Alden Nowlan


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Nowlan?
  3. Literature & Analysis
    • “Beginning”
    • “It’s Good to Be Here”
    • Analysis of “Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here”
    • “They Go Off to Seek Their Fortunes”
    • “The Red Wool Shirt”
    • “Daughter of Zion”
    • “Britain Street”
    • Analysis of “Daughter of Zion” and “Britain Street”
    • “An Exchange of Gifts”
    • “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded”
    • Analysis of “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Hailed as one of the greatest Canadian poets of the twentieth century, Alden Nowlan was born in Stanley, Nova Scotia on 25 January 1933. Though he came from an impoverished background and dropped out of school in the fifth grade, he was a voracious reader and dedicated writer from a young age. After moving from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick at the age of nineteen, Nowlan got in touch with Fred Cogswell, then editor of The Fiddlehead. He began to publish his poems regularly in The Fiddlehead and in 1958 Cogswell published his first collection of poetry, The Rose and the Puritan. Less than a decade later, Nowlan’s collection Bread, Wine and Salt won the 1967 Governor General’s Award for Poetry in English, the country’s most prestigious poetry prize. Though Nowlan also wrote fiction, drama, and essays, he is best known for his verse, which displays a deeply personal (indeed, confessional) humanism that is unique to Canadian literature. Written in clear, accessible, and colloquial language, and often mixing traditional forms with free verse, Nowlan’s poetry was written to be read by all: “if there comes a time that truck drivers read poetry,” Nowlan famously remarked, “mine will be the poetry they read” (Interview 61). This desire to make his poetry accessible to everyone distinguished Nowlan from his modernist predecessors while also reinforcing his commitment to humanism. Much of Nowlan’s work is set in New Brunswick and his poetry is deeply informed by the social and political context in which it emerged. At its core, his work is concerned with the intrinsic value of human life. Combining deeply personal experiences with a profound sympathy for all people, Nowlan’s poetry greatly influenced the direction of Canadian literature in the latter half of the twentieth century and has often earned him the title “New Brunswick’s greatest poet.”

For a much more detailed biography of Nowlan, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.

Why Should We Read and Study Nowlan?

  • Nowlan is often called New Brunswick’s greatest poet. His ability to compose verse that is not only accessible but also meaningful to people from all walks of life is a testament to the appropriateness of that title. While poetry that is easy to read is not necessarily better than poetry that is esoteric or obscure, the communication of complex ideas and profound emotions in comprehensible language is something to be admired. Nowlan teaches us that complex feelings need not be expressed in complex language.
  • Nowlan was also conscious of treading on what is dangerous, even taboo, ground for a poet: that is, writing about love. While that may seem odd – some might ask, Don’t all poets write about love? – Nowlan wrote about love in very open and unapologetic ways. He didn’t write about love as a Christian mystic or a Romantic poet would, but as a humanist does. In other words, he wrote about love and fellowship as Christ, not the church, experienced it. That is risky, for it exposes parts of ourselves that we normally deny or keep private. The Nowlan poem below, “Daughter of Zion,” is a good example of the bravery that Nowlan shows in treading on this ground. The poem reveals clearly that love, one of our most common words, is also one of our most feared. Nowlan, then, taught a whole generation of poets and readers what love really means. And it is for this reason that we continue to be indebted to him.

Literature & Analysis


From that they found most lovely, most abhorred,
my parents made me: I was born like sound
stroked from the fiddle to become the ward
of tunes played on the bear-trap and the hound.

Not one, but seven entrances they gave
each to the other, and he laid her down
the way the sun comes out. Oh, they were brave,
and then like looters in a burning town.

Their mouths left bruises, starting with the kiss
and ending with the proverb, where they stayed;
never in making was there brighter bliss,
followed by darker shame. Thus I was made.

“It’s Good to Be Here”

I’m in trouble, she said
to him. That was the first
time in history that anyone
had ever spoken of me.

It was 1932 when she
was just fourteen years old
and men like him
worked all day for
one stinking dollar.

There’s quinine, she said.
That’s bullshit, he told her.

Then she cried and then
for a long time neither of them
said anything at all and then
their voices kept rising until
they were screaming at each other
and then there was another long silence and then
they began to talk very quietly and at last he said,
well, I guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.

