Pacific Rim Review of Books

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A Night of Newlove

by Jamie Reid

The Long Continual Argument: the selected poems of John Newlove. edited by Robert McTavish. Chaudiere Books.
What to Make of It All? The Life and Poetry of John Newlove. directed by Robert McTavish. Non-Inferno Media Productions. Moving Images Distribution.

The Western Front Lodge, the now venerable home of the Vancouver avant-garde art and literary movement of the 1960s and afterwards, was the fitting venu on February 8th for the launch of a new posthumous selection of the poetry of John Newlove. The launch of this new and definitive selection of his work was accompanied by a remarkable documentary biography of the poet by novice filmmaker Robert McTavish. Newlove was an active presence in the 1960s during the first surge of this first indigenous movement of Vancouver art and poetry, along with his now famous and celebrated contemporaries, George Bowering, bill bissett and many others, some of whom appear in the film.

Newlove may not have been positioned exactly in the centre of that fresh and bumptious community, but he was a powerfully influential presence in the near background, along with his circle of friends, the artists Roy Kiyooka, Kurt Lang and Fred Douglas, artist-musician Al Neil and others. Newlove’s widow, Susan, is seen remarking in the film about those sometimes disturbing but also exciting times, as poets struggled for their personal and social identities in a new way in new times. Newlove was widely admired by the Vancouver poets and by other poets across the country as the finest poet of his generation.

It would not be quite accurate to say that Newlove was loved by his peers, but he was much admired for his work. People also actually liked him and sought him out for the wit and conversation of his giving moods as much as they feared and avoided his darker moods and unpredictable behaviour. His virtues as a poet and a human being as well as his more than occasional personal charm far outweighed his faults, and people sought him out regardless.

Robert McTavish’s insightfully plain and modest film contains a voice-over remark by Shelagh Rogers that by the late 1990s, Newlove was “mainly off the literary map,” as he retreated into “alcoholism and solitude.” Yet the quality of his work endures through the changes of literary fashion because it speaks to something permanent not only in the Canadian soul, clearly emerging out of Canadian history and experience.

The event at the Western Front was probably the sign of a deep revival of his lasting reputation. The event was especially remarkable for the quality of its audience, drawn from two generations and from the various notoriously contentious schools of the ongoing Vancouver literary enterprise, people rarely seen together all in one place, including representatives from the highly intellectual postmodernist group of the Kootenay School of Writing and from the more populist performance poets. The variety and difference in the character and style of the attending poets was a sure and complete reflection of the scope of his enduring influence.

Now four years after his death, Newlove’s reputation as one of the finest English-language poets of his generation is undergoing a serious revival, obviously because his voice continues to speak meaningfully across the generations. Evidence of this burgeoning and welcome revival is seen not only in the varied turnout at the event, as well as by the afterword to the new selection, written by Jeff Derksen, a poet and critic of a younger generation. Derksen also made illuminating remarks at the Western Front event.

Robert McTavish’s film, What to Make of it All, was the unquestionable highlight and delight of the evening. Because of Newlove’s actual participation in the film, there can never be a better evocation of his life and work than this remarkable documentary record. This is all the more true because of McTavish’s profoundly simple, unpretentious and relatively unvarnished presentation of the life, the poetry and the man. McTavish, a native of Saskatchewan like Newlove, was intrigued by Newlove’s work as a student at Simon Fraser University, and the film is the result of his curiosity and deeply sincere concern.

McTavish doesn’t shrink in any way from the presentation of Newlove’s faults and warts. Simply, but artfully he places the imperfections of the man alongside the shining perfections of the work and succeeds in creating an all-sided and often touching portrait of the poet and his life. There is a special moment when Newlove angrily turns upon and shouts down his applauding and appreciative audience at one of his final readings in Vancouver. McTavish’s artful contribution is to provide in the sound track a repeated diminishing echo of Newlove’s own bellowing “Shut UP!”

As a social personality, Newlove could sometimes be uncommonly gracious and generous, but he was also often shy and defensive. Often enough, he was moody, unpredictably ornery and difficult… “the glib, obnoxious insulter” as he once described himself. His social manner, as he himself pretends in the film, more than anything else, was a way of seeking attention, or, later, self-contradictorily, a way of keeping people away from him, a reflection of his own self-perceived unlovability.

