I had a slightly unusual view of John Newlove, who died last week of a cerebral hemorrhage in Ottawa at the age of 65. When I was a young Visigoth in the 1960s, my slightly older contemporaries told me what a fine poet Newlove was, and enjoined me to read and emulate him. I did read him but didn’t emulate him, because he was indeed a fine poet in the slightly breathless tradition of poets on the highway between John Keats and Al Purdy, which wasn’t a road I was going to travel.
I met and talked to Newlove several times, never intimately, but most memorably in a bar in Nelson, B.C. in the early 1980s, near the end of the noble but doomed experiment in producing Canadian Poets that was the David Thompson University Centre. He struck me as extremely shy, and forced by it to use booze and the implicit threat (common to most drinkers) that he might fly off the handle at any second were he to feel insulted, or to hear anything that threatened his sensibilities. I was respectful, which I rarely was in those days to anyone, because I genuinely liked him, and sensed that his love of poetry was the real thing.
The one time I heard him read in public he wept at the podium out of the sheer intensity of his love for the things he’d written about. It wasn’t self-aggrandizement, and it wasn’t because he had a elevated opinion of his own work. It was because he was losing control over his sense of the elegiac, a quality that all his best poems carried. He knew that the world was moving away from the things he loved and wrote about, and would soon become the sheer commodity dither we’re living in now, eager to nurture entrepreneurs but not poets. He understood that his sensibilities were becoming relic, and his appetite for fighting against it was gone. He’d said his piece and had gained the admiration of a generation of writers. To have been alive and given to writing poetry in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s was a wonderful privilege, and Newlove seemed to understand this better than anyone except maybe the late Jon Furberg, a fine poet and a lovely man who, like Newlove, wrote best in the ecstatic, elegiac mode and drank too much.
I heard from someone that some generous and influential people arranged a job for Newlove in Ottawa working for the federal government, a job where he could do nominally useful work during the day wearing a John Turner business suit, and retire to a quiet bar to spend his evenings reading and lamenting the death of Canadian poetry as he knew it. I have no idea if any of this is true, but I hope it was. Maybe someone will find a set of magnificent new elegies among his post-humus papers. I won’t count on it, but if they’re found, I’ll read them with interest and a genuine sense of loss.
500 words January 10, 2004