Thursday, October 15, 2015

`Trying to Make Things Permanent'

Norm Sibum has introduced me to a Canadian poet I had never heard of before, John Newlove (1938-2003):

“I think one of the best poets here wrote very uneven verse, some of it quite awful, but that he was the only Canadian who didn't lose his head over the San Francisco influence, and the Black Mountaineers and so forth. That poet was John Newlove, and he stayed his own man, one of the very few, though he adopted a lot of that practice.”

In miniature, Norm recounts a representative writer of his time, one who resisted fashionable temptations and worked to remain independent, beyond the reach of orthodoxy, though not always successfully. Poets, renowned for romantic individuality, tend, often unknowingly, to move in herds. Newlove seems to have been a sort of self-imposed internal exile, almost in the old Soviet sense, as in the case of Nadezhda Mandelstam. My library has three of his collections: Black Night Window (1968), The Cave (1970) and The Night the Dog Smiled (1986).

One of Newlove’s titles conjures my experience of first love for a national literature; in this case, Russian: “Doukhobor” (from The Cave). The word is Russian for “spirit-wrestler,” and the OED defines it as “a member of a Russian religious sect which originated in the 18th century, many of whose members emigrated to Western Canada in the late nineteenth century after persistent persecution.” In 1899, some 6,000 members of the sect left Russia and settled on land granted them by the Canadian government in what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Tolstoy turned over his royalties from his final novel, Resurrection (1899), and some of his stories, to the Doukhobors, to help in their resettlement. So did various Tolstoyans and Quakers. I think I first learned of them from Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy. Newlove was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and grew up in various small towns in that province. The Doukhobors would have been local news for him, and he sympathizes with their status as outsiders, feared, distrusted and admired:

“. . . you, whose mind

“refused to slaughter, refused the blood,
you who will lie in your house, stiff as winter,

“dumb as an ox, unable to love,
while your women sob and offer the visitors tea?”

“Shakespeare’s Sonnets” is from The Night the Dog Smiled:

“I’m not interested in rainbows
But in the sky itself, the serene
Not the spectacular: the permanent.

“This is a business of trying to make things permanent,
Not ephemeral. What else to do?
We know we die, so chase notoriety too.

“All the couples of Shakespeare’s sonnets
make sense to me. It was another love
other than the Dark One he reached for.


Today, swearing allegiance to the permanent is almost seditious, and Newlove ups the ante by suggesting a poet’s business is “trying to make things permanent / Not ephemeral.” By implication, Shakespeare did just that, as common readers of the sonnets would agree. Newlove’s notion that Shakespeare wrote not for Baconians, Oxfordians, Marlovians, Derbyites or other codebreakers or conspiracy theorists, but for us, is thrilling and sane

No comments: