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rob mclennan on John Newlove's "The Death of the Hired Man"

(How Poems Work, October 2004)
This small piece, originally published as a broadsheet by above/ground press, was the last new poem of John Newlove�s to appear in print before his death on December 23, 2003.
At the Ottawa memorial reading for John Newlove in January 2004, I read the poem, causing his wife Susan to later comment on the piece, saying, oh, I remember when that happened.
In a subsequent email about the poem, Susan writes her account: “[W]e were at Deep Springs College, California, for a summer semester and the students and staff had gone off on one of their adventures in the Mojave Desert, or something like that, leaving the Dean, Barney Childs, wives and kids, John and ranch staff to look after things for a few days.
“It was a hot day, and the hired hand who did all the mechanical and such practical work around the ranch and college work was digging a ditch, to lay pipes I think, and he dropped dead of a heart attack–he was an older man, but we were all pretty young then. There were dogs around, and I remember John took charge of it all… It seems to me that he was particularly concerned about the heat, and its effect on the corpse, and the dogs, and whether he could keep them off the corpse; and the length of time it had to stay in situ until the officials had finished their work. Of course, all of this may have nothing to do with the poem.”
Newlove, who grew up in small towns in Saskatchewan, probably knew all too well about hired men, and manual labour, and the foolishness of working in such heat. There are some things a body doesn’t forget….

This small piece, originally published as a broadsheet by above/ground press, was the last new poem of John Newlove’s to appear in print before his death on December 23, 2003.
At the Ottawa memorial reading for John Newlove in January 2004, I read the poem, causing his wife Susan to later comment on the piece, saying, oh, I remember when that happened.
In a subsequent email about the poem, Susan writes her account: “[W]e were at Deep Springs College, California, for a summer semester and the students and staff had gone off on one of their adventures in the Mojave Desert, or something like that, leaving the Dean, Barney Childs, wives and kids, John and ranch staff to look after things for a few days.
“It was a hot day, and the hired hand who did all the mechanical and such practical work around the ranch and college work was digging a ditch, to lay pipes I think, and he dropped dead of a heart attack–he was an older man, but we were all pretty young then. There were dogs around, and I remember John took charge of it all… It seems to me that he was particularly concerned about the heat, and its effect on the corpse, and the dogs, and whether he could keep them off the corpse; and the length of time it had to stay in situ until the officials had finished their work. Of course, all of this may have nothing to do with the poem.”
Newlove, who grew up in small towns in Saskatchewan, probably knew all too well about hired men, and manual labour, and the foolishness of working in such heat. There are some things a body doesn’t forget.


This small piece, originally published as a broadsheet by above/ground press, was the last new poem of John Newlove’s to appear in print before his death on December 23, 2003.
At the Ottawa memorial reading for John Newlove in January 2004, I read the poem, causing his wife Susan to later comment on the piece, saying, oh, I remember when that happened.
In a subsequent email about the poem, Susan writes her account: “[W]e were at Deep Springs College, California, for a summer semester and the students and staff had gone off on one of their adventures in the Mojave Desert, or something like that, leaving the Dean, Barney Childs, wives and kids, John and ranch staff to look after things for a few days.
“It was a hot day, and the hired hand who did all the mechanical and such practical work around the ranch and college work was digging a ditch, to lay pipes I think, and he dropped dead of a heart attack–he was an older man, but we were all pretty young then. There were dogs around, and I remember John took charge of it all… It seems to me that he was particularly concerned about the heat, and its effect on the corpse, and the dogs, and whether he could keep them off the corpse; and the length of time it had to stay in situ until the officials had finished their work. Of course, all of this may have nothing to do with the poem.”
Newlove, who grew up in small towns in Saskatchewan, probably knew all too well about hired men, and manual labour, and the foolishness of working in such heat. There are some things a body doesn’t forget.
John Newlove had always written poems as shorthand. Predominantly, the poems in _The Night the Dog Smiled_ (1986, ECW Press) and the ones that followed, had Newlove taking out more words than he was putting in. The poems published in the last 18 years of his life count only as some 25 pages of work.
He often cribbed from books he was reading; Newlove, the sort of reader who finished a book a day. A few years before he died, he spent a whole summer reading nothing but Greek history, as he told me, simply to get an overall sense of it in his head. He was an admirer of Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. His collection {_The Green Plain_}, published in 1977, was said to be his reaction to T.S. Eliot’s {_The Waste Land_}.
There is a longer poem by Robert Frost also called “The Death of the Hired Man,” from his collection _North of Boston_ (1915). Newlove’s poem reads almost as though it was a half-forgotten memory of the Frost piece, boiling the one hundred and seventy-five lines down to five, using the same title and theme, but written with his own particular twist. Newlove has been called Canada’s finest lyric poet. The brevity became him, his terseness punctuated only by his clarity. It’s not a pessimism, necessarily, that a poem such as “The Death of the Hired Man” embodies, but a matter-of-factness, one touched by Newlove’s sense of humour, dry as Regina bone.