year-old girl. (See Patrick Toner's 'objective' 2000 biography.) To escape the mean circumstances of his home, Nowlan dallied with Marxism, then decamped for New Brunswick, where his first book appeared in 1958. Between then and his death in 1983, Nowlan published thirteen poetry collections, as well as novels, short stories, plays, histories, and journalism. But his reputation rests on his poetry – a voice as classically succinct (but not astringent) as that of US poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, as steeped in place as that of US poet Robert Frost, and as searingly honest as that of US poet Allen Ginsberg. Like Canadian poets Al Purdy and Milton Acorn, Nowlan's verses seek an absolute, conversational plainness, without sounding contrived, coy, or folksy. His personae dodge the temptation to sanctimony and hypocrisy by confessing their own – humanizing – foibles, eccentricities, and contradictions.

Cook's contributors – US poet Thomas R. Smith, Canadian scholar Paul Milton, Richards, and Geoffrey Cook – celebrate Nowlan's proletarian roots and sympathies, and his struggle against learned 'hacks' who dismiss him as a regionalist 'hick,' and retail vivid, personal anecdotes (most triumphantly in Richards's eulogy). (One 'party-pooper' appears: the Canuck iconoclast John Metcalf.) The bibliography is useful, but fails to distinguish, as 'Fiction,' stories from novels. [End Page 446]

Editor Cook yearns to affirm Nowlan's status as 'great poet,' but his evidence is a fan's, not a critic's. Yes, remarkable it is that an elementary dropout became a significant poet. May one cite the shadow example of Gwendolyn MacEwen? Let's say Nowlan spoke for 'proles' and peasants. Shall we note his...


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