The following article was a WHHS Heritage Banquet address by Rev. David Curry in 2003. It has been converted from a pdf file to be shared here.
Alden Nowlan: The Forgotten Poet of Stanley
I would like to thank the West Hants Historical Society for the privilege ofÂ speaking this evening and to commend the Society for recognising the veryÂ important part that literature plays in our heritage.
I have been asked to speak about Alden Nowlan, one of Canadaâ€™s great butÂ almost forgotten poets and writers. Born on January 25, 1933, he was largely selfeducated,Â having left school in the midst of grade five to work at a variety ofÂ labouring jobs – pulp cutter, farmhand, sawmill worker, night watchman, ditchdiggerÂ and logger – before landing himself a job in journalism at the age of 19 inÂ Hartland, New Brunswick by type-writing his own reference letter. His workÂ with the local weekly, The Observer, first as a reporter then as news editor, wasÂ supplemented by a miscellany of other jobs, even that of a manager of a countryÂ and western band, â€œGeorge Shaw and the Green Valley Ranch Boysâ€. At the sameÂ time he became involved in provincial politics, campaigning for Richard HatfieldÂ and the Tories. Like many Maritimers, he could speak of the Nationâ€™s Capital,Â Ottawa, with a certain degree of skepticism as being â€œa city utterly divorced fromÂ realityâ€. During his eleven years in Hartland, he also published six books ofÂ poetry, having come to the attention of Fred Cogswell and Desmond Pacey at theÂ University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
In 1963, he left Hartland to join The Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, NewÂ Brunswick. He was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, theÂ same year that he won the Governor Generalâ€™s Award for Poetry for a collectionÂ of poems entitled Bread, Wine and Salt. He was made Writer-in-Residence at theÂ University of New Brunswick in 1968 and also received a Canada CouncilÂ Special Award.
Alden Nowlan became something of a one man literary institution while at theÂ University of New Brunswick. Along with other awards – the Presidentâ€™s MedalÂ of the University of Western Ontario for short fiction in 1970 and 1972, the Canadian Authorâ€™s Association Silver Medal for Poetry in 1977, the Queenâ€™sÂ Silver Jubilee Medal in 1978, the Evelyn Richardson Award for non-fiction inÂ 1979 – he was granted an Honorary Doctorate from UNB in 1971 and one from Dalhousie in 1976. A fruitful collaboration with Walter Learning at Theatre NewÂ Brunswick resulted in a number of dramas some of which were adapted forÂ radio and some for television.
He died on June 27, 1983 in Fredericton; a prolific writer, poet, playwright,Â journalist, a major voice in Canadian letters, survived by his wife ClaudineÂ (Orser) and his step-son John. He was buried, appropriately enough, in what
might be called a kind of poetâ€™s corner, near the graves of such literary figures asÂ Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. As Alden Nowlanâ€™s most recentÂ biographer, Patrick Toner, describes it, â€œA large Celtic cross mark[s] the grave of anÂ Irishman from Nova Scotiaâ€.
â€œAn Irishman from Nova Scotiaâ€. Indeed. The poems and writings of AldenÂ Nowlan are standard features in a number of anthologies of Canadian andÂ Maritime literature. In those anthologies, he is variously said to be born inÂ Windsor or near Windsor, Nova Scotia. About his actual birthplace, there is aÂ strange silence, almost as if there was a slight hesitation, even a sense of uneaseÂ about naming the place of his birth. His biography tells us, of course, as doesÂ Robert Gibbsâ€™ estimable biocritical essay Various Persons Named Alden Nowlan.Â His birthplace, as I am sure all of you know, is not Windsor but Stanley.
Alden Nowlan is the forgotten poet of Stanley, Nova Scotia.
