("He Enters His 50th Year", An Exchange of Gifts 24)
("Growing Up in Katpesa Greek", Double Exposure 16)
A writer's words, once they are out, become part of a self outside himself or herself. That self is
likely to be one of many such, since each utterance or discourse finds its own selfhood, a self-made
one, since language taking form forms that self, language, it is true, that has its immediate source in
the writer's consciousness. A writer's outer or other persons are likely to be as various as the writings
themselves and arguably more so, since within the making of a single work, even a short poem, there
may be more than one persona forming. All the selves and personae compose the one we call the
writer, not as he or she is as a total human being, but as he or she lives, moves and has being in the
(The Wanton Troopers 7)
(Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien 3)
Here are two openings: the first, to a novel written in 1960 and not published until after Alden
Nowlan's death; the second, to a novel published in 1973. Both depict Kevin O'Brien, a name given
to one of Nowlan's sets of selves, the set born partly or largely from memories of the writer's own
childhood. How true are they? Can we hope to find the child Nowlan in either or both novels?
Which adheres more closely to the actual life lived? Can we know? Can we judge?
The openings establish perspectives, tones, rhetorical strategies for their respective books, one the
work of a relatively young writer of prose, the other a work of his maturity. In each the presiding
persona begins to form in the tone and perspective of the opening sentences. Is the first more open,
less guarded, in its illusion of closeness to the child Kevin, whose receptiveness and responses it
purports to record? Is the second deliberately assuming a more distanced view, one more abstracted
from memory, more artful in its depersonalizing personal address to "you"? Or is the opposite true?
Is the first more self-conscious, more wishful, more compensatory in forming its illusion through
language of a super-sensitive child? Is the second in its very detachment, its sparer rhetoric, evidence
of greater comfort with what was and with recalling and depicting what was honestly and openly?
We can make judgements but we cannot know, because both alike embody selves outside the writer's
self, two Kevins sprung from language as it functioned in the writer's art at the time of writing, the
first reflecting his relative immaturity, the second his maturity, as a writer of prose fiction. Each, one
might argue, is as honest as it can be, and the personae are as true Kevins as all those named such in
the stories and as all the I's of the poems.
The habit of self-invention is ingrained in consciousness, not just that of a writer or artist but of any
human being. The writer, who not only lives in language in the sense of finding his selfhood in words
but also lives so consciously, must be aware of the process while it is going on and so be aware that
the selfhood attained to in words is partly or largely one inherent in them, his own words true, since
they rise to his unique consciousness and receive their ordering outside himself from unique needs
and proclivities. The writer both receives from language and gives to language his persons and his
Alden Nowlan's awareness of his own self-making permeates his mature writing. From his accounts
of childhood, both those that are overtly fictions and those that are ostensibly memoirs, we gather that
for him inventing selves was to begin with a defence against hostile conditions. There is little doubt
that conditions both within and outside the family were harsh -- poverty, narrowness of outlook, a
code that hid sensitivity or softness under scorn and brutality toward any who dared or were
compelled to depart from the norms. But the inner life he developed, his dream kingdom in which
he triumphed over all enemies, was not uncharacteristic of imaginative children, even those growing
up in more sympathetic surroundings. What is significant is that according to his accounts Nowlan's
imaginary worlds very early came to reside in words, taking form from his avid reading of the Bible
and of accounts of monarchs and dynasties and soon developing into his early efforts at writing.
If I were to extend my comparison of the two novels and look at them in the light of the non-fiction
essays and interviews, the divergences would continue to proliferate. The Kevin of the schoolroom
in The Wanton Troopers listening to Miss Roache's tirade about punishing Hitler (17-18) is not the
Kevin of Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien whom we find in a similar setting listening to a
similar tirade from a Miss Noseworthy (7-10). This Kevin is more secure, more integrated into his
peer group; he has a brother, Patrick, fighting in Italy; he is twelve years old, only a few months or
a year older than the earlier Kevin, but appearing to be much more mature. The essay, "Growing Up
in Katpesa Creek", may adhere in its details more closely to the facts of Nowlan's life, but it may also
be no less an imaginative re-creation, an extension of the process of self-invention:
(Double Exposure 17)
So we have the acknowledged myth and the truth it contains. The years are the first nineteen, from
1933 to 1952; the place is Stanley, Nova Scotia, near Windsor; the schooling, to Grade 5, to age 12;
the work, cutting pulp, cutting pit-props, acting as night-watchman at the sawmill; the reading, all
that he could get his hands on, including the often uncut pages of books from the Windsor public
library. Then there's the secret life -- always the secret life -- in which the self was being invented and
re-invented, the life that became the writings.
