Various factors in Nowlan's environment and childhood helped greatly to shape his later poetry. Born on January 25, 1933, in Stanley, Nova Scotia, Canada, Nowlan's destiny appeared to be a life of poverty. His parents, of Welsh and Irish ancestry, had emigrated to a country where their skills initially seemed to be well-suited, but this changed in the early twentieth century, when the need for axe-men vanished. Freeman Nowlan, Alden's father, became permanently unemployed, and was compelled to work at temporary hard-labour jobs for over fifty years, in a part of Canada with no electric lights or telephones, and soil too poor for farming. Besides this, the Nowlans were forced to deal with the hardships of the Great Depression, and later World War II. Nowlan himself describes his childhood as "a pilgrimage through hell . . . yet I was seldom desperately unhappy and there can't have been many days when I didn't laugh". Not atypically for a working class boy, Nowlan dropped formal schooling in Grade V. Nevertheless, he continued to read constantly; the Bible and European history and literature "allowed him even in his early work to see local subjects against wider contexts". The Windsor, Nova Scotia. regional library, which he discovered when he was sixteen, "opened up the 'half-mythical' outside world more than even the Bible or Hollywood movies had previously been able to do". During his teens, Nowlan worked in the woods with his father, on roads for the Nova Scotia Department of Highways, and as a night-watchman at a sawmill, where he spent most of his time reading and writing. He pursued this pastime secretly and privately, for, as he related in an interview, "It would have been more natural for me to become a country and western singer or a boxer". Nowlan ascribes his original inclination to write to a desire to be a biblical prophet; he also yearned for imaginary playmates, emotional release, and personal recognition. Robert Gibbs comments, "As a boy Nowlan created for himself an imaginary world and imaginary roles, which embodied his aspirations to achieve power through language".
Nowlan married Claudine Orser in 1963, and live in Saint John with her and her son John. Nowlan won numerous awards, notably the Governor General's Award for Bread, Wine and Salt and a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1966, Nowlan was diagnosed with cancer of the throat, and two years later underwent three serious operations. He died on June 27, 1983, not from cancer but from respiratory failure.
Nowlan's style of writing changed significantly as he matured. He first began to compose at age eleven, writing diaries and detective stories. From 1952 to 1957, he wrote poems and short stories for small American magazines while working for a weekly newspaper in Hartland, New Brunswick. His early poems are characterized by formality, compactness, and irony, and are of a lyrical nature, though they tend to start as personal anecdotes or narratives. They typically employ iambic tetrameter with rhyming couplets, or pentameter quatrains with cross rhymes, and an alternating strong stress rhythm. This style changed, however, when Nowlan first came into contact with other poets. In 1957, he met Fred Cogswell, another Maritime poet, and discovered the work of Raymond Souster, Irving Layton, and Louis Dudek, but especially D. H. Lawrence, whom Nowlan describes as one of his favorite authors. Michael Oliver, likely the most prolific critic of Nowlan, observes that it was at this point that "his poetry truly came to life". Nowlan's writing became more flexible: he came to use more open verse, relaxed and fairly short, with simpler words. His rhythms began to more closely imitate common speech, taking the form of "partly grammatical, partly vocal lines with frequently shifting margins". The impression left by his style, which had occasionally been called "flat," came to appear effortless, unobtrusive, and transparent. "It is as if Nowlan trusts the reader more than he did in his early poems," remarks Oliver, "or that he has become more relaxed and philosophical". Indeed, by the time Bread, Wine and Salt was published in 1967, Nowlan had established himself as a gentler and more sentimental realist, who had let irony, according to Gibbs, give "way to closer empathy with his subjects".
The themes in Nowlan's poetry similarly matured as the writer gained experience. Gibbs observes that Nowlan's early poems were often "inspired by observing the behavior of people confronted by conditions of bitter necessity, in rural or small-town settings". "There is ample fear, even terror" in his early works, according to Oliver, "but it is fear of his countrymen's callousness, ignorance, and violence". Indeed, he often writes of violence - psychic or even physical - but always as a human characteristic, not just in Atlantic Canada. This "preoccupation with violence and crudity," Oliver comments, stems from a "desperate need of sensitivity to escape a culturally oppressive environment". There are themes of "the hunter being hunted", and, in particular, of the conflict between the Puritan and sensualist mentalities present in his upbringing. Nowlan's subjects, writes Oliver, "constantly battle the forests and the rocky soil for a livelihood, and constantly battle the chaotic, earthly forces of darkness within themselves, vainly allying themselves with the Puritanical, rational forces of light promoted by the church". In the summer of 1957, however, Nowlan "made a sentimental journey back to his native place . . . and began to see his heritage clearly and positively for the first time in his life". Also, as he moved from small-town to urban settings, and later became writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, his subject range widened. (Through the same process, he was able to replace the stereotypical label of "regionalism," which had been associated with his work, with definite universalism - although he continued to realistically portray the Maritimes.) Gibbs observes that Nowlan increasingly took as themes "the paradoxes and quirks of human behavior, viewed wryly and compassionately". Oliver elaborates, identifying motifs of dread of self, escape and reconciliation (as solutions to this dread and the torments of the world), and a "sense of estranged and divided consciousness", but where violence had come to be replaced with tenderness. Nowlan's more recent poems "question the very nature of personal identity and usually conclude that man, however confident he is of his place in the scheme of things, is more than likely lost in the flux of his own consciousness, on all its levels". Often he uses a "stranger-host" contrast, which, comments Oliver, is "the perfect embodiment of his abiding interest in the tension between the sacramental and the realistic views of life". There are themes involving conditions of schizophrenia, multiple personalities, mistaken identity, and amnesia, where Nowlan identifies the "ultimate alienation" as "being a stranger in your own mind". Like a host, however, Oliver reminds us that "his poems invite people into his home to share with him moments of insight, poignancy, despair, and laughter". Nowlan furthermore does not ignore everyday, trivial happenings; in fact, he transforms these "into significant patterns" and makes us "ponder the meaning of any common occurrence we encounter", and reveals "our unsuspected nearness to transcendent reality".
- Oliver, Michael Brian. "Alden Nowlan and His Works." Canadian Writers and Their Works (Poetry Series 7). Eds. Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1990.
- "Nowlan, Alden (Albert) 1933-1983." Contemporary Canadian Authors. Ed. Robert Lang. Toronto: Gale Canada, 1996.
- Gibbs, Robert. "Alden Nowlan." The New Canadian Anthology. Eds. Robert Lecker and Jack David. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson Canada, 1988.
- Nowlan, Alden. Early Poems. Ed. Robert Gibbs. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983.
- Oliver, Michael Brian. Poet's Progress: The Development of Alden Nowlan's Poetry. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978.