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Poetry Month: "How Beautiful Art Thy Feet with Shoes"

April is National Poetry Month, and to mark the occasion we'll be sharing some of our favourite poems from collections we've published over the years. Today, we're taking a closer look at the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan.

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Alden Nowlan once wrote of a desire to leave behind “one poem, one story / that will tell what it was like / to be alive.” Over the many years that Nowlan was actively writing poetry, he wrote an abundance of memorable poems through which he fulfilled his desire to tell what it means to be alive with candour and subtlety, emotion and humour, sympathy and truth-telling. For many years, Nowlan has been one of Canada's most-read and -beloved poets, and in the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan, all of his best poetry can be found in one place.

Through his poetry, Nowlan takes us from nightmarish precincts of fear and solitude to the embrace of friendship and family. Delving into experiences of violence and gentleness, as well as alienation and love, his poetry reveals our shared humanity as well as our perplexing and sometimes entertaining differences. His poetry is relatable, and it endeavours to expose all that makes us human through Nowlan’s own personal experience. These autobiographical threads are interwoven with fantasies, an astute historical consciousness, and a keen awareness of the shiftings and transformations of selfhood. Nowlan’s story becomes our own as we travel with him through the difficulties of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, what it means to be a father and a husband, and importantly, what it means to truly live and love.

As Nowlan’s poems cover a variety of themes, the formal features of his poems also varied. He wrote with formal variety, visually shaping his poems with a dexterity that complicates impressions that he was primarily a “plainspoken” poet. As Nowlan received little formal education, critics often perceived his work as being very basic without the high diction and literary functions found in the poetry of the time. However, his varied uses of the poetic line — his handling of line-lengths and -breaks, stanzas, and pauses — show him to be a writer who skillfully uses the page to suggest and embody the rhythms of speech.

 One of our favourite poems featured in the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan is “How Beautiful Art Thy Feet In Shoes.” The poem focuses on the ways beauty is portrayed, as well as conceived by the beholder. Again, the simplicity of Nowlan’s language coupled with the relatability of the images he describes allows us to form a deep connection with his poetry.

"How Beautiful Art Thy Feet with Shoes"
by Alden Nowlan

I suppose it’s because so many
poets and artists have never had enough
love from women — as boys they were hideous
in their own eyes, as I was, who thought myself
half-brother to Quasimodo
and looked upon every girl as Esmeralda —
I suppose it’s because of this
that they’ve devoted so much time
to portraying the wonders
of her nakedness, to celebrating
her thighs and breasts
so that some love poems sound more like
commercials for fried chicken,
and hardly ever mention
moments like this when I look up and see you,
through the window, getting out of a cab
with your arms full of Christmas parcels
(they always seem to be
Christmas parcels, even in July and even if
they’re only books from the public library)
there must have been times, many times,
over the years, when you came home from somewhere
without your arms filled with parcels,
but I don’t remember any of them now,
nor do I recall a time when you didn’t come in
either bursting to show me something
or trying to hide something from me:
I’ve never known anybody so fond of arranging
surprises or so inept at keeping secrets;
and I know how long it takes you to complete
the smallest transaction, how much you like to
look at things and touch them, and how you’re always
getting involved in long conversations with
old men in waiting rooms, little kids on tricycles,
the high school students who work part-time in supermarkets,
how you even say, “Hello, dog,” if you meet one —
all this, and so much more, goes through my head
as I catch a glimpse of you, getting out of a cab
with your arms full of parcels, as they always are,
and am reminded, suddenly, of how much I love you.

Grab your own copy of Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan here, or check out the rest of our poetry collection here.

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