Monday, June 19, 2006

John Newlove’s “Ottawa poems”

Whom the gods do not intend to destroy
they first make mad with poetry.
Irving Layton, "Birthday Poem for John Newlove"
It's been said that John Newlove's The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), is one of the best books of poetry, if not the best, in Canada during the 1980s. Our finest lyricist, he was long considered to have been the best poet in Canada from 1962 to 1972. From someone who published poetry collections in the late 1960s and early 1970s in relatively quick succession, he had been showing signs of slowing down for some time, with his previous book, The Green Plain, in 1981, and a selected poems, The Fat Man: Selected Poems 1962-1972, in 1977. Not that the previous came in quick succession, but quick enough, from Elephants, Mothers & Others (1963), to Moving in Alone (1965; 1977), Black Night Window (1968), The Cave (1970), and Lies (1972), which won the Governor Generals Award for Poetry that year.

With his stroke but days after his sixty-third birthday, and heart attack in spring 2003, just months before his death on the morning of December 23rd, 2003, to the dismay of readers such as myself, The Night the Dog Smiled remained his last trade collection of new poems to appear. But still, there have been a scattering of other poems, including the nine new poems at the end of his selected, Apology for Absence, as well as the eleven poems from the chapbook THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, and single above/ground press poem broadsheet, “THE DEATH OF THE HIRED MAN,” with the last twelve collected in the anthology Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. All in all, it makes twenty-one poems in roughly fifteen years; almost the entirety of his Ottawa stay. There are some other poems and versions that have cropped up there and here as well, including some in issues of Quarry and The Malahat Review1 from the time of The Night the Dog Smiled and beyond, as well as a piece written as part of his stint as Petro-Canada Poet Laureate at a Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament for Literacy in 1994 (the poem "Playing the Game," collected in the anthology Gorillas on the Dance Floor and Other Poems from the First 100 PGIs, published by ABC Canada in 1997), but for the sake of this piece, I will focus more on the poems he allowed a further life in print.

Predominantly, the poems that followed The Night the Dog Smiled – published the same year John and his wife Susan moved from Nelson, B.C. to Ottawa, so he could start his job as an editor at Official Languages – had him taking out more words than he was putting in. Even before he arrived, there did seem to be a break between his earlier work and what he had done in this collection. Although he was a strict lyricist, the poems that followed Lies were sparse, spare, and far between, reading more as occasional poems (with the exception, perhaps, of The Green Plain, which was later included in The Night the Dog Smiled) than any with a unified whole.

The poem "Progress," for example, the failed long poem he so desperately tried to write, appeared in multiple versions in various publications, including The Macmillan Anthology, before ending up in Apology for Absence. Working his lyric lines and phrases so tight (unlike the break he usually made for longer pieces, in a series of numbered sections), it was as though he couldn't leave the openings required for what he was writing, reading more like notes and phrases towards the long poem he longed to write than the poem itself.

As well, the collection The Night the Dog Smiled gave the reader a sense of another shift going on in John’s writing, as Douglas Barbour (who, along with his John Newlove and His Works from ECW Press, did more writing on Newlove than anyone else) wrote in his review of the collection in Essays on Canadian Writing:
But there is more here, which other reviewers have already pointed to: without
any diminishment of his sharp and accurate perception of human cruelty, frailty,
hypocrisy, and suffering, Newlove offers us a more positive vision in these new
poems than he has ever managed to before. Oh the savage, sardonic ironies will
abound, and in one piece at least he has achieved an inner vision of controlled
madness terrifying in its cool and analytical precision, but never before have
Newlove’s texts so obviously spoken of, and even proffered, love and compassion.
A further dimension is expressed, then, yet with its expression there is no loss
or dissipation of the unsentimental and utterly precise rendering of the things
that are.
In the same issue, Susan Glickman, in her “Driving Home with John Newlove,” writes of The Night the Dog Smiled seeking to:

redress the one-sidedness of Newlove’s earlier vision of the world by revealing
the bruised idealist one had always suspected of lurking under the nihilist’s
spiny armour. That this is the poet’s first full-length publication since Lies
(1972) suggests how difficult it has been for him to reorient himself; but the
relentlessness of Lies makes it doubtful that he could have proceeded any
further with his excoriation of man’s weakness and venality. At that point, it
seemed Newlove saw his task as a poet to be the generation of proofs for the
axiom of his favorite philosopher, Heraclitus, that “Whatever we see when awake
is death; when asleep, dreams.” But in The Green Plain Newlove allowed, for the
first time, that much of what we see is beautiful and to be cherished, and that
it is the vulnerability of this beauty – its very transience because of the fact
of death – that makes us cherish it the more.