Stanley was not only the place of his birth but, in some sense, the fons et origo ofÂ his poetic imagination, the place which played no small role in shaping hisÂ understanding of what belongs to our Canadian identity and to his articulationÂ of â€œthe things which areâ€. Some of those things are painful and fearful to behold,Â both for him and for Stanley. Stanley was for him â€œDesolation Creekâ€ and â€œtheÂ slough of despondâ€, images conjured from John Bunyanâ€™s Pilgrimâ€™s Progress,Â though we also might remind ourselves that there are those â€œwho going throughÂ the Vale of Misery use it for a wellâ€(Psalm 84.6). Yet as the quote from the RevelationÂ of St. John the Divine which adorns the collection of poems entitled The ThingsÂ Which Are suggests, there is a kind of necessity, perhaps even a divine necessity,Â to the writing and to the reading. â€œWrite the things which thou hast seen and theÂ things which areâ€. It belongs to the vocation of the poet. A poet is a maker, aÂ maker with words, but only out of what he sees.
Poets, like prophets and preachers, as it is proverbially said, have no honour inÂ their own country. There is no monument, no memorial, no acknowledgment inÂ Stanley to their greatest son.[footnote]Since giving this paper on February 8th, 2003, a monument honouring Alden Nowlan has been erected inÂ Stanley, Nova Scotia in 2004.[/footnote] There is, however, a plaque in the Windsor Library,Â a testament to Nowlanâ€™s frequent use of the books there in the process of his selfeducationÂ and to the kindness and encouragement of the Librarian, EleanorÂ Geary. But in some sense, Alden Nowlanâ€™s work is a monument to Stanley, to theÂ power of the land which shapes the landscape of the soul. In his writing,Â imaginative and disturbing, Stanley becomes, for good and for ill, a kind ofÂ Canadian Everywhere, reminding us of the rural realities of Canadian life,Â realities which we forget at our peril. What Alden Nowlan reminds us, in partÂ through the fictional remaking of the facts of his past, are the things whichÂ belong to the relentless struggle for survival.
… I, walking backwards in obedience
to the wind, am possessed
of the fearful knowledge
my compatriots share
but almost never utter:
this is a country
where a man can die
simply from being
as he suggests in his poem Canadian January Night (1971).
About the more immediate landscape of East Hants County, he observes that,
Ours was a windy country, and its crops
were never frivolous, malicious rocks
kicked at the plow and skinny cattle broke
ditch ice for mud to drink and pigs were axed.
An early poem entitled â€œA Poem To My Motherâ€, later changed to â€œThe White Goddessâ€, it signals the harsh realities of life and death in the thin-soil land of rural poverty in East Hants, the fears and sensitivities of a boy of twelve â€œfinding the young bull drowned, his shoulders wedged/into a sunken hogshead in the pastureâ€, and the remembrance or the longing for the gentle caresses of a motherâ€™s love, â€œthe kiss/your fingers sang into my hair all nightâ€, against the violent wildness of an unforgiving land without and within our souls – themes which recur in various and ambiguous ways throughout his literary career.
His poems especially face the fears of abandonment and neglect, of loneliness and the bitter sense of the â€œpointlessness of lifeâ€ against which the writer at once discovers and creates a world. Writing was Alden Nowlanâ€™s form of the struggle to survive. Above all else, it seems to me, that struggle meant naming and confronting the pathetic fatalism of the genes, we might say, the fatalism of family, the fatalism of the â€œbog Irishâ€ of the Newport-Douglas settlements and by extension the forms of fatalism belonging to post-modernism.
I was an alien
in the village where
I was born,
three thousand miles away,
am as much
and no more
an alien here.
So nobody tries to change me
or even dreams it possible
for me to behave
in any other way.
Few poets have explored or understood the frustrations and the sense of futility born out of the spirit of fatalism or have written about it so eloquently, so clearly and so directly as Alden Nowlan. Ultimately, his work signals the possibilities of freedom, hope and life and, above all, demonstrates a passionate understanding of those who struggle against hardship and poverty, an understanding which is neither blind nor sentimental about the violence and the abuse, the folly and the rage of those who know and do not know or who do not know that they know what they confront as unmovable, inescapable forces. The poets help us to see but only out of what they have seen.