While I lay curled up,
my heart beating,
in the darkness inside her.

Analysis of  “Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here”

“Beginning” and “It’s Good to be Here” were published nearly twenty years apart and represent two separate periods in Nowlan’s career. Stylistically and formally, they are very different poems. However, the similarity of their theme, the sameness of their subjects, and the highly personal and parallel incidents they relate invite readers of Nowlan’s poetry to consider them together. Both poems present one of the most enduring themes in Nowlan’s work: a struggle to come to terms with the fact that he was an unwanted, illegitimate child born to a very young mother and a poor father. The poems thus concern Nowlan’s relationship with his parents and his precarious childhood. Like most of Nowlan’s poems, however, “Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here” offer poignant reflections on universal themes, namely the impingement of society upon the lives of individuals and the destructiveness of repressive social mores.

The first point of note is that the poems do not represent Nowlan’s direct experience – both are set before he was born. Rather, it is the imagined circumstances of his conception, which Nowlan derives from his childhood experience, that form the focus of the poems. As such, both poems are deeply confessional: they reveal Nowlan’s own feelings toward a very private situation. The reader can be sure that the parents who are the subjects of the poems are Nowlan’s parents, not those of a speaker distanced from the author. Nevertheless, the poems do much more than relate Nowlan’s feelings about a personal event; they also tell the reader a great deal about the society into which he was born. The conditions of that society – puritanical, oppressive, judgemental, and conservative – are not confined to the rural Maritimes, or even to rural Canada in the 1930s, but remain relevant today.

“Beginning,” as the title suggests, is a good poem for readers who are new to Nowlan’s poetry because it anticipates the whole of his oeuvre. Not only does “Beginning” take as its subject the poet’s conception, it also provides an excellent example of his early poetry and the emergence of the confessional voice (it was published in his third collection, Under the Ice [1961]). Composed of three quatrains (stanzas containing four lines each) with lines of ten syllables, and using a straightforward alternate rhyme scheme (ABAB CDCD EFEF), “Beginning” is purposefully conventional in form and structure. Syntactically, however, the poem is complex and exhibits Nowlan’s early mastery of language and form.

On the surface, “Beginning” is an account of Nowlan’s parents conceiving him in a moment of lusty abandon. The poem hinges, however, on the tension between sexual desire and a deeply ingrained Protestant reserve. This tension is captured in the first line of the poem: sex is what “they found most lovely” but also “most abhorred.” Over the course of the poem this opposition between sexuality and morality is revealed to be the destructive consequence of a rigid puritanism: the sexual encounter begins “with the kiss” and ends “with the proverb”; similarly, it begins with bright “bliss” and ends with dark “shame.” In a society where sex is governed by severe moral codes – especially premarital sex – it cannot be performed without a requisite measure of guilt and shame. So it is that the couple must be “brave” to commit this transgression before passion overtakes them and they become “like looters in a burning town.” For Nowlan, the attitudes surrounding his conception (condemnation, shame, guilt) are understandably traumatic, for he is faced with the conclusion that he is the unwanted product of a reckless, sinful act.

The fact that the poem is about sex, though, is not immediately evident to us as readers. Sex is never mentioned explicitly in the poem but is instead cloaked in metaphor. In fact, on first reading, we may find the poem confusing. Nowlan’s language – jilted, elusive, and elliptical – seems to obscure the act the poem describes: “I was born like sound / stroked from the fiddle to become the ward / of tunes played on the bear-trap and the hound.” Nowlan’s choice to treat sexuality through metaphor reflects the experience of his own, and his parents’, Calvinist world. That world only peripherally addressed sex, and did so with the shame exhibited by his parents in the poem. Thus, even while attacking that puritanical morality, Nowlan cannot break free of its influence.

But the careful reader will also observe something else: that Nowlan’s language, rather than muddying the sentiment he wishes to convey, actually serves to emphasize the emotional weight of the poem. In other words, by using language that appears to be indirect and even at times ambiguous, Nowlan is able to convey the confusion and corresponding pain of this aspect of his childhood. The highly conventional structure of the poem (its tight, disciplined tone and metre) performs a similar function: first, it serves to contrast the recklessness of the young couple’s sex act; and, as importantly, it prevents Nowlan’s language from breaking down under sheer emotional weight. The Biblical rhythms of the poem, then, are quite deliberately and effectively employed to support the experience that Nowlan is attempting to share.

