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John Cunningham

Dance of Words: The poetry of John Newlove

A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove
edited by Robert McTavish, with an afterword by Jeff Derksen. Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2007.


In ‘Something in which to believe for once: The Poetry of John Newlove’, in Brave New Wave (1978), Jan Bartley states:

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In a search to find a personal faith in something or anything which is not delusive, the perseverance of Newlove at least echoes his pessimism. No one can deny the dominant shade of blackness in his poetry; but it is too easy to dramatize it, thereby ignoring any positive tones and even the occasional moods of optimism. By not divorcing form from content, Newlove’s work can be read as a mixture of positives and negatives — his reluctance to either sugar coat or romanticize his vision has become the basis of the negative voice for which he is often criticized.(196)


Newlove was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1938. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a lawyer. Due to his father’s alcoholism, his parents were separated for most of his life. As a result, he and his mother moved from one small town and hamlet in Saskatchewan to another wherever his mother could find employment. He took one year at the University of Saskatoon before taking off for “an extensive tour of Canada” as it says in his biography on the Canadian Poetry website. He became an alcoholic himself or, as Robert McTavish states in the preface:


A writer produces four books and four chapbooks in a tumultuous decade. An editor/poet with a major publisher [McClelland and Stewart] wins his countries [sic] highest poetry award [the Governor General’s Award for Lies in 1972] but the workload and notoriety become too much. Despite writer residencies and grants, he finds it difficult to write, his demons easy to embrace. His only other full book comes 14 years later, after easing into a stable home in Ottawa. A self-imposed exile. Small poems come as if bits of a peeling fresco, their relationships unclear. (13)


Newlove would deny that he was possessed by demons or that his poetry “displays a self-loathing only slightly less strong than [his] loathing for the human race and its retched [sic] and treacherous planet” as he was accused by one critic (quoted by Jon Pearce in ‘The Dance Of Words’ from Twelve Voices: Interviews With Canadian Poets, p. 113). Newlove responded: “I would object strenuously to that kind of comment. It seems to me that when a person is writing to prove a point, then he frequently takes theory before fact instead of inductively allowing fact to prove a theory… Dislike of Humanity, fine, I would agree with that by and large, but that’s humanity in general, not in particular.”(13-14)


In the decade to which Bartley refers, he was hailed as one of Canada’s leading poets known for “[h]is precise use of language, stripped of any poetic posturing, convey[ing] exactitudes, not  mere impressions.” (Bartley, 201-2). Bartley goes on to state:


In the actual process of creation, the confrontation with words and rhythm, Newlove finds his greatest hope and his greatest frustration. Concerned as he constantly is with exactness, he has an enormous mistrust of words. Language is inadequate since it can only describe things rather than the essence of things. Newlove’s poetic vision penetrates to the very bone of experience yet even the most accurate vocabulary can only scrape at surfaces… Since he is always shrugging off disguises, the noticeable lack of decorous language is consistent with his personal attitudes.(202)


He died of a stroke in 2003 at the age of 65. In between the limits of life and death, he wrote some magnificent poetry.


Taken from Moving In Alone, his second book, published in 1965, we have the cold, clinical, tense, kinetic statement of angst titled ‘Then, If I Cease Desiring’ which I will quote in its entirety as it should be held as the epitome of this style of poetry:


Then, if I cease desiring,
you may sing a song
of how young I was.

You may praise famous moments,
all have them, of the churches
I broke into for wine,

not praise, the highways
I travelled drunkenly
In winter, the cars I stole.

You may allow me moments,
not monuments, I being
content. It is little,
but it is little enough.(26)


as is ‘Four Small Scars’, Nietzschean in the manner by which Newlove laughes in the face of the Other:


This scar beneath my lip
is symbol of a friend’s rough love
though some would call it anger,
mistakenly. This scar

crescent on my wrist
is symbol of a woman’s delicate anger
though some would call it love,
mistakenly. My belly’s scar

is symbol of a surgical precision:
no anger, no love. The small
fading mark on my hand

is token of my imprecision,
of my own carving, my anger and my love.(30)


‘Vancouver Spring’, a rant from the pre-rant period, complete with echoes of George Bowering and bill bissett, commences with the exquisite line “City in a cold paranoiac acetylene-light dawn” (50) and continues with lines like:


                             javex blondes with real wire brassieres
                          marking and lifting them
             bewildered old ladies (50)


describing a surrealistic cityscape of visual and sonic images.


From Black Night Window (1968), Newlove begins ‘You Cannot Step Twice’ with the epigram of Heraclitus on impermanence “You cannot step twice/into the same river,” (61), and continues:


or twice

into the same disaster,
though the difference may be
only an atom’s —

the hairbreadth
of a smile, a slight
turning away, the hand


Here there are echoes of hope, of salvation in an otherwise empty world as long as you ‘…roll with the punch/prepare for the next dumb blow.’(61)


‘Ride Off Any Horizon’ demonstrates Newlove’s mastery of rhythm as he creates a poetic madrigal with the refrain ‘‘Ride off any horizon/and let the measure fall/where it may — ‘‘ (69) which sets up several rounds of rhythmic beauty.


Newlove finished off his interview with Pearce by saying the following: “Poetry is magic. Just the dance of words.”(126) At least, his was.

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