From the published writing one can glean attitudes toward home, family and community that are
neither constant nor consistent. Toward the father-figure, for instance, the feelings expressed are
always ambivalent. He appears variously as indifferent, unsympathetic and hostile to the son's or
nephew's secret games. He is capable of both cruelty and tenderness: the one, openly displayed; the
other hidden even from himself. An early poem that contains much of the figure as he would appear
again and again in the fiction, memoirs and poems is "Weakness":
(An Exchange of Gifts 38)
The speaker speaks unflinchingly in the opening lines, identifying with the father's cold appraisal of
the mare's moribund condition. The voice becomes even more detached in the second stanza,
mirroring the father's business-like despatch -- "without haste". The matter-of-factness continues
through six lines of the final stanza, changing only with the word "carefully", and one could argue that
even there the chance is minimal. But the placing of the word "carefully" and its moving from what
might be observed by the watching child toward empathy with the father and the "sick shoulders" of
the horse are what the poem turns upon.
In one of the posthumously published poems, "My Father's Body Was Found by Children",
ambivalence persists, hardly the same, and hardly a simple doubleness of view, but a rich interplay
of feelings, attitudes and distances:
The speaker reports what he has heard from a distance. His father has become something other than
the man he had known: first simply a body; then, somebody the children have a claim on he doesn't
share. The lines that succeed this opening maintain but modify the distance:
The speaker enters the camaraderie between the old man and the children, but then withdraws,
contemplating a life he can characterize sardonically, yet affectionately. The next four lines make an
open effort at understanding without overtly drawing any closer:
For all their paradoxical tidiness, these lines may be read as a conciliatory gesture, a willingness to
concede to this figure, now doubly or triply distanced by death, by report, by the late assertiveness
of the child in him, his right to be himself. The final lines abruptly change, calling into question all
we might have read so far:
(An Exchange of Gifts 29)
The phrase "even now" brings forward the childhood fears in the speaker, fears that, for all the
distance established and maintained in the poem up to now, suddenly well up. So the poem enacts,
almost to the extent of parody, the tricks the mind plays with its lost selves, its ghosts. As a poem
of Nowlan's maturity, it demonstrates how simplicity and directness of manner are anything but
indices to the range and complexity of feelings encompassed. Freedom of expression, which is in the
composition of verses a freedom from evident self-consciousness, allows for a full as well as a free
play of feelings, attitudes and perspectives.
So attitudes toward the family and community double and change as distances and perspective
reconstitute the perceiving eye. In the early poems, as in the posthumously published novel, the
community is seen as almost uniformly hostile to the sensitive or "different" individual. Yet even
there, brutality, drunkenness and twisted piety appear as compensatory for narrow and intolerable
circumstances. As the boy Kevin invents his dream worlds, so must others who inhabit Lockhartville
find ways to escape and to retaliate. Kevin's grandmother, for instance, appears in Wanton Troopers
as one totally soured on life, a querulous Cassandra pronouncing doom on the family and the
Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien yields a very different impression of the
Whether or not truer to an original, the second portrait is much the fuller. The old woman with her
piety, her vanity, her family pride, her memories of an adventurous youth, her saws and hymns and
Irish ballads, is a grand figure for Kevin to claim as an ancestor. "Growing Up in Katpesa Creek"
claims a similar figure as grandmother for Alden Nowlan:
(Double Exposure 18-19)
Whatever the changes in the writer that lie between these versions, one can read in them a growth
whereby he has come to see in the creatures of his imagination capacities to accommodate opposing
persons equal to his own. What is a necessity to him he recognizes as a necessity to all. This insight
underlies, one might argue, a shift from unrelenting irony in the early work to wry -- and often rueful
-- compassion in the later.
Alden Nowlan's professional life began in 1952 with his move to Hartland, New Brunswick, to take
up a position on the weekly newspaper The Observer. The move was decisive in many ways, not
least of which was the open acknowledgment that his private vocation was to become his profession.
Although the move was from one rural community to another, for Nowlan it meant entering a larger
world. Without any apprenticeship other than his private experiments with writing, overnight he
became a professional journalist. To augment a meagre income, he had to take on other jobs and
responsibilities in the community, such as that of managing a country-music band. He married.
The Hartland years, 1952-1963, were for his poetry ones of productivity and development.
Discovering the world of little magazines meant a release for his muse from solitary confinement. To
know that he was not alone, that there were others of his kind out there to commune with, to learn
from and to give to, meant a further integration of his imaged selves into a single, composite
personality: a presiding voice, a stance, a perspective and, ultimately, a mature vision. The titles of
the five Hartland books are themselves indicative: The Rose and the Puritan (1958) suggesting
polarity; A Darkness in the Earth (1959), a dominant colouring; Wind in a Rocky Country (1960),
a stirring and a resistance; Under the Ice (1961), a confirmed confinement; The Things Which Are
(1962), a release to openness and inclusiveness. Titles are important for the faces they put on the
writer as well as on the books.