Ultimately, “Beginning” repudiates the oppressive Calvinism in which Nowlan was raised, while communicating, through subject, syntax, and form, the damaging impact this fleeting sexual encounter would have on his life. Nowlan does not blame his parents for their actions, nor does he seem ready to recognize their own victimization: their act ends “with the proverb” and there “they stayed.” This would change with the composition of Nowlan’s first novel, The Wanton Troopers (unpublished until 1988), and in his poetry of the late 1960s and 70s, where he extends forgiveness to those things that harmed him most deeply.

“It’s Good to Be Here” first appeared in Nowlan’s collection Smoked Glass (1977). The subject of the poem is almost identical to the subject of “Beginning,” but his language in this later poem is far more direct and his treatment of his parents’ predicament far more sympathetic. Unlike “Beginning,” this poem is written in free verse, employs colloquial language, and avoids metaphor and simile. The result is that the poem is more prosaic than “Beginning,” but no less subtle in its treatment of unintended pregnancy. In fact, the more direct language of “It’s Good to Be Here” may be indicative of an emotional distance that was unavailable to Nowlan two decades earlier. This emotional distance does not result in a loss of feeling, but in a coming to terms with the past – the poem is thus both an act of forgiveness and a celebration of human life.

As in “Beginning,” the subject of “It’s Good to Be Here” is unnamed, but instead of conveying the subject through metaphor, Nowlan allows the voices of the characters to tell us that the poem is about an unintended pregnancy: “I’m in trouble, she said.” Again, the unborn Nowlan is given a negative connotation; he is the “trouble” of which his mother speaks. However, Nowlan places no blame on his parents for not wanting him. The bitterness of the second stanza is not directed toward them, but toward a society that is in such self-denial. It is that regressive self-denial, suggests Nowlan, that creates the conditions for a girl “just fourteen years old” to become pregnant by a man who “worked all day for / one stinking dollar.”

Here we see the potential for free verse to do what more conventional verse cannot. The poem is not regulated by meter, rhyme, or syllable count. Instead, the movement of the poem follows the pace of the subjects’ conversation, drawing us into and deepening the emotional force of the lines. The terse lines of the short third stanza give way to the fourth stanza in which longer lines and the absence of punctuation underscore the intensity of their exchange.

The exchange is not a comfortable one: the girl’s suggestion of self-induced miscarriage with “quinine,” abruptly shot down by the man (“That’s bullshit”), raises difficult and timely issues concerning women’s rights and access to abortion. It is of no small importance that it is the father who ultimately decides how they will proceed (“we’ll just have to make the best of it”), thus determining the fate of the girl as well. The result of the man’s decision is bleak for the girl: as an unwed mother, she will be shunned, as will her child.

Nowlan condemns the actions of neither parent. In providing us with a fuller portrait of both, he provides a more compassionate portrayal – the injustice lies not with the decisions made by the parents, but with a society that has contributed to their predicament. The poem is thus a poem of forgiveness, displaying an understanding for his parents, whom Nowlan’s biographer, Patrick Toner, identifies as “the two most tragic figures in [Nowlan’s] life” (25). The conclusion of the poem is likewise unambiguous; depicting himself as an unborn child, “curled up” and “heart beating,” Nowlan is clearly making a case against abortion and, as such, we might disagree with the poem’s argument. However, the contentiousness of that debate does not concern him here. Rather, the poem’s more powerful statement is one of immense sympathy amounting to an assertion of the inherent worth of all people, especially the marginalized and oppressed.

While both “Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here” focus on a very personal facet of Nowlan’s life, it is important to recognize that the poems move beyond the individual in order to capture common human experience. The poems illustrate Nowlan’s confessional and humanist impulses: deriving from the most private of individual experiences (hence the confessional) those translate to a deeper appreciation for the plights of others (humanist). At the same time, the poems also reveal the evolution of Nowlan’s poetry from a more traditional verse characterized by highly metaphorical language to a free verse that employs colloquial language and dramatic voice in order to recreate the contours and rhythms of lived experience.