I think it was very much a reorientation; that he didn't want the attention, and perhaps pulled away from it, spending years trying to figure out what he was doing, and what he was doing it for.

had always been a reader before anything else, picking lines out of history books and putting them into poems, but by that time, he spent his days doing more reading than writing. Whenever I would see him on the street, he would tell me some clever line he'd read in a history text, like that the British militia during the War of 1812 were there to “add colour to an otherwise ugly brawl,” or tell a story of when the police beat him up in Vancouver, and discovering years later that he had broken his collar-bone. Alternately, when I saw his wife Susan, the conversations were on the fire that had happened down the street, or of the new grocery store. A recent visit by her son Jeremy, and his family.

In an essay on Matt Cohen, Margaret Atwood wrote that his collection Columbus and the Fat Lady, published in 1972 by House of Anansi Press and made up of fifteen stories

seeded almost all of what Cohen was subsequently to write. It’s a sort of
sampler: here’s the range, here are the styles, here are the interests, here are
the prototypes: all arrived at through fabulation, through the “adventure,” the
“freedom and play,” of the short-story form, all popping out of the unconscious

I would say the poems in John Newlove’s chapbook, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, and subsequent broadside, “THE DEATH OF THE HIRED MAN,” were written entirely the opposite: as a summing up of his long career as a poet, boiling the range of his interests throughout his life of poetry down into a sonnet of twelve short poems. Whether this was deliberate or not, it was certainly the result.

For John Newlove, the brevity became him; his terseness punctuated only by his clarity. It's not even a pessimism, necessarily, but a matter-of-fact, and ever with his sense of humour, dry as Regina bone. With pieces such as “AN OLD MAN, WAITING” or “AN EXAMINATION,” writing about a medical examination (“Take these pills with every meal, / take these for pain as needed (I don't need / pain) and these before you sleep.”), you can see it, the notion of stark inevitability. The range of subjects in these short pieces is far-reaching, but nothing new or unusual from the Newlove lexicon, albiet shorter than what he was publishing, say, in the 1970s. In the poem “HOME TOWN” there seems to be a great deal of summing up, writing “This country is so old that no one can remember / its history.” from a man who wrote poems of the prairie histories of indians, Louis Riel and other prairie landscapes, well before anyone else.

As his stepson Jeremy would tell me, John lived in Ottawa for seventeen years; longer than he managed to live anywhere else. For whatever reason: the city he finally chose not to leave. Through all of this, still, he considered himself above all, a Saskatchewan poet. The biography included in the literacy anthology, Gorillas on the Dance Floor and Other Poems from the First 100 PGIs, gives a sense of what he might have thought of these disparate geographies, in his usual wry humour, writing "John Newlove was born and raised in Saskatchewan, but, for his sins, he now lives in Ottawa." Perhaps the least known of his works, here are the last twelve published poems by John Newlove, all of which were subsequently reprinted in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (2003). Here are some notes on a few of them:



I’m not in love with anyone, not even myself.
It’s hard, living without hopelessness.
It’s the dark humour that comes out the most, even ahead of the pessimism. What does a hopeless man who’s lost his hopelessness do but feel the loss? After judging a poetry contest in the 1980s, this is what Newlove submitted as his "Judge's Comments," writing:

1. Poetry is the shortest distance between two points; prose, the longest.
2. Any form that functions fits.
3. Form and content are body and soul, and inseparable. When the first fails the second becomes a wisp; when the second fails the first is a husk.
4. Nothing to tell, nothing to sell.
5. This is the impossible self-set task of trying to tell the truth, of trying to be honest. It does not seem impossible. Better, sometimes, to lie. By our lies shall they know us. And you? You, who I think of as the truth: are you lying to me too? Surely not. If you are, lie to me, tell me you're telling the truth.


