Alden Nowlan Essay - Critical Essays

Nowlan, Alden


Nowlan, Alden 1933–

Nowlan is a Canadian poet, novelist, and short story writer. Both his poetry and prose consistently depict the life and people of his native Nova Scotia, in language noted for its strong realistic imagery. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Keath Fraser

Reading the body of Alden Nowlan's work one begins to share his acute feeling for place. The ideal landscapes of Roberts and Carman, his literary ancestors, are the ones he avoids and de-mythologizes…. To get beneath a Maritime cliché the poet [at times] brandishes a prudery he recognizes and undercuts a countryside he does not…. As he views it, the Real McCoy resides not in any Platonic folder, the idea of landscape, but in the stab of the river above and below the ice, in winter and in summer. If Beauty exists it arises from a comprehension ubiquitous and therefore poetic, not a romanticized abstraction which excludes pain and coldness…. Individual poems hint that in this world where "Spring is distrusted", "Summer is not a season", and "December is thirteen months long", there can be no harking back to Tantramar for lost experience: any loss boils down simply to the absence of harshness, not to something that creates combustion in the mind. (p. 41)

Because he prides himself on writing of what he knows the threat of piecemeal living seems never distant from his regional world…. Nowlan chronicles himself and others via a milieu where the pain of his own experience contributes to much of his work…. (p. 42)

By and large … Nowlan, like the preacher in "The Young Rector"—fascinated with indigenous spirituality—cannot help but witness that the abject people he intuitively loves "are dead / all they need is someone / to throw dirt over them. / Passionless, stinking, dead." For this writer … both Eden and Tantramar are gone; only his struggle against asceticism and the nitty-gritty remains…. (p. 44)

While reviews of his early work praised Nowlan for the accuracy of his images, they also admonished him for flatness and failure to experiment much with form. A tendency not to whack home more forcefully a poem's potential also came under fire; what his poems of the early sixties needed more of was the expansive yet integral conclusions of his later ones, which exhibit an adroit control. In Under the Ice (1961) …, one discovers him finding his range, adjusting his sights, but shooting erratically nonetheless; even some previous poems are decidedly better than the ones which now describe his middle period. "The Egotist" from The Rose and the Puritan (1958), for example, explores a favourite theme of violence with more sophistication than the later "Bear". The earlier poem clinches its simple but electric statement superbly…. "Bear", on the other hand, lacks as much voltage because its conclusion is bathetic…. (pp. 44-5)

In Under the Ice Nowlan reveals limitations, not because a number of titles read like a rural Who's Who ("Jack Stringer", "Charlie", "Georgie and Fenwick", or "The Flynch Cows"), but because the poems themselves often forfeit neat contours of structure and perception (a notable...

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William H. New

[Nowlan's] Miracle at Indian River (1968) gathers together eighteen stories about the Maritimes. Laconic, witty, gentle, and perceptive, they look shrewdly at institutions like the Church, with its profound influence on cultural mores, sympathetically at the idiosyncrasies of individuals, and forcefully at the economic limitations that burden the entire community. Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien (1973) is more uneven. Billed as a novel and structured as eleven vignettes in the title character's memory of his changing identity, it again affirms an appreciation of cultural roots, but the Maritime mystique of the earlier book is lost in the attempt to explore character in more depth. (p. 259)

William H. New, "Fiction," in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, Vol. III, Carl F. Klinck, General Editor (© University of Toronto Press 1965, 1976), second edition, University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. 233-83.∗

George Woodcock

The most important contemporary poet of the Maritimes, as well as the most prolific, is Alden Nowlan…. Replying to a question by the editor of Contemporary Poets of the English Language (1970), Nowlan remarked: 'I write about what it is like to be Alden Nowlan because that is the only thing I know anything about.' If one takes that as something more than mere solipsism, it is a true statement, for Nowlan is one of the microcosmic-macrocosmic poets, constantly moving within his own world, which is that of the puritanical small towns and the wild logging camps of New Brunswick. In telling his anecdotes, in recording sharp fragments and points of experience, Nowlan combines a concise form with an easy conversational manner and yet at times achieves a super-real intensity of vision which launches personal experience into universality. There is a naturalness of flow, an apparent ease of writing in Nowlan's verse which one suspects is the result of great actual care and application. (pp. 306-07)

George Woodcock, "Poetry," in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, Vol. III, Carl F. Klinck, General Editor (© University of Toronto Press 1965, 1976), second edition, University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. 284-317.∗

Louis Dudek

Alden Nowlan's The Things which Are, taking its title from the Book of Revelation, plunges [into a kind of visionary sense of reality]…. It is native Canadian realism (the book is dedicated to Souster) with a sporadic symbolism drawn from reality that is literally hair-raising in its effects. This goes beyound just "good Canadian poetry"—it is incredibly good.

Poems like "The Bull Moose", "The Execution", and "Novelty Booth", are a leap forward to some new frontier of vision. Others, "Money", "Canticle", "Sometimes", "The Stenographer", are beautiful as any among our recent poetry. And one poem, "In Peace", is as high in its diction and imaginative evocation, I think, as anything in Frost or Yeats. (p. 173)

Louis Dudek, "A Load of New Books: Smith, Webb, Miller/Souster, Purdy, Nowlan" (originally published in, Delta, No. 20, February, 1963), in his Selected Essays and Criticism (© Louis Dudek and The Tecumseh Press Limited 1978), Tecumseh, 1978, pp. 168-74.∗