“They Go Off to Seek Their Fortunes”

              “The three largest
              immigrant colonies in
              Toronto consist of the
              Italians, the Portuguese
              and the Maritimers.”

                           A Torontonian in conversation

They have their pictures taken, peering at maps.
They stop along the road to buy beer, opening
the bottles in ways peculiar to them:
the tough one uses his teeth, the cool one his belt buckle,
the mouth organ player takes a bottle in each hand,
hooks the caps together and pulls
so that only one comes off
                                           They tell strangers
where they’re from and where they’re going and how much
their second cousins make in Sudbury. They say,
“I’m from the island,” or “I’m from the bay,”
as if there were only one of each in the world.
They wear white socks and copper bracelets.
They light matches on their thumbnails.
                                                          They spit.
When they’re happy they whoop and when they’re sad
they can be dangerous. They’re almost never
neutral toward anyone – they either like you
or are prepared quite simply to kick
the living Jesus out of you.
                                          They are warriors
for whom it’s natural to bid goodbye
with a kind of mock military salute.
                                           They greet one another
with a meaningful movement that is part
bow, part shrug, part nod, accompanied
by a slight pursing of the lips,
the barest suggestion of a wink.

“The Red Wool Shirt”

I was hanging out my wash,
says the woman in North Sydney.
It was a rope line I was using
and they were wooden pins,
the real old-fashioned kind
that didn’t have a spring.

It was good drying weather.

I could see the weir fishermen
at work.
   I had a red wool shirt
in my hands and had just
noticed that one of the buttons
was missing.

Then I looked up and saw
Charlie Sullivan coming
towards me.
He’d always had a funny walk.
It was as if he was walking
                  That walk of his
always made me smile except
for some reason
I didn’t smile
that day.
   He had on a hat
with salmon flies
that he’d tied himself
in the brim.

Poor old Charlie.

It’s bad, Mary, he said.

I finished
hanging up the red wool
  and then I said,
Charlie, it’s not
both of them, and he said,
Mary, I’m afraid it is.

And that was that.

“Daughter of Zion”

Seeing the bloodless lips, the ugly knot of salt-coloured hair,
the shapeless housedress with its grotesque flowers
like those printed on the wallpaper in cheap rooming houses,
sadder than if she wore black,

observing how she tries to avoid the sun,
crossing the street with eyes cast down
as though such fierce light were an indecent spectacle:
if darkness could be bought like yard goods
she would stuff her shopping bag with shadows,

noting all this and more,
who would look at her twice?
What stranger would suspect that only last night
in a tent by the river,
in the aisles between the rows
of rough planks laid on kitchen chairs,
before an altar of orange crates,
in the light of a kerosene lantern,
God Himself, the Old One, seized her in his arms and lifted
   her up and danced with her,
and Christ, with the sawdust clinging to his garments and
   the sweat of the carpenter’s shop
on his body and the smell of wine and garlic on his breath,
drew her to his breast and kissed her,

and the Holy Ghost
went into her body and spoke through her mouth
the language they speak in heaven!

“Britain Street”
Saint John, New Brunswick

This is a street at war.
The smallest children
battle with clubs
till the blood comes,
shout “fuck you!”
like a rallying cry –

while mothers shriek
from doorsteps and windows
as though the very names
of their young were curses:

“Brian! Marlene!
Damn you! God damn you!”

or waddle into the street
to beat their own with switches:
“I’ll teach you, Brian!
I’ll teach you, God damn you!”

On this street,
even the dogs
would rather fight
than eat.

I have lived here nine months
and in all that time
have never once heard
a gentle word spoken.

I like to tell myself
that is only because
gentle words are whispered
and harsh words shouted.

Analysis of  “Daughter of Zion” and “Britain Street”

Both these poems appear in Alden Nowlan’s Governor-General’s Award-winning collection Bread, Wine and Salt, and each reveals his fundamental interest in and love of that which is made marginal and sanitized for the delicate sensibilities of “civil” society. In the case of “Daughter of Zion,” the subject is a person we would call a “bag lady.”

We see her type everywhere around us, and we protect ourselves from the urgent questions her status demands with ready-made theories of cyclic poverty, self-reliance, mental illness, and a host of other stock responses that let us off the hook for extending the concern that the poem invites.

