Love, and other affairs

Caroline Heath was a vigorous and creative figure in the writing community in Saskatachewan. On her early death the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild instituted an annual lecture series in her memory, the first of which was delivered by John Newlove to the Guild's annual convention in Regina in 1988.

I know I talk a lot, but I'm not very good at giving talks. I hope some of this will be interesting or useful. They're not always the same. I had thought of using a sort of selected biography as a framework, but it would be a difficult framework for me to work in since I've made so much of my life into pieces and fictions and anecdotes that I myself am no longer sure what is true and what is merely entertaining: to me, if not to anyone else. Perhaps even the individual selection of lies I have been attracted to may reveal something. In any case, I am threatened with questions after I have done, and perhaps you can then try to pin me down to something useful or concrete. Many have tried.

I was born in Regina and I was brought up in various Saskatchewan towns. My mother was a teacher who seemed to stay only a year in each place. My parents were separated, which, I think, must have been more unusual than it is now ― or less openly done ― though I donít think they didnít love each other. I cannot recall having seen my father, except for two or three instances, one fairly long. I do not feel I had seen my father. There were sudden appearances and disappearances of a stranger who must have been him, I think.

I donít know if any of this is true. I donít know how any of this affects what one becomes. I donít know if we act upon the world or if it acts upon us. I am made exactly like everyone I have ever met.

Everything, even love, begins in curiosity. But I feel a reluctance to indulge in much curiosity about myself, as if learning could kill lore. I prefer my inventions. Sometimes I prefer your inventions.

Still, the question remains, What makes someone write poetry? I use the word 'makes' deliberately. I think that in this case there are two types of people: those who would and those who must. This has nothing to do with talent ― it may take as much labour and care and love to write a bad book as to write a good one ― although I do believe that intention governs result. That is, I believe, technical ability aside, that the difference between poetry and verse is the deepest intention of the maker, that a piece about trees by Joyce Kilmer is only verse while one by William Butler Yeats is poetry. You see my prejudice, when I say 'only verse'. I am not against verse. I merely dislike frivolity of intention.

And, God knows, I am frivolous.

††††††††††† Like anyone engaged in writing I have often been asked two questions. The first one is a sort of combination of when did you start writing, why did you start writing. The second is more straightforward: what do you write about?

††††††††††† I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance.

††††††††††† Very early, I wrote a piece called 'Then, If I Cease Desiring'.

††††††††††† Then, if I cease desiring,

††††††††††† you may sing a song

††††††††††† of how young I was,

it says, and it ends:

††††††††††† You may allow me moments,

††††††††††† not monuments, I being

††††††††††† content. It is little,

††††††††††† but it is little enough.

It doesnít say what it is proper to desire.

††††††††††† But the answer to the first combination is a puzzle to me. I know about those people who had written their first ― brilliant ― trilogy of novels by age twelve, throwing off in the process poems so delicate, so penetrating, so moving that the world wept for more.

††††††††††† That was not me. I would rather dream than do. It was not merely to taunt possible scholars that so many of my pieces were called 'Dream'. Here's one.

††††††††††† The lone figure leans in the snow.

††††††††††† A rifle is stuck beside him:

††††††††††† one hand is on it.

††††††††††† He waits an approaching figure.

††††††††††† He will decide, when it comes,

††††††††††† to kill or to run.

††††††††††† It is the white centre of the world

††††††††††† his reason squats in.

My dreams are dreams. I have not, in that sense, made them up.

††††††††††† I remember beginning to try to write poems ― imagine that my hands are making giant glowing quotation marks in the air around the word ― when I was about eighteen or twenty. They were full of anger and self-pity and remorse and a kind of left-handed unwilling desire to disguise a truth that I was sure existed but that I did not know or could not grasp. They still are.

††††††††††† I know I began out of anger and longing. I know I resented and feared injustice because I knew it could be done to me. I knew that I was capable of injustice and cruelty, because I had been unjust and cruel.

††††††††††† But why poetry? Why writing at all? I'm no different from anyone else.

††††††††††† Later, I wrote a piece called 'It Was All There':

††††††††††† I am now a servant only

††††††††††† of what in my innocence

††††††††††† I had wished to make myself.

††††††††††† Successful, I am unsuccessful; complete,

††††††††††† I am more empty than ever.

††††††††††† These compulsive trips

††††††††††† into the mountains

††††††††††† that frighten me, these runnings away ―

††††††††††† what reputation do I have to make?

††††††††††† It was all there, all

††††††††††† the time, I could

††††††††††† sit back quietly now and nothing would change.

††††††††††† I have been too careful for that.

