Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant Poet

Alden Nowlan's large, red-bearded legacy for the not-yet emerged
Alden Nowlan portrait by Stephen Scott

One morning in February 1969 at a Fredericton High School assembly in the old Justice Building on Queen Street, an impressively large, red-bearded, rough-voiced newcomer to the city read poetry to hundreds of students. Nearly half a century later, few memories of that event stay with me, except for the jolting conclusion of one poem (“your compassion the conceit / that all living things are Alden Nowlan in disguise”) and a sense of discovery that a physically towering man could express such gentleness and vulnerability in his words.

Around that time, Nowlan invited us students to send our poetry to him. Soon I received a generous, painstakingly typed critique from Alden, as well as the opening to what would grow into a warm-hearted friendship.

Much later, in the fall of 2015, a phone call from Goose Lane Editions/icehouse poetry editor Ross Leckie was another milestone moment in decades of reading, writing, teaching and editing poetry. It was a surprise to hear that Goose Lane had decided to produce a giant volume gathering together all of Alden’s poetry books (published between 1958 and 1983) and Ross wanted to know if I’d be interested in editing such a volume. How could I say no to such a rare opportunity?

As the months passed, I increasingly felt a sense of having been given both a great responsibility to do justice to a very valuable body of poetry and a great honour to help see the book into print. Before writing the requested bio/critical introductory essay, I re-read Nowlan’s many poetry books, along with four of his prose volumes, two books about his work and two biographies of him. That reading sparked many reminders of what a special poet and unforgettably original, unusual man had left us at the young age of fifty.

Commentaries on Nowlan’s life and writing have sometimes overemphasized the misery and violence in his early years and diminished his poems as “straightforward,” “simple” or “prosy.” So the introductory essay to the Collected emphasizes the variations in Alden’s own presentations of his poverty-afflicted youth in rural Nova Scotia in the 1930s and 40s, and argues for the skill and sophistication of his artistry. Writing the essay was a chance to demonstrate his awareness of conflicting memories, the masks of self and the “various persons” (to use one of his own phrases), that make up each human individual.

Much of the work in editing a volume of collected poems zooms in on minutiae. As editor I felt the need to respect the poet’s decisions and to resist temptations for modernizing or consistency: “traffick” and “waggon” were kept, along with “Grade III or IV” (rather than “Grade 3 or 4”), the coining of the noun “barnfloor” (not “barn floor”) and “band-aid” and “frisbee” (not “Band-Aid” and “Frisbee”). (When instructions in The Chicago Manual of Style were pointed out I was tempted to joke, “Chicago be damned!” because I’ve never believed that poets need consult a style manual as an absolute authority.)

Knowing full-well my limitations as a proofreader, I’ve been lucky to have Goose Laners Martin and Jill Ainsley pinpoint errors in transcription and to benefit from their understanding and their dedication, and that of other Goose Lane people, to create an accurate, elegant volume. Effective, creative editing often requires the care of several minds and pairs of eyes, not just of one solitary worker.

Other interesting tasks assigned to the editor included the tracking down of artwork for a frontispiece (we decided on a preliminary sketch by Stephen Scott for his profoundly empathetic portrait of Alden) and the assigning and editing of four brief commentaries to appear on the back of the book’s dust jacket. For the latter, considering that many people other than academics and poets have enjoyed Nowlan’s writing, it was especially pleasing to get a blurb from one of Canada’s most distinctive singer-songwriters, Al Tuck.

“Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and “labour of love” are two clichés hard to avoid using here. Now begins the suspense of waiting to see if the book’s publication will, over time, influence any future Canadian poetry. In this century, much new poetry in our country has been characterized more by cleverness, metaphorical brilliance and impersonal intelligence than by emotional openness. The all-too-human embodiments of fear, guilt, ecstasy, anger, hope and love in Alden Nowlan’s poetry could excite and guide Canadian poets yet to emerge.

Written By

Brian Bartlett is a poet, essayist, nature writer and editor living in Halifax. He has published 14 books or chapbooks of poetry, two prose books of nature writing, and a compilation of prose about poetry.

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Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant Poet

Alden Nowlan's large, red-bearded legacy for the not-yet emerged
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