As a result, we not only relegate her to the margins, but we literally “see” her peripherally, which the poem’s first two stanzas illustrate: the progression from “Seeing the bloodless lips” and “observing how she tries to avoid the sun” to the clinical and sarcastic “noting all this and more” suggests a distancing of her to the safe confines of vagrancy. Aptly placed, we don’t have to deal with her. Up to this point, the poem challenges none of our assumptions or generalizations: street people are simply odd and best moved out of view where they become the concern of sturdier moral souls. So far so good.

But this is where the poem gets interesting, for at this point Nowlan gives his anonymous bag lady an identity. If “we” won’t pay her any heed, then how will we ever know that someone else did? And no less a figure than the capital “S” Someone: the Trinity of “God Himself, the Old One,” along with Christ and the Holy Ghost. Together, they seize her and dance with her, drawing her close and kissing her, entering her body to speak “the language they speak in heaven!” She thus becomes a daughter of Zion, an old part of Jerusalem (the City of David), which, in the Old Testament, is symbolic of the Promised Land. She, in other words, has arrived.

Are these the delusions of mental illness or the unlikely circumstances of a spiritual visitation? The answer is simple: we will never know, for we dismissed her earlier to a place out of sight, “a tent by the river.”

The poem tests the polite, schooled notions of charity, a charity done without dirtying one’s hands. Is salvation for the rich and well behaved? If not, then why does the poem unsettle us? And who is more likely to have the experience that the bag lady did: a street person or an oil baron? The poem, in other words, should remind us of our Christian duties, perhaps also the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:3-10:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Thoughtful readers of this poem will see that it actually turns the tables on them: that in implicating them in the bag lady’s dismissal, it moves them to an uncomfortable periphery on the sidelines of the likely moral code that they espouse.

“Britain Street” does the same thing, only more gently, and this time implicating the speaker (probably Nowlan) in its address. Britain Street, an actual street in the industrialized port section of old Saint John, was a street of mixed classes that had its own dark history of indigence and unrest. It is a street, writes Nowlan, “at war,” a street where “[t]he smallest children / battle with clubs / till the blood comes.” And, importantly, it is a street of generational strife, where mothers “waddle” outside to beat their children, cursing them in a language that the children in their turn use against others. This, then, is a street of learned social behaviours where the lines “I’ll teach you, Brian! / I’ll teach you, God damn you!” attain special significance. And, as such, what can be done about such streets? Short of removing children from the influence of bad parenting, what can be done?

The simple answer is “nothing,” but what an unsatisfying answer that is. Better to tell ourselves that, perhaps, “gentle words are whispered / and harsh words shouted.” The poem hinges, then, on the phrase “I like to tell myself,” for that phrase implicates the speaker in a strategy of wilful indifference to social problems that lets him off the hook. “I like to tell myself” means that he hopes or chooses to tell himself that love is shared in private, but that he is uncertain that it is.

“I like to tell myself,” of course, is a normal defence mechanism, just as is our dismissal of the bag lady in the previous poem. Nowlan is not condemning us in these poems, for we too are imperfect and live in society, but he is reminding us of our obligations to others at the same time as he complicates those obligations. To live in society, he is saying, is about learning to live with hypocrisy.

“An Exchange of Gifts”

As long as you read this poem
I will be writing it.
I am writing it here and now
before your eyes,
although you can’t see me.
Perhaps you’ll dismiss this
as a verbal trick,
the joke is you’re wrong;
the real trick
is your pretending
this is something
fixed and solid,
external to us both.
I tell you better:
I will keep on
writing this poem for you
even after I’m dead.

“He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded”

I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, “Are you the surprise they promised us?”

It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favourite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
“Nobody will ever get this away from me,”
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
“Old MacDonald had a farm,” and I don’t know what to do

about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays that part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.

It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another thing to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They’re all busy elsewhere. “Hold me,” she whispers. “Hold me.”

I put my arm around her. “Hold me tighter.”
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
or me; I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me,”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.

It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.