Every picture was a vision
sent by God; my motherâ€™s Kodak, with its black snout,
was a thing of mystery: once I unwound a film,
in search of the pictures inside it, and found nothing.
It was not merely the pictures; every morning
we sang â€œGod save the King,â€ and another hymn,
such as â€œJesus loves me.â€ Nobody ever said
we belonged to God and the King; there was no need to say
they were there, as our grandparents were there: nobody
had to say,
this is your grandmother, this is your grandfather; we had
always known it.
To put in another way, we no more believed in Kings
than we believed in Uncles; there was a blood relationship
involved, and like any other blood relationship,
it was nothing to make a fuss about, yet something
that nothing could alter….
(from â€œThe Country I was Born in was Ruled by Kingsâ€)
But to arrive at this point where a â€œblood relationship [is] nothing to make a fuss aboutâ€, having recognised that it is â€œsomething that nothing could alterâ€, was no small feat. It meant confronting the pain and the hurt in his own life about difficult and troubling family relationships and about a community which doubtless found the form of his struggle to survive simply incomprehensible.
The first poem in his first collection of poetry, The Rose and the Puritan (1958), captures his sense of this incomprehension of the community and the sense of censure towards the literary and creative act.
The neighbours, in a Sunday meeting mood,
Would roll sweet bits of pity on their tongues
And wonder gravely how the honest Browns
Could breed so little virtue in their sons.
For Jimmie whimpered when he saw a crow
Come down in answer to a classmateâ€™s rock,
And fondled roses like a foolish girl,
And quoted school-book poets when he talked.
And Tom shaped women with his pocket knife
From bits of wood, beneath a lazy tree,
Or frightened village maids with silly tales
About the beauty of loveâ€™s ecstasy.
And John, the eldest, once as mad as they,
But now subdued with children, farm and wife,
Threw all his earnings into books and rum –
And cursed the bitter pointlessness of life.
The community – these â€œneighbours in [their] Sunday meeting moodâ€ – is at once Stanley and more than Stanley. It is every community in its unawareness of the power and the necessity of words and art, every community where religion has been falsified and calcified into moral and political correctness and is dead to the living word. Alden Nowlan challenges us in those communities wherever we are.
It is much harder to confront and to come to terms with the pain and the hurt belonging to the fatalism of the family. And perhaps no poem better captures the poignancy of that pain and overcomes it than the last poem in the collection known as Smoked Glass (1977). The poem is entitled, significantly it seems to me, â€œItâ€™s good to be hereâ€, echoing the words of Peter upon beholding Christ transfigured on the mountain-top; â€œIt is good to be hereâ€, he had said.
Iâ€™m in trouble, she said
to him. That was the first
time in history that anyone
had ever spoken of me.
It was 1932 when she
was just fourteen years old
and men like him
worked all day for
one stinking dollar.
Thereâ€™s quinine, she said.
Thatâ€™s bullshit, he told her.
Then she cried and then
for a long time neither of them
said anything at all and then
their voices kept rising until
they were screaming at each other
and then there was another long silence and then
they began to talk very quietly and at last he said,
well, I guess weâ€™ll just have to make the best of it.
While I lay curled up,
my heart beating,
in the darkness inside her.
â€œFictionâ€, Timothy Findley observes, is about â€œachieving the clarity obscured by factsâ€. The facts are these: Freeman Nowlan was 28 years old and Grace Reese was 14 years old when Alden Nowlan was born in Stanley, Nova Scotia on January 25, 1933. Their marriage didnâ€™t work. Allegedly, the age differential, Graceâ€™s â€œstepping outâ€ on him to dances with other men, and Freemanâ€™s drinking all contributed to their separation shortly after the birth of Aldenâ€™s biological sister, Harriet, who was born in 1935. From about 1937 to 1940, Alden and Harriet were raised by Graceâ€™s mother Leonora or Nora (Sanford) Reese in Mosherville until Noraâ€™s death in 1940. Then, they moved back to Freemanâ€™s house in Stanley where he had persuaded his mother Emma to look after the children.
