Alden Nowlan | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Alden Nowlan

Alden Nowlan, poet, dramatist, novelist (born 25 January 1933 in Stanley, NS; died 27 June 1983 in Fredericton, NB).

Alden Nowlan, poet, dramatist, novelist (born 25 January 1933 in Stanley, NS; died 27 June 1983 in Fredericton, NB). Winner of the Governor General’s Award for English Poetry in 1967 and recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1978, Alden Nowlan is regarded as one of the most original voices of his generation.


Nowlan grew up in rural poverty. His mother, Grace Reese, was 15 when he was born, his father, Freeman Nowlan, a manual laborer. Along with his younger sister Harriet, he was largely raised by his paternal grandmother. Nowlan was forced to leave school at age 10. At 14, he worked in a local sawmill, and by 16 he was walking or hitchhiking 30km to the county library where he began to pursue his lifelong passion for learning and reading. For most of his career, Nowlan supported his writing as a nightshift journalist and editor at newspapers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. For Nowlan, poetry was “all about people, and to hell with literature.”

Early Themes

Nowlan’s early works expressed the life and lives he saw around him in rural Nova Scotia. His first collection, The Rose and the Puritan (1958), was rooted in the experience of alienating poverty. Under the Ice (1961), his first full-length book of poetry, reveals a poet who believed that exact and honest emotion was the most poetic form of expression. The speaker in “Looking for Nancy” refuses sentimentality with his plain language and concrete images. Thinking every girl in a blue dress must be his Nancy, when he fails to find her he realizes his search is foolish. The lines “... a broken streetlight, / too much rum or merely / my wanting too much / for it to be her” reminisce a search for love with poignant self-deprecation.

A Shift in Thinking

The Things Which Are (1962) shifts Nowlan’s focus away from rural experience and towards ideas about history and the relationship between the natural world and humankind. The poem “Bull Moose” depicts the buffoonery of humans in contrast to the nobility of a suffering moose who emerges from the woods: “The young men snickered and tried to pour / beer down his throat.” Nowlan gives the moose the last word, suggesting that the natural world will prevail:

But just as the sun dropped in the river
the bull moose gathered his strength
like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns
… he roared …

Nowlan, a poet of contrasts, brings opposing language, tone, theme and imagery together, giving each poem a weight and significance beyond the simplicity at its surface.

By 1967, Nowlan had survived three cancer surgeries. The experience altered his appearance and view of the world, changes reflected in the award-winning collection Bread, Wine and Salt (1967). “The Broadcaster’s Poem,” about the brief career of an all-night radio host, begins with a witty tone of disbelief:

made it impossible

for me to keep believing
there was somebody listening
when it seemed I was talking
only to myself …

The emotion shifts to another kind of incredulity when he witnesses a brutal car accident:

inside the wreckage
where nobody could get at it
the car radio
was still playing.

I thought about the places
the disc jockey’s voice goes
… how impossible it would be for him
to continue if he really knew.

The collection suggests the question that Nowlan often asks from the margins: do we really know what we are really doing?

A Mature Poet

Nowlan also wrote award-winning dramas — among them, A Gift to Last (1978) and Frankenstein (1981) — and fiction, The Wanton Troopers (1988) and Will Ye Let the Mummers In (1983), along with non-fiction celebrating Canadian landscapes. Always dogged by financial concerns, his extended 1968 appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick relieved these worries and let Nowlan write, meet and work with new poets, travel across Canada, and explore his ancestral England and Ireland.

Smoked Glass (1977) shows how Nowlan uses the authenticity of ordinary speech and syntax to move us beyond simple anecdote. “The Red Wool Shirt,” for instance, captures the pain of human helplessness, the accepted capriciousness of tragedy, and a sense of close community. Opening with a bright day, “good drying weather,” a woman is seen hanging out her wash, pinning a red wool shirt to her line. The arrival of Charlie Sullivan transforms the red shirt to a before and after fault line, becoming the last vestige of normalcy she hangs on to as the news of death changes everything:

I looked up and saw

Charlie Sullivan …

It’s bad, Mary, he said.

… it’s not
both of them …

I’m afraid it is.

And that was that.

Nowlan, so sure of his own poetic voice, creates colloquial voices piercing in their truth, resonating with an honesty that is without bathos and demanding of empathy.

Nowlan’s final collection, I Might Not Tell Everybody This (1982), is a reflection on a life lived and wisdom earned. “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded” asserts his belief that humans need humans. The speaker, meeting disabled students, feels overwhelmed by their unabashed responses. At first awkward and fearful, he realizes that all that is required is humanity:

it's what we all want, in the end,

not to be worshipped, not to be admired,

not to be famous, not to be feared,

not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

Honours and Recognition

Nowlan’s Bread, Wine and Salt won the Governor General’s Award for English Poetry in 1967. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship the same year. In 1968, Nowlan became writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick and received a Canada Council Special Award. The University of Western Ontario awarded Nowlan the President’s Medal for short fiction in 1970 and again in 1972. The Canadian Authors Association awarded Nowlan their Silver Medal for Poetry in 1977. For his contribution to the arts, Alden Nowlan was given the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1978.