††††††††††† The stuttering boy

††††††††††† is known as the glib

††††††††††† obnoxious insulter, but alone

††††††††††† he still hems, picks up things left-handedly,

††††††††††† and cannot make an order.

It is as if I have no true memories. My first memory, if it is true at all, is of a small boy sitting in the street of a prairie town, the air absolutely still, golden with dust, watching, watching, solitary, not lonely.

††††††††††† You must want something, to be lonely. I seem to have spent all my life watching, and I donít know what I want.

††††††††††† Oh, love, fame, money, books, more love, some sort of lasting yes. Okay. But I donít know what I want and I donít know what you want.

††††††††††† This life is not, to me, the great adventure. It is the journey. It's hard to travel when you donít know where you're going or even where you want to go.

††††††††††† I wrote a piece called 'The Weather'.

††††††††††† I'd like to live a slower life.

††††††††††† The weather gets in my words

††††††††††† and I want them dry. Line after line

††††††††††† writes itself on my face, not a grace

††††††††††† of age but wrinkled humour. I laugh

††††††††††† more than I should or more

††††††††††† than anyone should. This is good.

††††††††††† But guess again. Everyone leans, each

††††††††††† on each other. This is a life

††††††††††† without an image. But only

††††††††††† because nothing does much more

††††††††††† than just resemble. Do the shamans

††††††††††† do what they say they do, dancing?

††††††††††† This is epistemology.

††††††††††† This is guesswork, this is love,

††††††††††† this is giving up gorgeousness to please you,

††††††††††† you beautiful dead to be. God bless

††††††††††† the weather and the words. Any words. Any weather.

††††††††††† And where or whom. I'd never taken count before.

††††††††††† I wish I had. And then

††††††††††† I did. And here

††††††††††† the weather wrote again.

But I donít know what my face looks like. I have trouble imagining it. I look into the mirror when I shave and I think, How odd. I make faces.

When it said 'This is a life without an image. But only because nothing does much more than just resemble', it seemed to me that in the writing I had stumbled upon something that was true to me. It is not just that I cannot believe that poetry is purely descriptive, or that something is made poetic ― great quotation marks in the air again ― by larding it with shining words. It is that for me one thing is not like another and I cannot compare. This is not a virtue; I'm simply unable to do it.

††††††††††† You can see how hard this would make things, when someone who writes things down is constitutionally unable to say with any conviction that this is like that. Perhaps this is simply some little psychological quirk in the brain, a cell missing or dead or blunted. I know that at times I have written 'like', but I have always felt a stutter: 'like, like, like what?' And sometimes I have written my indirections directly. One piece says 'the etched ghosts of the night' ― bare grey trees seen in a winter's night window. There was no metaphor there. It was what they were.

††††††††††† Is all poetry lying then, or are all poets liars?

††††††††††† I wrote:

††††††††††† And we are surrounded by liars

††††††††††† so that when the poet that is in us says

††††††††††† we are surrounded by liars

††††††††††† he is called a liar

††††††††††† and is given prizes, liar

††††††††††† obligations.

Why write at all?

††††††††††† What use is it? I can plead that, like all of us, I get occasional furtive letters saying thank you, youíve helped me, but I'm not much convinced that the value of poetry is as therapy. In me is the desire to make things that will last. Death is unacceptable and inevitable. I wish I could draw, I wish I could carve, I wish I could sing.

††††††††††† What I am doing is carving memorials to myself, thinking myself like everyone else. What I know is that memorials die too. What I am trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means.

††††††††††† I wrote a piece called 'Telephone Book'.

††††††††††† When the poets stopped writing poetry

††††††††††† I thought they were dead

††††††††††† and I went about and tried to describe my country

††††††††††† not leaf by leaf but soul by soul

††††††††††† and I found that though my soul was obscure

††††††††††† it was common. Liquor cured me or calmed me

††††††††††† and pain and long lying lines.

††††††††††† And the poets came back to life and said I was a poet too

††††††††††† and I was astonished!

††††††††††† I hadnít thought they'd known so much

††††††††††† or that I had cared so much.

††††††††††† And the booze tastes good even if the body aches

††††††††††† and the end is shame ― but the sheer pleasure

††††††††††† of the gift, of a few gloomy words ―

††††††††††† This is prose, this is a ghost with a steel chisel

††††††††††† sneaking another letter onto the stone.

††††††††††† Such fun, such fun.

††††††††††† I guess you would have to pay attention

††††††††††† to someone besides yourself.

††††††††††† It's better to celebrate your funeral

††††††††††† before you die.

This means that I must say something about drinking. I donít want to, but I must.

††††††††††† It is a dangerous delusion to think that one talent is more special than another, that writers are specially reserved. It is most dangerous of all to writers, and not only because it permits society to pay us in honour ― and damned little of that ― instead of cash. God knows, when we go to buy a loaf of bread they want cash, not honour, in payment.