Hunting after myself in slightly used poems
is a heartbreaking chore. The past
is a foreign country and the quarry

is sly and elusive, a liar twisting
and twisting about the words like an eel
on a spear, dying, never to be known.
Probably the one line in the last poems that made the most effect, “The past / is a foreign country,” and the quote that Barry McKinnon used to open his selected / collected poems, The Centre, Poems 1970-2000 (2004). As the narrator in the poem wonders how you can know yourself through old poems, he could easily have been John reading from his Apology for Absence at the Fire Station on Elgin Street, hosted by John Metcalf. What year was that? 1997? During his reading, he spoke out loud of boiling his life down into a few, scant lines, editing and selecting as he went, down until there was almost nothing left. A few scant lies, and searching for himself through them, with an obvious reference to his award-winning collection from nearly three decades earlier. Is an author ever to be known? Does an author ever really know himself through his poems, let alone a past self, known for his lies? As he told Jon Pearce in an interview published in the collection Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets (1980):

To tell the truth, another reason for calling it Lies was to deny this crud
about being as a poet an honest human being, because no human being is any more
honest than another. But I mouse-trapped myself for calling it Lies – people
would come up and say, “Look how honest he is; he admits that he lies.”
Sometimes I think what happens is that the first serious critic who says
something about your stuff that sounds reasonable gets followed by everybody
else. I could sit, I think, and write cheerful, optimistic things for the rest
of my life, and the one gloomy thing that I wrote would be emphasized in all the
reviews. What can you do? You become yourself, and you can’t get away from it. I
thought by having a slightly ridiculous cover on the book Lies, too, that it
would help but it didn’t do any good. Suddenly the rather funny raven became a
malevolent bird.

It seems far less dark a take than the one Frank Davey took, in his collection From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960 (1974):

By looking mercilessly within himself, Newlove has managed, through seven books
of poetry, to discover most of the sicknesses and stupidities of his contemporary man. His work displays a self-loathing only slightly less strong than his loathing of the human race and its wretched and treacherous planet. Particularly does he detest the inability of man to recognize or admit the truth about himself and his world. Newlove's poetry has been a relentless quest for truth, attacking in poem after poem the deceits of our politicians, mythmakers, historians, and theologians. The title of his collection Lies (1972) insists that even his own searchings for truth become, because of man's innate incompetence, merely fumbling examples of the human capacity for self-deceit.
Stephen Brockwell, in a review of The Night the Dog Smiled, argues for the pessimism of the language itself, as opposed specifically to the writing or the author, ending with:
A major theme of this book seems to me to be that language has played a part in
the corruption of the world. Language is a powerful device. Of what might we not
be convinced by carefully chosen words?



The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.

There is a cold gel on my
belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.

It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy.
His poem, “IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA” appeared earlier as “LEONARD, IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA” in a fetschcrift for Leonard Cohen edited by Ken Norris and Michael Fournier, published by The Muses’ Company, and was, admittedly, the main reason I spent my last seventeen or eighteen dollars on the collection, for that, and his poem “THE CAT.” It was mainly for the first. The second poem was good, but not nearly as good as the other. And I thought, the least poem of the later chapbook.

Again, Newlove acts as apologist for the pessimism that too many have seen in his work, to the exclusion of so much else, including the dry humour of “the machine / in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.”



This country is so old that no one can remember
its history. The sky blooms and the rocks flower.

Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, Prairie. The oceans
surround us, blue, grey, white, green, the land

goes on forever.

Canada is my home town. Trees fill the mind
and people look at me sideways and smile.
As Susan Glickman called him, the “perennial hitch-hiker.” This poem could almost read as one of what John wrote, starting in the 1960s, as a hitchhiking poem, or one of his letter poems. He’s taken out the external references of “Dear Al:” or "Letter Two" or walking down the highway west out of Regina, but the feel of the poem is much the same; removing the external buildup to leave only the core.
just a hurried note to try to reach you before you're off to cuba
spreading semen & treason
& red red wine
all over latin Americas ("Dear Al:," Black Night Window)
The need for exploration, to understand his country. In the end, he understood it well enough that he no longer had to leave the house. The hitch-hiking poem without the hitch-hiker.
On that black highway,
where are you going?--

it is in Alberta
among the trees

where the road sweeps
left and right

in great concrete arcs
at the famous resort ("The Hitchhiker," Black Night Window)

It's almost as though he's merged a number of the poems together from Black Night Window into a single piece, taking out all the extraneous; obviously Newlove had become far more optimistic in the years between the poems. Listen to what he has to say in the poem "Like a Canadian" from the same collection, or what he says at the end of the poem "Canada," writing:

CBC producers own creativity. All
they don't know is what to do with it. Did
you expect a conclusion? Signed off. I quit

honesty in favour of another drink.
I would like to point out that you
are bored.