According to his friend, the writer John Metcalf, Newlove was more at home with the “ghostly community of dead poets” than with his living contemporaries. All these factors are gracefully brought out in the film. Part of the grace of the film as that it also allows Newlove’s great virtues as a poet to stand for themselves, as Newlove himself would have preferred. Nor does the film suppress the sometimes dark and difficult side of his personality. The dark side in itself is one of the endearing features of his legend in the memory of his friends, cause for head-shaking and the mood of forgiveness and forebearance for his social sins, as gruffly noted by Joe Rosenblatt in his appearance in the film.

Casual and charming, revealing cameo appearances by several contemporaries provide appreciative commentary about the importance of Newlove’s work, along with memories of bad and sometimes frightening moments in their personal dealings with Newlove, so often consumed with his own self-doubt and even self-contempt.

Douglas Barbour nevertheless remarks that Newlove’s work is “something that will stand against that fragmentation.” As much as any other Canadian poet of his own post-depression and post-war generation, Newlove lyrically and with understated inner drama, recorded the mood of alienation and fragmentation, of lonesome unbelonging, that many of our generation felt at the time, part of the reason why his verse continues to survive.

George Bowering avers that there is “so much said there in a language anyone I know can read.” Pat Lane: “…an absolutely distinctive verse that he found in himself and on the page.” Barry McKinnon speaks of Newlove’s great skill and power at compressing the narrative of the most profound emotional moments into poetry. In the midst of a story about Newlove spitting in his face during a long drinking session, Patrick Lane ruefully remarks that Newlove once told him that he “learned one trick” about how to write poetry and that it never failed him, but he never told Lane what it was.

The film provides a treasure horde of such illuminating moments. The great simplicity and modesty of McTavish’s documentarist and interviewer approach, somehow magically allows his subjects, including Newlove himself, all the room they need to reveal themselves with full candour. On the way, the film provides some completely new revelations about Newlove’s younger life, previously hidden away from his friends, and therefore goes a long way towards explaining and even providing some perhaps illusory transparency to some of the previous enigmas of Newlove’s personality and work, especially about the bleakness and the darkness from which his poetry was the main relief and solace.

The film’s narrative manages to make a complete form, not entirely tidily, given the messiness of any individual life. It concludes on a relatively happy note, showing Newlove in his final illness following a stroke. The narrative of the film shows him surviving decades of personal internal misery and unhappiness, made worse by alcoholism and self-doubt, deliberately resisting fame and applause, yet ultimately arriving during his final illness at a state of relative happiness and welcome self-acceptance.

The illuminating appearances by other poets are interspersed with vignettes from his family life, both as a child amidst the sun and dust of Saskatchwan and as a husband and father in the various cities in which he lived and worked. Susan Newlove and Newlove’s stepchildren, Jeremy and Tamsin Gilbert, provide clear-eyed reminiscences about the pain and difficulty of living with his alcoholism and his profound bouts of depression and crippling self-doubt. But they also give testimony to their admiration and affection for him and their great pride in his accomplishment. In spite of himself, Newlove the man obviously received the affection and admiration of his family and his peers, and not only for his work.

The film presents substantial fragments of his poetry in the form of typewriter text moving on the screen, the tapping sound of a typewriter accompanied by Newlove’s own deliberately clear, colloquial and unpretentious reading style, aided by Newlove’s compelling voice, the voice of a one-time radio personality. These moments of actual poetry are balanced against Newlove’s self-revelatory reflections delivered in his patented oddly formal manner—plain-spoken, candid, deeply confessional, wry. It seems sometimes as though he is addressing his own ghost or self-image as it exists in the imagination of his contemporaries or in a ghostly posterity, setting the record straight for himself as much as for others.

Newlove was never a complicated theorist or explainer, preferring that his poetry, the “unyielding phrase,” as he once wrote, should stand for itself. Yet there is a very simple moment when he explains with startling clarity his own motive for writing:

“You’ve got to remember that I AM John Newlove, from Kamsack, and whether I write poems that some people [think] are good, is beside the point. I’m not trying to figure out who I am. That’s too silly. I’m just trying to be human, and it takes a long time to learn how.”

In the absence of the full biography that still needs to be written, the new Selected Poems by Rob McLennan and Robert McTavish’s fine film are now the very best and truest place to start to understand Newlove’s life and the wellsprings of his art. No university or college library in the country will be complete with copies of both the book and the film.

Organizer of Vancouver’s first historic Be-In during the 1960s, Jamie Reid has been a notable member of the west coast’s literary community for decades. He previously reviewed Robert Priest’s How To Swallow a Pig for the PRRB.