††††††††††† We lean upon each other, each on each other. By deluding ourselves into thinking that whatever talent we may have differentiates us from other humans writers run many risks. With men of my sort the risk is alcohol especially. I thought it was bold; and certainly it helped, temporarily, to numb the pain and incomprehension and shyness of life. I donít know if I could have avoided it. I donít know what the causes of addiction are: multiple and general and personal. There is no black and white, only an incredible range of greys. You can see how much this bothers me. I am reading you something I have written and as I write I keep turning aside. Well, it is not brave, it is not clever, it is not useful, to be addicted, including even to the truth or to love. Being an alcoholic has not destroyed my life. Here am I. But it has made it difficult and painful and I have hurt a great many people I didnít wish to hurt. Including myself.

††††††††††† In a new piece I am working on, I wrote:

††††††††††† ††††††††††† Drunks get used to walking through everything,

††††††††††† including window panes and love, holding

††††††††††† ††††††††††† shells pressed to their ears, listening for the sound

††††††††††† of the day, the sea enveloping their minds

††††††††††† ††††††††††† swollen with failed dreams replaced by schemes

††††††††††† too transparent for tears, too ludicrous

††††††††††† ††††††††††† for laughter, wanting to lie down in the arms

††††††††††† of the day. It hurts: the shock of being normal Ö.

And it is not romantic.

It's very hard to love, I find. It's easy to hate. And we deal with words; words, words, words, all over everything, and sometimes we say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that we are speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human.

††††††††††† There are so many things to be bold about. Please donít destroy yourselves. There are enough others willing to do it for you.

I wrote a small piece called 'Like Water':

††††††††††† I wish my love could

††††††††††† be taken for granted.

††††††††††† It's just there like water,

††††††††††† always present, unfrozen.

††††††††††† This is not to be a desert

††††††††††† we inhabit.

Why should it seem so hard to love, even one's self? Especially oneself.

††††††††††† So this writing is selfish. It is a reaching out. It's not the only way. This reaching out is something Caroline Heath did. She thought what I wrote was good and useful. And later I realized that she cared for me as well, not just a machine made of meat spewing forth words she approved of. This was vastly important to me, to be treated as a human, faults entire, uncondemned.

††††††††††† I think that what I say in my rambling way doesnít talk just about poetry. All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you.

††††††††††† Hating's a deep way of loving. Hatred wants perfection. Love wants fulfillment. They wrestle together with their arms and legs about each other and neither is sure which is which.

††††††††††† I wrote a piece called 'The Wind'.

††††††††††† On this last desperate day

††††††††††† when the enchanting devil and the formless hero

††††††††††† embrace, when the wind in our minds

††††††††††† is a maniac, when our flesh is slack

††††††††††† as plastic, melted with desire,

††††††††††† let us see each other entire

††††††††††† and exhausted by each other, turning

††††††††††† about and about to escape,

††††††††††† as we have these months ― then leave,

††††††††††† dreaming what we might have been.

What often hurts most about this life is the inevitability of so much of it. It takes our will away from us. In one of her last letters to me Caroline Heath said:

††††††††††† If I die will you come to see me?

††††††††††† If I live will you come to see me?

Here I am. And Caroline is dead, so what I will say next is foolish. She could be fierce and furious, and she loved us. I think she still does.

††††††††††† In the new work there is this stanza:

††††††††††† Lord, give me the strength to see the angels

††††††††††† moving in the confused welter of my life.

††††††††††† Do not let my eyes remain in this failing

††††††††††† proportion to my loving heart always.

Thank you for listening.


This piece was originally delivered to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in 1988 as the very first of the Caroline Heath Memorial Lecture series, and was later broadcast on CBC Radio, eventually appearing in Canadian Notes & Queries, number 55 (1999). Thanks to Robert McTavish for providing the text, and Susan Newlove for permission to publish here. -eds.


John Newlove (1938-2003) was considered to be the best lyric poet in Canada, with the bulk of his writing produced between 1962 and 1972. Originally from Saskatchewan, he lived in Ottawa for his last seventeen years, longer than he managed to live anywhere else. The last twenty years of his writing life can be seen in the collections The Night the Dog Smiled (ECW Press, 1986), his selected poems Apology for Absence (The Porcupines' Quill, Inc., 1992) and in the anthology Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (Broken Jaw Press / cauldron books, 2003). Ottawa's Chaudiere Books will be releasing a larger volume of John Newlove's selected poems in fall 2007, edited by Robert McTavish, who recently put the finishing touches on the documentary What to make of it all? The life and poetry of John Newlove.