It is Eternity now.
I am in the midst of it.
It is about me
in the sunshine.
John Newlove had always written poems as shorthand, over the years more often cribbing from books he was reading (see the poem "Quotations" from Lies, riffing off borrowed lines, or the poem "Speech about a Blackfoot Woman / with Travois, Photo by R.H. Trueman // ca. 1890" from The Night the Dog Smiled); John, the sort of reader who finished a book a day. A few years before he died, he spent a whole summer reading nothing but Greek history, as he told me, simply to get an overall sense of it in his head. His collection The Green Plain was said to be his reaction to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. He had a collection of file cards he had written single lines on for years, taken from books to include later on in poems.

But what about this piece? Taking the poem as a direct transcript, outright theft, did he really see nothing new to add? Was it simply perfect the way it was? Why write in anything else, when in the end, he would have only been removing. It was something that Newlove had referenced earlier, he who kept found lines on organized stacks of blue file cards, for him to later include in his own poems, writing on the theft between stolen lines in the poem “White Philharmonic Novels” from his collection The Night the Dog Smiled:
Look, nobody gets wise writing
Now I must be making
pretty manners
at you
It’s necessary to realize that all these phrases
are stolen. The arrangement is all.
In an email after John died, Saskatoon poet and Thistledown Press publisher Glen Sorestad told the story of a poem of Newlove’s left after a visit John and Susan made to the Sorestad house that afterward, John had no recollection of, and had to be sent a copy. As he writes:

Once John and Susan stayed with us for a few days in Saskatoon. At that time
we had a turtle aquarium (small) in our main bathroom. Some time much later
Newlove sent me a poem about the turtles in Sorestad’s bathroom, a brief cryptic
poem that I duly filed away somewhere. Years later, I happen to mention this
poem to John and he looked quite puzzled, then asked me to send him a copy of it
because he obviously had sent me the only copy he had. The poem shortly
appeared, somewhat revised in The Night the Dog Smiled. So god only knows
how many similar, original Newlove poems are out there floating around to be
gathered up like fallen maple leaves. (email, dated December 28, 2003)

A later version then appeared as “Dried-Out Insects” in The Night the Dog Smiled:

The turtles in the Sorestad’s bathroom
have beautiful markings
but look vicious.

I sit here shitting
and they sit there sitting
and acting mean.

I’m just trying to be clean,
but afraid to move. Can turtles fly?
I know they can’t.
But they might try.

Meanwhile, like wives,
they waver in the water,
beautiful and vicious. (The Night the Dog Smiled)

Does this allow for the hope of other work, hidden among his files in the house he shared with Susan? So far, unfortunately, Susan says not. Still, the hopes are that another poem or two might pop up as a new larger selected poems is built by prairie filmmaker Robert McTavish, for publication through Ottawa's own Chaudiere Books in fall 2007. McTavish just sold his documentary on Newlove, ten years in the making, to Bravo / Book Television, to be aired this fall, with the world premiere of the documentary to happen in a couple of weeks at this years' Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw.

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. “The Wrong Box: Matt Cohen, Fabulism, and Critical Taxonomy,” Moving Targets, Writing with Intent, 1982-2004. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.
Barbour, Douglas. “Weather Report: ‘Stars, rain, forests,’” Essays on Canadian Writing 36. Toronto, spring 1988.
Brockwell, Stephen. Review of The Night the Dog Smiled, The Rideau Review 2. Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, June 1987.
Davey, Frank. "John Newlove," From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960. Erin ON: Press Porcepic, 1974.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land.
Glickman, Susan. “Driving Home with John Newlove,” Essays on Canadian Writing 36. Toronto, spring 1988.
Layton, Irving. "Birthday Poem for John Newlove," The Third MacMillan Anthology. Eds. John Metcalf and Kent Thompson. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1990.
McKinnon, Barry. The Centre, Poems 1970-2000. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2004.
mclennan, rob. Ed., Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. Fredericton: cauldron books / Broken Jaw Press, 2003.
Morton, Colin. Ed., Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology. Ottawa: Oroboros Press, 1990.
Newlove, John. Apology for Absence, Selected Poems 1962-1992. Erin, ON: The Porcupines’ Quill, Inc. 1993.
________. Black Night Window. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1968.
________. Lies. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1972.

1 The poem "Progress" that appeared, finally, in Apology for Absence appeared (the first half) as "Bugdancing (a work-in-progress)" in The Mahalat Review, Volume 77, December 1986, and (the second half) as "In Progress" in The Malahat Review, Volume 82, March 1988. The collected version appears as "In Progress" in Colin Morton, ed., Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology (Oroboros, 1989).

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