The fiction has to do with the attempt to bring clarity to the sense of abandonment and dislocation and to understand the forces at work in the world around him and within him. As he suggests in his novel Various Persons Named Kevin Oâ€™Brien, â€œwe return to the past and change itâ€, change it not so much by the reconstruction of facts and events as through the effort to understand the motivations and intentions of ourselves and others. There may be the colourings of romanticism but there may also be breakthroughs of the understanding.
So much of Canadian literature is shaped by the land and by the strongly felt necessity to articulate and communicate an understanding of oneâ€™s place and oneâ€™s identity. Ernest Bucklerâ€™s wonderful novel The Mountain and the Valley is framed by the image of a hooked rug in which all the tangled threads of human lives are woven into a kind of pattern. Just so, Alden Nowlanâ€™s writing is about weaving his story, a story which, in turn, shapes other stories.
David Adams Richards, one of Canadaâ€™s outstanding authors, identifies Alden Nowlan as one of the great influences on his writing, naming him along with Faulkner, Ernest Buckler and Dostoevsky. Not bad company for a boy from
Stanley! Richardsâ€™ powerful and poignant novel, Mercy among the Children, echoes many of the same themes as Alden Nowlanâ€™s writings. I like to think that, perhaps, in the figures of Sydney Henderson, a gentle, sensitive and selfeducated man who lives by the words of what he so carefully and thoughtfully reads, and his son Lyle who struggles to redeem the story of his father from the world of violence and incomprehension, lives something of the character of Alden Nowlan.
Without trying to chronicle or second-guess the hardships of his youth, it is not too much to say that the community of Stanley found Alden Nowlan more than a little strange. Though leaving school after grade four and only part way through grade five, he continued to read and read and read, whether it was books from the Windsor Library or publications which he got for free from the classifieds of the Family Herald – a truly bizarre collection of materials on a great number of religions and philosophies as well as on political philosophy, includingÂ communist literature. He came to identify himself as a Communist. He build a structure in a swamp near the house which he called the Nylonian Church Upon the Rock where at night by lamplight he could be heard ranting and raving about damnation and salvation.
Actually, it seems that what he was doing was reading out loud from the various publications which he had received. But as Patrick Toner suggests, â€œranting and reading about demons were both considered by local people to be the acts of a madmanâ€. Physically ill in 1946 he became quite despondent in 1947 after the death of his paternal grandmother and was sent to the Nova Scotia hospital in Dartmouth, returning in 1948. In 1949, he got a job at Russell Palmerâ€™s Sawmill which he lost early in 1951 when it came out that he had been writing articles for
Now the point of mentioning these facts is that they become the material of his fiction in which there develops a kind of redemption of the past. The poem â€œWeaknessâ€ gives us a glimpse of the violent desperation of his father but also conveys a sense of despairing gentleness in the face of the things that canâ€™t be changed. Nowlan came to recognise that â€œbeing afraid of weaknessâ€, as he puts it in the poem â€œCousinsâ€, is part of the fatalism, but in a moment of gentleness we see the unnecessary gesture which belongs to a freedom beyond the fatalism.
Old mare whose eyes
are like cracked marbles
drools blood in her mash,
shivers in her jute blanket.
My father hates weakness worse than hail;
in the morning
he will shoot her in the ear, once,
shovel her under in the north pasture.
leaving the stables,
he stands his lantern on an over-turned water pail,
cursing her for a bad bargain,
and spreads his coat
carefully over her sick shoulders.
