A Class of One’s Own: an all-too-brief appreciation of the poetry of John Newlove
[Just over five years back, I heard tell that a collection of criticism on the work of John Newlove was in the works. I contacted the editor to offer what I could, as I had first started writing poetry under Newlove’s influence and tutelage. What follows was the result. It seems now that that collection is not forthcoming, so I share these cursory reflections here, now.]
The status of John Newlove’s poetry in Canada is curious. The consistent admiration and acclaim it received over nearly four decades, from even before the publication of his Governor General’s Award winning Lies (1972) up to and including the appearance of his latest volume of selected poems A Long Continual Argument (2007), would seem to suggest that his work would be more widely and closely studied, both by scholars and poets. His publishing only one trade edition after Lies, The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), and that the only one before his death in 2003, is surely in part to blame. Moreover, changes in taste and tendencies in academic criticism during this time, anathema to the singular pathos of his polished and laconic lyrics, surely served to only further marginalize the work of a man already famously a loner. It is perhaps reason for optimism in this regard that Jeff Derksen, a poet associated with Canada’s avant-garde, essays a postmodern sociological reading of Newlove’s poetry in his afterword to A Long Continual Argument (237ff.). As bracing as it would be to make a case for a more sustained and scrupulous critical attention to Newlove’s work, I will here follow Newlove’s own example, the one he provides at the end of Derksen’s afterword, where he invites Derksen in to show him “the careful syllabics of an Irish writer…, literally counting the syllables per line…” (245).
As is probably well-known, Newlove’s poetry first appears on the West Coast during that flowering of Canadian poetry that occurred during the Sixties and Seventies, a milieu famously (or infamously, depending on your critical predilections) in contact with what came to be called the New American Poetry, a relation most dramatically exemplified by the University of British Columbia Poetry Conference (1963) attended by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen. The New American Poetry and its poetics were profoundly influenced by Ezra Pound, whose criticism provides useful, basic concepts for an appreciation of Newlove’s art, as well. Pound distinguishes three “kinds of poetry”: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (25), or, as Louis Zukofsky was to reword it, the uses poetry makes of sight, sound, and intellection (Test vii). Newlove’s writing excels at all of these. On the back cover of The Fatman (1977), Frank Davey’s blurb stands out bold: Newlove’s is “[o]ne of the most direct and visually precise styles in twentieth-century poetry.” Among Newlove’s own saws is to “Read with your ears, not just your eyes.” And his enjambments and the sly suggestiveness of his (under)statements take up and hand down powers inherent in English poetry from its beginnings.
However acute a critic Davey is, it is difficult to find many examples of “visually precise” passages, if what he refers to is what Longinus termed phantasia (Russell and Winterbottom 159), that “casting of images upon the visual imagination” (Pound 25). Nevertheless, the first two stanzas of the title poem from Black Night Window (1968) present, arguably, an image, “an intellectual and emotional complex” (Pound 4):
Black night window—
rain running down
the fogged glass,
a blanched leaf
on a dead twig (11)
Rigorously and economically phanopoetic, every line but the fifth (“hanging outside”) frames a concrete noun, and all but the last adjective (“dead”) are immediately sensuous. None of the poem’s four tercets comments or states: lacking a verb, each is a phrase whose sense hangs on what each depicts. Taking the poem’s images together, Pound would say the poem is an ideogram, communicating by means of “images juxtaposed” (Ginsberg, Howl 74).
One especially intellectually complex image is found in “The Green Plain”, a long poem first published as a chapbook and later included in The Night the Dog Smiled. At the centre of the poem is the question at the heart of philosophy “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that Newlove reworks, wondering whether there is “reason / in the galaxies—Or is this all glass, / a block bubbled in a fire…?” (21). To expand on the aptness of this metaphor would demand an excursus all its own, involving, among other things, the juxtaposition of the stars and bubbles, the contrast between the solidity of glass and the emptiness of space, the condensation of mythopoetic and cosmological speculation that fuses Fire with the Big Bang, and so forth.
Newlove’s prosodic gift and mastery are discernable throughout his oeuvre. “Public Library” (in Black Night Window) is, for example, an exemplary, inimitable performance. Sitting “half in a dreamed trance half listening / to the people around” (4-5), the poet hears the library’s forced silence amplify sounds normally unnoticed, shuffling feet, shaken newspapers, and
books crackling as their backs [are] broken
the flick/flick of fingertips
and fingernails on the corners of pages
snap of shutting decisively
or accidentally plump lackadaisically
muted thump of being tossed on low tables (13-18)
The technique here—onomatopoeia—is familiar enough, but the poem goes on, by means of a deft phonemic mix, to recreate the reading room’s soundscape over an enviably easy sixty-four lines!
More subtle and sophisticated pleasures are to be gleaned between that “Lower limit speech” and “Upper limit music” (Zukofsky, “A”-12 138), where the language as spoken is moved by emotion to a rhythm and dance of the syllables that approaches song. A tender instance is “For Judith, Now About 10 Years Old” from Moving in Alone (1965). The poem edges forward hesitantly, often only three to five syllables at a time, the lines turning from completing the thoughts they would compose, that would remember a niece’s traumatic scalding and wonder about the future of her scarred body,
welt ridges also
on the not even yet
about to be
the failing grafts
were taken… (8-14)
Only in the penultimate stanza can the speaker bring himself to ask “What will [she] do / when [her] breasts come?” (30-31). The poem ends with the uncle remembering “the feel of [her] tough / rubber-laced skin / as [he] spread salve on it” (32-35). The poem’s final two lines are striking in their simple economy of presentation, mimetic to a degree that eludes full, precise explanation: the enjambment that separates the adjective “tough” from “rubber-laced”, the isolation of “rubber-laced skin” on a single line that seems to render its referent palpable to the imagination’s fingertips, the play of sibilants over the last two lines softened by that one labiodental /v/ mimics the sound of the hands salving the girl’s “red / welted scars” (1-2).
The drawing out of sense, plying syntax over a number of verses, framing a clause or phrase on a line to focus attention on associations over and above those the completed thought of the sentence demands, is a characteristic power of English blank verse, from Chaucer, through Marlowe, Milton, and Wordsworth, to Wallace Stevens and Newlove. His prosody in this regard, how he harmonizes metre and expression to build up larger musical and syntactic structures, is a study. “Doukhobor” from The Cave (1970) is exemplary, a single, 188-word question articulated over twenty-six lines, asking a farmer, a member of an immigrant Saskatchewan prairie utopian religious community, “who will ever be able to say for” him what he had thought and seen in his life, when he “lies on the chipped kitchen table / … / dumb as an ox, unable to love, / while [his] women sob and offer the visitors tea” (2, 25-26). Despite this hyper-periodic style, the questioner’s wonderings are easy to follow. The poem’s being a question, moreover, secures it from any simple-minded accusation of appropriation. In its imagination, prosodic and syntactical construction, and rhetoric the poem is a tour de force.
Who reads Newlove with an appreciative pleasure will likely agree with Margaret Atwood, too-often quoted out of context (as I quote her, here, too!), who says Newlove “is indeed a master builder”; capable of writing in “something like a grand manner, his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done” (Second Words, p.?). Newlove’s grand manner not only exhibits stylistic excellence but suits that excellence to the presentation of certain grand themes, what Dante calls those “‘splendidly great things’ which should be written about using the best available means,…which are prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will” (Dante 35). In his 1989 Caroline Heath Lecture, Newlove defines his thematic concerns along similar lines. He says, “I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance” (2). Though Newlove’s order differs from Dante’s, desire (what Dante elsewhere paraphrases as “the enjoyment of love”), right and wrong (“virtue”), and endurance (“self-preservation”) are his transformation of age-old topoi into present, vital concerns. In a word, Newlove is a classic.
These all-too cursory remarks only begin an attempt at an appreciation that would venture more complex matters, beginning with “the classic”. The literary critical use of this term goes back at least to the third century C.E. and is bound up with the notions of class, “model”, and correctness and clarity. Reflections on clarity play into theoretical concerns at least a century old, ostraneniye (Shklovsky, cf. Lemon and Reis) and the distinctions between the lisible and the scriptible (Barthes) and between the “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” (Bernstein). To develop these considerations uncovers Newlove’s linguistic rigor: his “baring the device” (Shklovsky) in his “anti-lyrics” (Barbour), his deft and unbalancing deployment of allusion and citation, and his scrutiny of semantic complexity in his fugal poems that play out the possibilities of a set of words or a phrase, as in “The Double-headed Snake” or “The Cave”. The study of Newlove’s oeuvre in this direction would not canonize him among Canada’s post-Tish post-modern poets, as Bowering would in the introduction to his 1984 anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry: undermining and overturning such an attempted classification, Newlove’s poems elude and encompass such judgements that are at once both too general and too narrow for his world, wherein “one thing is not like another” (“Heath” 6), where “[n]ot to lose the feel of the mountains / while still retaining the prairies / is a difficult thing” (“The Double-headed Snake” 1-3).
Newlove names that “difficult thing” at the heart of his poetic labour. In his Caroline Heath lecture, he goes on to explain, “What I’m trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means” (7). Here is an endlessly open-ended theme, whose horizon swallows polemics against “Humanism”. Here, Newlove takes up a question not a doctrine, and though he may seem, at times, to “say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that [he is] speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human” (9), who hears or overhears him, by virtue of the dialogue understanding demands, becomes his interlocutor, which is, as it were, the last word:
All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you. (10)
Alighieri, Dante. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1973.
Atwood, Margaret. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Toronto: Anansi, 1982.
Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric / Anti-lyric: Some Notes About a Concept” in Line, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1984, Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 45-63.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption, Philadelphia, Singing Horse, 1987.
Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology, Toronto: Couch House Press, 1984.
Dyck, Ed, ed. Essays on Saskatchewan Writing, Regina: SWG, 1986.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: original draft facsimile, transcript & variant versions, fully annotated by the author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography, ed. Barry Miles, New York: Harper Perennial, 1986.
Lemon, Lee T. and Ries, Marion J. Russian Formalist Essays, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1965.
Newlove, John. Black Night Window, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.
—, ed. Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
—The Cave, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1970.
—The Fatman: Selected Poems 1962 – 1972, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
—The Green Plain, Lantzville: Oolichan, 1981.
—Lies, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.
—Moving in Alone. Lantzville: Oolichan, 1965.
—“Moving in Alone”, Caroline Heath Lecture, 18 November 1989.
—The Night the Dog Smiled, Toronto: ECW, 1986.
—A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove, ed. Robert McTavish, Ottawa: Chaudiere, 2007.
Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays, New York: New Directions, 1968.
Russell, D. A. and Winterbottom, Dr. M., Classical Literary Criticism, Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Zukofsky, Louis. “A”, Berkeley: UCP, 1978.
—A Test of Poetry, New York: Jargon / Corinth, 1964.