Patrick Lane Essay - Critical Essays

Lane, Patrick


Patrick Lane 1939–

Canadian poet.

Lane has been called a "maverick poet" for his often brusque and unflinchingly rough portrayals of life in British Columbia. Though he has written some lyric and introspective poetry, Lane's narrative poems have been most successful. As the poet-observer, he records the stories of hard-working people, failures, and outcasts with dramatic images rendered through a disturbing voice. Some critics find Lane's visceral style sensational in its emphasis on violence. Others praise him for combining "the grotesque with the deeply human" to achieve a harsh but true realism.

Lane's early poetry was marked by experiments in language and form through which he gradually developed a unique, documentary style. Most critics feel his poetry matured with the volumes Beware the Months of Fire and Unborn Things; the latter recounts his experiences while traveling in South America. For Poems New and Selected Lane received the Governor General's Award in 1978. His recent collection, The Measure, has further expanded Lane's reputation as one of Canada's most distinctive poets.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100.)

Peter Stevens

[In Letters From the Savage Mind Patrick Lane] allows his persona to stand at the centre of the majority of his poems, which are especially good when he deals with the ordinary affairs of himself and his family. Just under the surface of these poems lie enormous fears and questions but they never assume moral proportions. The encroachments of age, the madness of political situations, childlessness, loneliness and anonymity in the big city, outbursts of violence are all fixed within the circle of himself and the environments he lives in, visits or remembers. Ordinary things take on aspects of seriousness; they belong to individuals, and individuals are what matter in this terrifying world. Thus, the poetry focuses on seemingly small and unimportant things: cats, dogs—alive or dead, an ant, children and children's games, an orange lawnmower, a carved wooden fish. He remembers the outer world by things immediate and personal to him: the Cuban crisis by cougar tracks and Pope Paul's visit to the U.N. by the first hard rain of winter. Lights on ships create myths for him—there are several poems about the sea and the mountains, making an overwhelming environment for man. But somehow man survives by means of his ordinary everyday affairs and relationships.

Sometimes these ordinary things reduce the poems to ordinariness. Sometimes Patrick Lane becomes strangely pretentious: I find the two long poems in the book, particularly "The Carnival Man" (however important it may be to the poet himself), too overwrought. He is best in dealing with immediacies and there are many poems in Letters From The Savage Mind of this kind. The cumulative effect of these poems is to make the reader feel that this poet is an individual keenly observant about himself and the world around him, sensitive without being over-emotional, realistic without milking the realism too often. This is a very good collection. (p. 283)

Peter Stevens, "Stones' Throw from the West," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XLVII, No. 566, March, 1968, pp. 282-83.∗

Doug Fetherling

Lane's poems are more visceral than cerebral and are not abstract at all. At their most representative they focus on a specific person or place in his life, such as a whore or a lumberjack, a jail cell or a highway, and they are characterized by a general surefootedness and realism through which he sprinkles the occasional brilliant image, the odd burst of poetry so pure it makes you squirm. This places him in direct contrast with those who favour the halting and the indirect, who esteem the distillation of experience to the point where the poem is the residue of the moment and the thought. Likewise it removes him from those of the other popular extreme for whom the poem is a topical thing dashed off to preserve the moment of its birth; who do not eliminate, rework and reshape but who believe in the blanket method of trying to isolate truths. In the age of extremists, then, Lane is a moderate who does not see a potential poem in every experience and who does not too much belabour, according to fashion, those things he does undertake. He goes his own way, without followers but with at least one teacher.

For many years associated with West Coast writing, he seems in this retrospective collection [The Sun Has Begun to Eat the Mountain] to be at his best in several cases when dealing with British Columbia. The best instance is a longer poem called "Sam Sam the Candy Man."… It is a childhood memory of the town simpleton and his...

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Lorne Hicks

Beware the Months of Fire is a book which is sometimes brutal, often morbid, usually disturbing. Like Yeats, Lane finds his muse "In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart", but what a foul shop this is, leading to darkness rather than Byzantium. These poems explore an intensely black vision, remindful both in grotesque point of view and morbid tone of Sylvia Plath's work. Just as Plath once confided that she enjoyed watching "cadavers cut open", Lane's poetry reveals a similar grisly fascination with bodies, both dead and dying…. Although death is treated graphically by Lane, rather than as an abstraction, there is an underlying sense of purpose in his poetry, summarized by the epigraph: "The greatest defeat, in anything, is to forget, and above all to forget what it is that has smashed you, and to let yourself be smashed without ever realizing how thoroughly devilish men can be." (Céline, Journey To The End of Night). This collection is autobiographical, and its characters—all either failures or outcasts—never allow Lane "to forget"; each of them has been cruelly "smashed"; death is degrading rather than ennobling. (p. 22)