Analysis of  “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded”

According to Fred Cogswell, this is one of Canada’s greatest poems of the twentieth century. And it is not difficult to understand why. In a completely unassuming narrative style, Nowlan tells the simple story of his visit to a school for “the retarded,” a term that has undergone much change since Nowlan published the poem in I Might Not Tell Everybody This (1982). That change actually informs how we read the poem, for what Nowlan does here is to strip mental retardation of all its fears and stigmas, and present a mentally challenged woman as just another human being, one who is not “special” in today’s patronizing jargon but truly extraordinary for teaching the great humanist poet what fellowship really is. That this poem was released at the end of Nowlan’s career (and just a year before his death) is therefore significant. It is, in many ways, a final statement.

The poem opens as we might imagine such a narrative to begin: with a good deal of unease. The poet, here in the guise of “a writer of magazine articles,” enters a school for the retarded early one morning. Accompanied by a band that furthers the unease by breaking into the familiar “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” the poet takes note of the unusual surroundings: “a child in a man’s body,” a boy crying because his favourite detective hadn’t come, and a young woman (more girl than woman) who sits down beside him and rests her head on his shoulder. Social proprieties and manners have clearly been violated, and his social space invaded. There is no safe haven – all the teachers are “busy elsewhere.” His distress heightens when the young woman asks him to hold her, and then hold tighter.

This triggers his natural human defence mechanism, turning awkwardness to humour. (To push away is an adolescent impulse; to laugh is an adult response.) The joke becomes one of sexual impropriety: “the sex-crazed writer / publicly fondl[ing] the poor retarded girl.” In that response he is socially healthy. He understands boundaries and consequences, and he exhibits a schooled aversion to transgressing social norms that keep people safe and uncommitted. He dons the social armour, in other words, that relegates bag ladies to the periphery (“Daughter of Zion”) and chooses to believe that public violence is trumped by private affections (“Britain Street”).

As he holds her tighter, however, he begins to think about the needs of children and the child-like, entering into the unsafe zones of the “geriatric ward,” the battlefield (“Dieppe” and the final moments between Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy), and the deathbed, where D.H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda held his left ankle as he died, delirious with morphine. Remembering Lawrence’s final words – “hold me, hold me” – he comes to realize that in the end this is all that humans want: “merely to be held.”

And so the holding becomes mutual and unrestrained by social taboo: “She hugs me now … and I hug her.” The hugging is fraternal, fatherly, maternal, and matrimonial. It is, in other words, all expressions of love across all types of human relationships. It knows no boundaries of space, time, or social type. It is, rather, the embrace of the Old One, Christ, and the Holy Ghost at the close of “Daughter of Zion,” and, as such, it rises above social mores to inhabit a wider sphere of allowance.

As a final statement, the poem is both summative and instructive. It is also magnificent and profound in its absolute simplicity, for it indeed contains the answer to most of the “large” questions that humans ask.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

► Nowlan began to publish poetry at the same time that Louis Robichaud was beginning to radically transform New Brunswick society. It is worth considering, then, how Nowlan’s work – deeply concerned with the obstacles faced by poor, marginalized New Brunswickers – reflects the ethos that motivated Louis Robichaud’s reforms, especially the introduction of social welfare for the poor and under-educated. How does Nowlan’s poetry contribute to an understanding of why such reforms were important? (Note: The CBC Digital Archives are an excellent source of radio and TV clips dating from Robichaud’s tenure, and more recent clips discussing his impact.)

► Nowlan also began to publish poetry soon after the period of modernist ferment in New Brunswick. In fact, Fred Cogswell, one of the province’s ardent modernists, was Nowlan’s greatest supporter and mentor. Nowlan’s poetry, however, radically departs from the high modernism of poets like Alfred G. Bailey. It is therefore productive to compare the two, say Nowlan’s “They Go Off to Seek Their Fortunes” and Bailey’s “Here in the East.” These poems tackle very similar themes but do so in different ways. What does Bailey’s more historically nuanced style bring to an understanding of outmigration? (For example, it might be said that Bailey provides a better sense of historical origins as he captures the socio-political causes and economic decline that have resulted in outmigration.) Likewise, what does Nowlan’s more personal style bring to an understanding of outmigration? (Nowlan’s use of colloquial language may make his poem more accessible and his characters more familiar, thus enhancing the emotion of their predicament.)