This is not to say that the poems within books uniformly adhere to these labels. Even in the earliest
collection, the whole range of the poet's sensibility and personality is to some degree present. Take,
for instance, "Whistling of Birds", from The Rose and the Puritan:
(An Exchange of Gifts 39)
The form is open, yet closed. The voice is intimate, yet more overheard than heard. The images are
utterly simple, yet fraught with suggestiveness. On a literal level, the dark water is the night, the night
consciousness of the listener. The voice of the birds "near morning" can be taken as promising,
though vulnerable: "shivering like flowers". The voice is released, yet not released. Intimations of
freshness and promise are stilled by the dark reaffirmed. This is not an interpretation. For such a
poem, there is no interpretation; one can only record something of the range of associations and
counter-associations stirred by such primal verses. What is significant is how unconfined the poem
really is, how far from the stark ironies that control many of the early poems, ironies found in
conclusions like this: "rebuking the gay gush of his laughter/with the terrible sanity of their faces"
(Early Poems 21).
In going from the small early collections to Under the Ice and The Things Which Are, one finds
oneself moving out of confinement into amplitude in every sense. The tightly formed early verses that
served partly to teach the poet his craft do not so much give way to something else as open out into
something else. The control is still there, but it comes more and more from inside the poem, a way
of release through form rather than release from form. The Things Which Are ends with what looks
like a conventional piece, "A Canadian Love Song":
(Early Poems 166)
The voice to begin with is intimate, confiding, that of the mature love poems. It continues to be so
through the lines of the first stanza, though the formalizing impulse begins to assert itself in the
movement toward the finalizing rhyme. The rest of the poem gives more and more room to that
impulse, which brings with it a distancing, a conventionalizing of the voice and persona to that of the
anonymous lover in a carpe diem poem. When an effort to return to intimacy comes in the third
stanza, it expresses itself in the imagery, much as in the preceding stanza the lovers had to learn to
"outwit" conventional constraints. The drama in the poem is there in the strong images pressing
against the formal language and pattern, which reasserts itself in the final, distanced statement. That
withdrawal is not so much irony as paradox, one that abstracts a quintessential "truth" from the
process of approach and withdrawal that has been the poem. The verses carry with them the
containments of the early verse, but also allow into them the releases more characteristic of the later
The Saint John years, 1963 to 1968, brought the poet from a predominately rural life to urban life.
They brought a further range of professional responsibilities in his work as first reporter, then
provincial editor, then night news editor for the Telegraph-Journal. As a journalist then, Alden
Nowlan was now fully professional. As a poet, he was reaching his maturity. Bread, Wine and Salt
(1967) and The Mysterious Naked Man (1969), which contain the work of the Saint John years, are
again indicative in their titles: the one, of the basics of living, of wholeness, of sacramental
sustenance; the other, of the extremities of imagination, of alienation, of roles. Together these titles
say something of the fullness now reached in range and depth in the poetry.
Alden Nowlan began writing stories in the late 1950s and had published several as early as 1961, the
year he took away from his work to write The Wanton Troopers with the aid of a Canada Council
grant. His first collection, Miracle at Indian River (1968), gathers the early with the more mature
work. What to me is significant about the mature writing in both prose and verse is its continuity
from genre to genre, continuity of voice and persona, of angle of vision, of humour, of range and
quality of feeling. This does not mean the effects are uniform. The composite self of Alden Nowlan
the writer became recognizable, distinct, idiosyncratic, even, at times, crotchety. What is more, to
those who came to know the man Alden Nowlan personally, writer and man merged into one.
Whether the process was one of accommodating the man more and more in the writer or of allowing
the persona of the writer to preside more and more over the man, to those who knew both, the person
became one. (The process of accommodating one in the other may have been something going on
in us his friends and readers as much as in him.)
This is not to say that all that was Alden Nowlan became known to either his readers or his friends.