The central concern of Lane's poetry is to gain a gut response to the grotesque action of his work, rather than leading the reader to a sympathetic understanding of character or motive. It's tough, but effective. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a poem such as "There was a Woman Bending" carries more impact than a long polemic dealing with abortion…. This is a stunning, moving poem which carries an immense feeling of emptiness and waste, even though it doesn't proselytize…. In "July", Pat Lane writes that "compassion is only the beginning of suffering." In the end, however, the poet describes what has smashed him through the symbolic act of remembering. Although pain and death are central here, Beware the Months of Fire is a collection provoked by love and understanding rather than hate and bitterness. (pp. 22-3)

Lorne Hicks, "Literature: 'Beware the Months of Fire'," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LIV, Nos. 640 & 641, May-June, 1974, pp. 20-3.∗

Len Gasparini

Lane's poems tell us about things we would like to forget. They are the acerbic documents of an imagination turned inside out. Lane records his impressions of reality with guts. There is no jive circumlocution in his style—an unschooled, street-cool one that serves the purpose of his perception. Neither does he run at the mouth for the sake of vocabulary….

Beware the Months of Fire is Lane's ninth collection, and it contains many poems from earlier, now out-of-print editions. The new poems complement the range of Lane's voice. They also touch upon familiar and poignant subjects; from the almost scatological view of "What Does Not Change" to the brutality of "Gerald"; from big city streets to country jails to the haunting isolation of the B.C. interior, and from the malaise called South America to Canada's own spectral Indian Reservations. Lane has covered them all. His poems are mirrors with the spidery cracks of truth in them. He doesn't flinch from the ugliness and cruelty of life, but observes it with ironic compassion. Like Layton and Jeffers, he knows the grimace behind the grin. (p. 92)

Lane's vision encompasses the surfeit of experience pushed to its extremity. Whether he writes about wild dogs or lovemaking, "Toronto the Ugly" or the "shredded" walls in a tenement house, he is right there, gripping the essential, inducing us to look. He feeds us raw chunks of life.

Because of his seeming obsession with the seamier aspects of life, the lyrical and reflective moments in his poetry (And they do happen!) hit us unexpectedly. "The Bird", "Saskatchewan", "October", "Cariboo Winter", and "Similkameen Deer" are evocative of nature and the tender ceremonies of love. In these pieces Lane transforms the "I" and gives it an objective dignity. Metaphor and meaning create a kind of magnetic field, and the poet places the "I" within that space…. [Beware the Months of Fire] is easily the best book of poems to come out of Canada this year. (p. 93)

Len Gasparini, "One Plus Three" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 63, Winter, 1975, pp. 92-5.∗

George Woodcock

[Unborn Things: South American Poems is Patrick Lane's] threnodies of the Inca past and his appalled presentations of the here-and-now in which the descendants of those who created the Andean civilizations survive. Patrick Lane's earlier poems have already shown his exceptional quality as a poet recording with mingled delight and anger the splendour of the world and the shame of what man has done to it and to his fellow inhabitants…. [The main suite of Unborn Things, "Macchu Picchu",] evokes the past of that lost final fortress of the Inca realm, perched on its splendid crags above the jungle and the river: the departure of Manco Capac, the last Inca, to die in a Spanish ambush; the dying out of the deserted Virgins of the Sun; and the fate their refuge now shares with other tragic loci of history, with Mycenae and Elsinore, with Taxila and Persepolis…. (p. 87)

The kind of transference that equates modern man's brutality to a snake with the Spaniards' destruction of a civilization they could not understand, is extended to other poems in Unborn Things, which is not unexpected when one remembers the indictments of man's abuse of his will and power over other beings in earlier Lane poems like "Mountain Oysters" and "The Black Filly". "At the Edge of the Jungle" is a poem about disillusionment with a place romantically anticipated, and the narrative of horror begins with a dog burying its head in the Amazon mud to evade the flies that swarm on his sore eyes; it ends with a tethered rooster whose beak children have cut away so that he cannot eat. It is a fine, appalling poem, whose truth I recognize from having made that journey myself, over the Andean sierra and down to the Amazonian headwaters….

South America has provoked Canadian poets to remarkable work. It gave Earle Birney the hints for some of his best poems, and the same is true of Patrick Lane, whose recent work—this volume and Beware the Months of Fire, establish him clearly as a poet unusual in his direct and telling response to experience, whether that experience is a memory of the collective mind or an episode individually lived. (p. 88)

George Woodcock, "Playing with Freezing Fire" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 70, Autumn, 1976, pp. 84-91.∗

Marilyn Bowering

Lane's early work struggles to find a sincere language. He tries out modes of speech, tones, roles. There is a hostile/aggressive/macho touch even where he tries for the lyric—bravado substituting for feeling—and an occasional line or poem which learns, under the impetus of betrayal/anger, to say what it means. (p. 26)

His devices, clumsy at first, are sound. They teach him structure, how a change in syntax, the substitution of a word in a familiar phrase, or the reversal of normal perspective, can make something new…. The language gains independence. It has its own drive apart from anything the poet knows he knows. Lane discovers how to elicit meaningful connections (rather than the strained,...