His reading of eclectic religious and political literature in his tower in a swamp will be reworked into the gentle, ironic and humorous short story, The Girl Who Went to Mexico which involves the same sense of the seemingly accidental yet providential chain of events which Ken Miller of the Windsor Tribune may well have set in motion in referring this young writer to another editor – the editor of the Hartland Observer, and which he writes about in the poem, â€œWhat happened When He Went to the Store for Breadâ€. In the short story, Sam Baxter, too, is accused behind his back of being a communist because of the literature which he receives for free in responding to ads in the magazine. The seemingly accidental series of events ultimately leads him to marriage and happiness all because of the girl who persuaded him to take out a magazine subscription to â€œThe Canadian Yeomanâ€. Even the matter of being a communist is reworked in the novel Wanton Trooper where the fictional Uncle Kaye calls it â€œequalizinâ€™â€.
The point is that in facing the forms of fatalism in the communities of his past and present the poet and writer has discovered freedom and perhaps even grace, but certainly love. Great things have happened.
We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, â€œoh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time.â€ But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didnâ€™t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, Iâ€™m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.
â€œIs that all?â€ I hear somebody ask.
Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country youâ€™ve never visited
before, when the bread doesnâ€™t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.
(from â€œGreat Things have Happenedâ€)
Alden Nowlan is often called â€œthe Peopleâ€™s Poetâ€. This seems to me somewhat misleading if not dangerously condescending. Even though I think that with his rich baritone voice, at least before his surgeries in 1966 for cancer of the thyroid, he could probably sing better than Leonard Cohen, (though, perhaps, that isnâ€™t saying much!), certainly better than Bob Dylan, (that, too, isnâ€™t saying very much!), and likely reach a few more notes than Ann Murray (nor is that saying a whole lot!), his poems do not lend themselves to popular music or to popular
culture in general. This is not to say that they are academic and erudite in some self-conscious manner. By no means. They are challenging and thoughtful. They have a primitive vitality and vigour about them which is disturbing and yet compelling.
Robert Bly of Iron John fame, for instance, celebrates Alden Nowlan as one of those poets who belong to the â€œumbrella rippersâ€, one who faces his fears and ours, one who is not afraid of the raw edges of life, one who exposes the pretensions and the hypocrisies of our pseudo-sophistications. I think that is true but it doesnâ€™t stop there. In facing those fears honestly and clearly without cant or self-pity, he allows for the possibilities of new things, of greater things, to appear. He helps us to understand, to see what he has come to see about ourselves, the world from which we come and the world which we confront.
Perhaps, this is his greatness.
I would be the greatest poet the world has ever known
if only I could make you see
here on the page
three kernels of popcorn
spilled on the snow.Â – (â€œGreatnessâ€)
And perhaps he has.
(Revâ€™d) David Curry
February 8, 2003
West Hants Heritage Banquet
About the author:
A native of Falmouth, Nova Scotia, David and his wife Marilyn have three children Elizabeth, Joel, and Madeleine.
A graduate of theÂ University of Kingâ€™s CollegeÂ (B.A. Hon.), Dalhousie University (M.A.), Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (M.T.S.), andÂ Trinity College, University of Toronto (M.Div.), and ordained to the priesthood in 1982, David was New Testament Greek Tutor at Trinity College (1980-1982), Dean and Lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Kingâ€™s College (1982-1985), Curate atÂ The Church of The AdventÂ in Boston, Massachusetts (1985-1990), and Rector-Designate of The Combined Parishes of Liscombe and Port Bickerton of the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island on Nova Scotiaâ€™s Eastern Shore (1990-1998).
He is currently the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Christ Church, Windsor, Chaplain and Senior School English and Philosophy teacher in the International Baccalaureate programme atÂ Kingâ€™s-Edgehill School. He has spoken and written on matters of theology, liturgy, history and literature. He is also Vice-President of theÂ Prayer Book Society of CanadaÂ and the Local Vicar of the Ste. Croix Branch of an Anglican Priestsâ€™ Society, theÂ Society of the Holy CrossÂ (Societas Sanctae Crucis, SSC).