► Along with Elizabeth Brewster, Nowlan forged a poetic voice and style that was unique to Canada at the time they were writing. The emergence of confessional humanism in their work was almost simultaneous with the emergence of confessionalism in the work of American poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath (poets who are more generally considered to have founded confessional poetry). Compare Nowlan’s confessional poetry with that of an American poet such as Plath or Lowell. Lowell’s “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” can be found here and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddycan be read here. What are the differences and similarities between Nowlan’s poetry and that of the American poets? What are the differences and similarities between Nowlan and Brewster? Could there be something called “the Canadian confessional voice”?

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Empathy vs. Sympathy (All poems)

There are a number of excellent print and video resources online that make the distinction between empathy and sympathy (search, for example, for “Brené Brown on Empathy”). Select one or more Nowlan poems for students to read, perhaps “It’s Good to Be Here” or “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded.” Is their feeling after reading these poems empathetic, sympathetic, or neither? If they do empathize or sympathize, who do they empathize or sympathize with? How does the poet achieve this effect, and is this similar to or different from other poets the students may have recently read, perhaps Elizabeth Brewster?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints
  • Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses

Strategy 2: Choosing a Subject (“Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here”)

What are the reasons why Nowlan might have chosen his own conception as a recurring poetic subject? Begin this exercise by asking students, some of whom write/draw/paint/photograph/etc., how they choose their subjects? Are those choices related to what they have most recently experienced, what they feel most deeply about, what they are conflicted about, what they find aesthetically interesting, what they feel is societally significant? And what is the relationship between choice of subject and audience? Do they choose different subjects when writing for themselves than they do when writing for classroom or other “public” purposes? To return to Nowlan, what do his choices of subject matter reveal about the audience he is writing for? Are his assumptions about that audience correct?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning

Strategy 3: Imagined Beginnings (“Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here”)

Nowlan could not have directly experienced the events in these poems. The fact that these events are imagined, however, does not necessarily make them inaccurate. Ask students to do a little research into Nowlan’s life to consider how his early experiences, both familial and social, might have informed his approach to writing these two poems. What basis might he have for imagining what his parents felt or said? And, extrapolating from him to themselves, can students make similar guesses about their parents’ experiences of pregnancy? Or would they want to?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Respond to a wide range of complex questions and directions

Strategy 4: Unease about Sexuality (“Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here”)

As described in the analysis section above, “Nowlan’s choice to treat sexuality through metaphor [in “Beginning”] reflects the experience of his own, and his parents’, Calvinist world. That world only peripherally addressed sex, and did so with the shame exhibited by his parents in the poem.” Multimedia such as photographs and video clips from the mid-20th century could be used to spark a discussion about the way uneasiness about sexuality is cultural. For example, students might be shown stills of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” or “I Love Lucy” showing the married couples in separate twin beds. A series of photographs of maternity wear over the course of the 20th century could illustrate how showing a “bump” is far from the recent historical norm, and this might segue into a discussion of how referring to pregnancy by name was at one time considered taboo. To extend the conversation, the class might consider how film and TV censorship has changed as society has become more liberal and secular. For a Canadian examination of this, aired in 1968, search the online CBC Digital Archives for Take 30 Examines Film Censorship.”

After considering Nowlan’s two poems, ask students to think of other examples of how poetry, music, and film both reflect current societal values, and contest them. Alternatively, students might be asked to name their favourite song, and then evaluate whether it reinforces or subverts societal values. Students could be asked to bring their examples in the following week for discussion, or as the basis of a writing assignment.

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Examine how texts work to reveal and produce ideologies, identities, and positions
  • Reading and Viewing: Examine how media texts construct notions of roles, behaviour, culture, and reality

Strategy 5: Cueing Systems (“It’s Good to Be Here”)

Students might be unfamiliar with terms such as “quinine” and “in trouble,” which are not in common use today. Ask them to use cueing systems to understand the meaning (which alternative words and phrases make sense in this poem?).

