John Newlove
First appeared in FreeLance, Saskatchewan Writers' Guild, April, 2004 By Gary Hyland
I seem to be forgetting what words sound like. Soon I shall be reduced to a tiny vocabulary of phrases such as I love you, or I hate you, or death. - “57th Birthday,” 1995
In April of 1968, Maclean’s published two pages containing eight poems from a book by John Newlove. Not unusual, except in those days the magazine was a tabloid-sized monthly which never published poetry. John, thirty at the time, was hailed as a new voice deserving of this singular exception because he was a rarity— a talented poet the masses could understand, one who would move them deeply. And that he was. And that he remains. I purchased his book and was thrilled to read, for the first time, powerful poetry rooted in this place. It dazzled me so much I wanted to meet the author. Several years later I did. It was at a party at the home of Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, and, yes, John was drunk, as he was all but one of the times I met him. And still the powerful poetry continued. Fabulous books full of gentle irony, self-deprecation, wry humour, and seemingly uncontrived grandeur. He was a fine craftsman, always trimming in search of the flawless poem. His genius was evident in the seamless way he blended the documentary, lyric and narrative modes. He resisted clichés, casual comparisons, easy answers. Tremendous struggles were implied in the simplicity of his pieces. The occasion I judged John to be mostly sober was when he delivered the Caroline Heath Lecture for the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in 1989, yet another time he influenced me. It was one of the finest talks I have ever heard. It was about the struggle of being a poet and a person, and it featured the ambiguity, pain and honesty that was central to his writing. In the mid 80s, when Lorna Crozier and I were assembling the poems for A Sudden Radiance, I reread the dozen or so books John had published to that point and was impressed by how many of the lines were in my memory. I was also astonished to discover how much he had influenced my writing. I suspected we were going to have trouble confining John’s section to the allotted number of pages. It was one of our greatest challenges. John had agreed to be one of the presenters at the 2001 Saskatchewan Festival of Words. He sounded pleased to be invited and sent me twenty or so pages of new poems, showing he hadn’t lost his touch. But he suffered a stroke and never made it. This year the Festival will honour him with a tribute luncheon on Friday July 23. In his Caroline Heath lecture John said, “Death is unacceptable and inevitable.” He also said he wanted to “make things that would last” and wished he had found an art form that would have permitted him that success. He did.