Lives About Poets
- Keith Harrison (Author)
Furry Creek. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Patrick Toner (Author)
If I Could Turn and Meet Myself: The Life of Alden Nowlan. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by John Lennox
These narratives—Harrison’s self-described "non-fiction novel" and Toner’s biography— work in very different ways. Harrison makes use of a modal structure and the short-story chapters are linked through Patricia Lowther’s violent death which takes place just before the book begins. Toner uses a conventional biographical approach.
Harrison’s chapters cover the period between the discovery of Lowther’s body in Furry Creek in October 1975 and her husband’s trial for her murder in April 1977. Some characters recur in different chapters, but Lowther’s death is the thread that holds the telling together. The narrative is interspersed with poetry by Lowther, portions of the testimony from her husband’s trial, a set piece of exegesis based on a Lowther prose composition published in Prism, letters to the author from Lowther’s daughters, and a poem published by Harrison in Canadian Literature with accompanying critical notes.
This generic hybridity is intended, I believe, to create a sense of the intricacy of human relations and the impossibility of truly knowing another person, but the mixing of fiction and non-fiction in this work—which takes a real life and death as its point of departure—ultimately obscures the pathos of the Lowther story, however sincere the impulse behind the narrative and however sincere the approbation of Lowther’s family members, whose letters of support are woven into the narrative. Finally, this story is about the author, not Pat Lowther.
Patrick Toner’s biography ofAlden Nowlan, the first full-length study of his life, is based on extensive research and interviews with family members, friends, colleagues, and associates of Nowlan. Toner’s job has involved trying to tease the facts of Nowlan’s life from its myth, and he has done so with skill and sensitivity. In fact, the biography is at times burdened with excessive detail. But as biographer, Toner has two indispensable qualities: sympathy for, and critical detachment from, his subject. He writes from an understanding of Nowlan as a self-created artist/poet. There have been two other male poets like him in our literature—Milton Acorn and Al Purdy. The nature of their creative success—achieved in spite of odds that would have defeated others—marked them for all their lives as both extraordinary and eccentric.
Toner’s biography fully chronicles the various stages in Nowlan’s life and takes into account the tension that yoked Nowlan’s undoubted talents, achievements, and the great good fortune of his marriage, with his considerable emotional need as well as his unpredictable and often irascible temperament. By turns diffident and demanding, congenial and difficult, Nowlan never faltered in his sense of himself as a working writer. Undergirding Toner’s narrative is the biographer’s awareness of the extraordinary courage of a complex individual who faced emotional and physical ordeals that would have overwhelmed most men. Nowlan’s was an intensely difficult life, but, with all its costs, a victory and an affirmation of creativity.
- Two by Four by Karl Jirgens
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- Lives and Letters by Gerhard Duesterhaus
Books reviewed: Jack:: A Life with Writers. The Story of Jack McClelland by James King, Belling the Cat: : Essays, Reports and Opinions by Mordecai Richler, and For Your Eyes Alone: Robertson Davies by Judith Skelton Grant
- French Canadian Narratives by Heinz Antor
Books reviewed: Der frankokanadische Roman der dreissiger Jahre. Eine ideologiekritische Darstellung. Canadiana Romanica Vol. 14 by Klaus-Dieter Ertler
- German Critics on Canadian Women Writers by Rosmarin Heidenreich
Books reviewed: Selbst und Andere/s by Doris Eibl and Christina Strobel and Erscheinungsformen der Macht in den Romanen Margaret Atwoods by Hannelore Zimmermann
- Hard & Soft Boiled by Tamas Dobozy
Books reviewed: Salvage King Ya! by Mark Anthony Jarman and This Dark Embrace by Paul Stuewe
MLA: Lennox, John. Lives About Poets. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 137 - 137)
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