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Use the cueing systems and a variety of strategies to construct meaning in reading and viewing complex and sophisticated print and media texts

Strategy 6: Represent Visually (“Daughter of Zion”)

Ask students to sketch an image based on the poem “Daughter of Zion,” assuring them that artistic aptitude is not required, and they will not have to share their pictures. Have them discuss this process afterwards in small groups, or as a class. Possible prompts: Which version of the woman did you draw (on the street or in the tent), and why? Did you draw from the perspective of an observer looking at the woman, or the perspective of the woman herself? Can you identify which elements of the poem you incorporated into your drawing? Did you add anything that was not physically described in the poem in an attempt to capture the feeling or tone of the writing? How did you use colour? Did sketching help you gain any insight into the poem, its speaker, or its subject, or did you find this technique ineffective?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on the processes and strategies they use
  • Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing

Strategy 7: Compare with “This Be the Verse” (“Britain Street”)

In this poem by Nowlan, children repeat the violent language and actions of their mothers. This generational cycle is emphasized when the mother shouts “I’ll teach you!” A poem addressing similar themes, though in a different style, is Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse.” Larkin’s poem addresses the issue of parenting generally, and with more directed anger, whereas Nowlan only indirectly implicates parenting in his focus on a single street.

Which poem do students find more emotionally resonant? Can they explain why? Does reading Larkin’s poem generate more or less sympathy for the harsh mothers and children of “Britain Street”? Compare the final stanzas of these poems: Do students think the speaker of “Britain Street” would agree with the speaker of “This Be the Verse” that the best solution is to opt out of reproducing?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints
  • Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts

Strategy 8: Rewriting Titles (“The Red Wool Shirt”)

This title, like the woman in the poem, highlights a mundane object of an otherwise momentous day. Perhaps students have had a similar experience: of seizing a seemingly irrelevant image or item as particularly significant because it symbolizes a person or experience lost (or gained), or because it was attached somehow to the moment when that loss was realized. With that in mind, ask students how the meaning of the poem would change if the title were, say, “Both of Them.”

Challenge students, either singly or in groups, to create new titles for poems or other works they have previously studied, or even currently popular songs or shows. Are students able to come up with titles that are better than the originals? Does changing the title change their interpretation of the whole work? And why?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning
  • Writing and Representing: Evaluate the responses of others to their writing and media productions

Strategy 9: Poetry and the Empathy Gap (“He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded”)

The speaker of this poem identifies the act of being held as a universal human need. Through a personal experience, he is able to connect and empathize with not only the woman he is holding, but also with humankind at large, naming both specific historical figures (Lord Nelson, D.H. Lawrence, etc.) and all-encompassing archetypes (lovers) as central to his experience.

First discuss this poem, perhaps asking individual students or groups to research and report back on references to Dieppe, Lord Nelson, Captain Hardy, and “The Ship of Death.” Then, ask if students would be willing to share personal experiences that prompted “a ha!” moments, moments when they suddenly identified with people whom they had not identified with before. It might be helpful to prompt with examples from your own experience. Have students had such an experience through art or music? Has the literature they studied helped them recognize or appreciate their links with other people? In what ways do literature and the arts bridge the distance between cultures/genders/generations/individuals/etc.?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Consistently demonstrate active listening and concern for the needs, rights, and feelings of others
  • Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses

Further Reading

Cogswell, Fred. “Alden Nowlan as Regional Atavist.” Studies in Canadian Literature 11.2 (1986): 206-25.

Cook, Gregory M. One Heart, One Way: Alden Nowlan: A Writer’s Life. Lawrencetown Beach, NS: Pottersfield, 2003.

---, ed. Alden Nowlan: Essays on His Works. Toronto: Guernica, 2006.

Nowlan, Alden. Alden Nowlan: An Exchange of Gifts. Poems New and Selected. Ed. and Intro. Robert Gibbs. Toronto: Irwin, 1985.

---. Interview by John Metcalf. Alden Nowlan: Essays on his Works. Ed. Gregory M. Cook. Montreal: Guernica, 2006. 46-63.

Toner, Patrick. If I Could Turn and Meet Myself: The Life of Alden Nowlan. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2000.

For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Nowlan, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.


We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Claudine Nowlan and House of Anansi Press, Inc., Alden Nowlan’s literary executor/publisher, for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.

All poems above appear in Alden Nowlan: Selected Poems. Ed. Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. Toronto: Anansi, 1996.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.