Make it easier, they say, make it easier. Tell
A poet since his teens, John Newlove (1938-2003), a Regina-born resident of Ottawa, is widely recognised as the award-winning creator of Ride Off Any Horizon, Samuel Hearne in Wintertime, and Why Do You Hate Me? to identify but a few world-class compositions comprising the highly esteemed poet's poet's oeuvre (ranging from 1965's Moving in Alone to Apologies for Absence: Selected Poems 1962-1992).
Rather than make a sentimental spectacle of himself concerning "stars, flowers, love, etc.," the narrator of Newlove's 17-line lyric goes for the jugular with his resonant plea to "make it easier" in a blood-curdling yet icily calm condemnation of terminal complacency.
What, exactly, needs making easier? Poetry? This particular poem? Life? Death? The journey itself or — or, the truth? Make the truth easier, to take or to integrate? Tall order, responds the ambiguously maudlin speaker, given the way it is "right now, specially." Given the starvation, poverty, atrocities, and barbarous nature of contemporary existence, etc. Given the Big Lie concerning "stars, flowers, love, etc."
To wit, what's "out there" no longer supplies individuals with refuge against the relentless hyper-stimulation or spectacularious devaluation of the self. What, then, remains worthy of worship in a world all but flattened by the commodification of everything (including stars, flowers, love, slaves, killings, starvation, etc.)? Newlove's approach telegraphs the necessity for harmony and balance between utility (pragmatism) and gratuity (mystery, art, the sacral). The meticulous craftsman responds by deploying the larger trope of irony, with trademark laconic delivery.
Newlove's mathematically precise lines both run on and intersect, with chilling exactitude, fixing readers in their propulsive rhythmic grip. Aurally accurate, visually prismatic, the lyric's tilting structure and plain-style poetics lack flashy oratorical tricks. But they show that Newlove is a verse-line virtuoso, effortlessly blending staccato syntax with straight-up diction to challenge canonical lyricism — all seamlessly blended when the speaker's self-deprecation reveals a sorrow-torn soul.
The poem's allusive strands — most noticeably Robert Browning's A Death in the Desert ("Sigh ye, 'It had been easier once than now'?") — intermingle deftly among shadowy subtextures. But the predominant scaffolding supporting Newlove's desultory disquisition recalls Hamlet's rebuke of Guildenstern: "[Y]ou would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass . . . 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?"
Listen: That's the narrator's splattered sense of self brought to you in joy, sorrow, and living pallor, courtesy of the jubilant resignation implicitly celebrated in the supplicant's kick-in-the-head closer: "I don't want to be sad. Help me not to know."
"John Newlove's 'Concerning Stars, Flowers, Love, Etc.'" was originally featured in The Globe and Mail's 23 June 2001 edition. © 2001-2011 Judith Fitzgerald, The Globe and Mail, and the Estate of John Newlove. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. (Special thanks to Susan and John Newlove.)
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