In both the writing and the man we knew there are intimations, troubling ones, of depths, of private
hells never fully open to us. Some of these were obviously of early origin, others, of later -- such as
the trauma he suffered in 1966 from throat cancer and radical surgery. His pain, his fear, affected him
profoundly and affected his writing. The dark colouring in the later work is more internalized than
that of the early, where it often resides in values, mores, geography and abuse from outside. With
his experience of himself and of the world there came tolerance, not so much for the ways of men and
women as for men and women themselves. The unique self in the writing became capable of great
empathy, and so became a self, like that of Keats, that could accommodate the selves of others. When
we read of his suffering, we read of our own; when we read of his vanity or folly, we read of our
A poem that illustrates the darkening of vision is "Brandy of the Damned" from The Mysterious
Naked Man. It purports to record an encounter between the speaker and an elder brother:
There is enough formalization in the language and the pattern to distance the speaker from the brother
and his experiences. The verse is a way of allowing out, of dramatising, yet controlling and keeping
at arms length the fears that lurk just under consciousness. The speaker not only records but gives
his detached appraisal. He appears to be maintaining that his brother's hyena is not his hyena. The
second stanza, though, draws him closer:
The rhymes have become more obvious. At the end their chiming is insistent, if sour. The voice of
the brother has taken charge. A reassuring voice? Not to my ear. Its mock-confiding tones reek of
the con artist or the wheedling drunk. All its comforting collapses in the revelation of twinship, and
such twinship, the speaker taken over as it were by a sinister self. The final stanza releases, as only
a fully realized dramatic form can release, the full horror:
(The Mysterious Naked Man 3)
The final lines wake us perhaps from the nightmare, but they sustain its starkness, while allowing the
rhetorical structure to reform around it and the poem to recede into its closure, which is not
altogether a close.
Even poems that are overtly lighter, poems like "The Mysterious Naked Man", in which the speaker
wryly records public rituals while secretly identifying with the fears and fantasies of the trespasser,
often in their very lightness mask hells of loneliness and despair.
The Fredericton years, 1968-1983, brought Alden Nowlan to the academy but did not make anything
academic out of him. His house, though, became a resort for academics, as well as for writers,
politicians, actors and assorted vagrants. And he became, not a guru, but a presiding genius in the
old sense, a man in a chair. From his chair, he travelled widely both privately and publicly. His
writing grew in the range of experience it encompasses -- social, political, intellectual and personal --
but one cannot say to what extent his new setting influenced the real growth of his mind and art.
There is no apparent discontinuity between the last work and that of the Saint John years, just as there
was none between that and the earlier work. The movement is, as it has been, toward more openness,
toward naturalness of expression, toward complete freedom to formalize as much or little as the poem
calls for. The titles of collections continue to personify the speaker and his vision: Between Tears and
Laughter, a stance taken early and maintained; Smoked Glass, the revealed, the half-revealed, and the
concealed; I'm a Stranger Here Myself, alienation, bemusedness, wonder and continuing discoveries.
(One can read that last title two ways: first, I'm a Stranger Here Myself", by which the speaker
forestalls inquiries, refuses to give directions, frees himself of the necessity for explanations or
conclusions; the second, "I'm a Stranger Here Myself", by which the speaker establishes community
with the other strangers, records his fellow-feeling with the reader about the strangeness of the place
and time we find ourselves in. Nowlan's mature work validates both readings.) Again, such labels
allow for the full range.
Obviously Nowlan's becoming a dramatist, collaborating with Walter Learning in the writing and
staging of three plays was consequent on his being where he was when he was, when Theatre New
Brunswick was in its infant years.
Through his many readings and through his weekly and monthly columns, Nowlan became widely
known and loved as a writer. Within the community closer to him, he was loved as a man. His love
of talk, of wise and unwise foolery, his reluctance to release friends late at night from his literal
embrace, gave him something of a Johnsonian role. There were times when his darker selves
surfaced, when anger or fear or whatever demons they were that troubled him raged and lashed out.
Those were the times most of his friends would say when he was not himself. His art with its formal
constraints secured him, all that he was to some degree finding expression and healing in it. But that
is not to say that as a person he was secure and whole, only that for him, as for any artist, his art was
a saving grace, in the deeper sense of that trite phrase.
In some of his late work, one can see a kind of impatience with the artfulness of art, a wish to discard
any persona and to speak in his art simply as a man. Of course, art never quite allows such openness,
while it never quite prevents it either. Words being words can only cross so far from the writer to
us, yet poems as poems have always a grace of saying for the poet what he cannot otherwise say and
of continuing to speak as from the heart even after it is stopped.
(An Exchange of Gifts 31)
These posthumously published verses were perhaps meant to be private, words for his wife Claudine
alone. But that private, confiding voice, that ability to make a reader of his poems feel that he or she
were the sole listener to or overhearer of private thoughts, was one Alden Nowlan cultivated early,
as if establishing credence for the persona was fundamental to establishing credibility for the self or
selves that lay behind it -- and not the reader's credence only but the writer's, his reason for entrusting
so much of himself, so many of his selves, to his art.
Double Exposure. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1978.
Early Poems. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983.
An Exchange of Gifts: Poems New and Selected. Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1985.
The Mysterious Naked Man. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1969.
Various persons Named Kevin O'Brien. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1973.
The Wanton Troopers. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1988.
The Alden Nowlan papers: an inventory of the archive at the University of Calgary Libraries. Compiler: Jean M. Moore. Editors: Apollonia Steele and Jean F. Tener. Biocritical essay: Robert Gibbs, [Calgary]: University of Calgary Press, 1992.