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Len Gasparini

I have always had the utmost respect for Lane's work in books and magazines, and this new volume [Poems New & Selected] is an ostensible culmination of his poetic talent. His themes are earthy, steeped in raw experience, the sweat of working and loving, and his language rages with pain, a violent beauty, and Neruda's "confused impurity of the human condition." His imagery is seldom bland; in fact, it often relies on a shock effect….

Lane's poems are poignantly impressionistic observations on the menacing aspects of man and nature. He writes about his native British Columbia with passion and irony, like a man who knows its moods inside out. He can soar into the lyricism of "Macchu...

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Rosemary Sullivan

Pat Lane is from the BC interior and in his poetry [recently collected in Poems New & Selected] you find the West Coast landscape and temperament. He writes of logging camps and forests, the native people, hunting and bush farming, but you don't feel the poet has turned to these subjects as the compulsory material of his region. This is Lane's natural world. He writes a tough-minded, anecdotal poetry full of narratives of the hard lives of ordinary people. The voice he chooses is often raw and violent, and his best quality is a remarkable and moving empathy for all of life that is vulnerable and pained: the woman who aborts herself in a dingy hotel, the boy who blows his mother's arms off with a bomb, the...

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John Cook

[Patrick Lane] continues to produce sharp and crafty verse. In [No Longer Two People] he has entangled his imagination with Lorna Uher's to produce a duet of violent, but ultimately gentle, love poems….

No Longer Two People takes the form of a poetic dialogue with alternating statements, Uher's under the emblem of a spreading tree, and Lane's under what I take to be a rising sun although his poems themselves speak often of death and the approach of winter. Each poet reacts to and develops the imagery and themes of the other producing a blending of visions that parallels the theme of personal union explored in the poems. It is a unity born of the violence of love with its conflict of...

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Christopher Levenson

Usually what attracts or repels one in poetry is the way something is said, the striking perspective, rather than the subject matter as such. Let me start, then, by saying that, purely in terms of linguistic control, mastery of cadence and verse movement, and command of imagery, Patrick Lane, winner of the 1978 Governor-General's award for poetry, has to be classed along with John Newlove and Margaret Atwood as among Canada's most accomplished contemporary poets.

However, what a poem is saying cannot be ignored, especially if, as is the case with Lane, there is such a consistent, indeed obsessive pattern to his work. His main concerns are with violence and squalor. Any writer may choose to see...

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Ian Sowton

It seems to me that Patrick Lane is one of our better contemporary poets when it comes to telling us about the place they inhabit with us. The Measure is a recent milestone/signpost of his being there—particularly West and Northwest. A controlling pattern of his earlier books like Beware the Months of Fire … and Poems New and Selected … is even clearer here: short sojourns, many journeys. He is but a little mad north-northwest; but whichever direction the wind sits that blows through so many of his poems, he has a bracing body of work and calloused hands to show for his and his persona's travels. (p. 102)

As in a lot of our poetry, outer topography of The Measure's...

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Rosemary Aubert

The poems [in The Measure] fall roughly into three categories.

A few poems like "Temenos" are basically philosophical in nature. While they certainly cannot be dismissed as merely abstract, they are ponderous and occasionally fall victim to a too-frequent use of rhetorical questions. A second class of poem encompasses works such as "The Long Coyote Line." These are enriched nature poems, descriptive, but also offering comment on what is described. These poems are both strong and delicate, reminiscent of fine Oriental poetry.

But the third type of poem shows the real strength of this collection: the narratives. Every one of them is vigorous, gripping and nearly unforgettable....

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John Cruickshank

The title poem of [The Measure] should quickly find its way into the anthologies, not because it is the best of the 25 poems brought together in this volume, but because it is the most striking. "The Measure" depicts a dead dog in a field being watched over by a magpie; it is a small, almost perfect song in a minor key. The metaphor is precise and compelling, drawing the reader into a slightly claustrophobic but richly furnished poetic world. And, like much of the best anthology poetry—though not always the best verse—"The Measure" feels authorless and timeless…. Such words as "bone" and "stark," and such images as wind whipping away sound, seem to suspend the poem in time and place, giving it a universal...

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Don Gutteridge

Old Mother contains three quite distinct sections. First there is a long sequence called "Prairie Poems," which confirms Lane's reputation as one of our best poets. Read individually, these poems afford the pleasure we have come to expect from his verse: a sense of immediacy, of living through powerful emotional and sensuous experiences expressed in stark, occasionally bizarre, imagery and controlled by a constant voice whose rhythms are as sure as they are haunting. Lane's has always been the voice of the outsider, the alienated, the man with the crooked eye—a voice tempered always by compassion and the anguish it brings. In "Prairie Poems" these concerns are vividly focussed on the everyday world of rural...

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