The manner of her living: Pat Lowther
~ remembered by Gary Geddes
I was not a close friend of Pat Lowther. I’d met her at League of Canadian Poets meetings and when, while on a mission to make final arrangements for the League’s AGM in 1975, she stayed over at my house in Victoria, sleeping on the couch, sick as a dog. While I did not know here well, I was a great admirer of her talent as a poet. I take exception to the notion that her tragic death contributed to Pat’s poetic reputation. The poems were good long before she died and who knows what strengths she might have achieved and directions she might have taken had she lived to exploit her unique genius. She had been elected to the top position in the League and her poems were appearing widely. I had chosen her stunning poem “Coast Range” as the first piece of writing to appear in the new BC anthology Skookum Wawa and had encouraged Oxford University Press to publish selected poems by two poets whose work I wanted to champion: Pat Lane and Pat Lowther. I was already convinced that her work merited inclusion in the revision that would result in 15 Canadian Poets Plus 5 two years later. The sad irony here is that these kinds of recognition obviously contributed to the anger and jealousy that claimed her life.
Tt’s true that some deaths are more dramatic than others and may add a sensational note to a poet’s biography. Keats died from tuberculosis at an early age. Shelley drowned while sailing. Sylvia Plath took her own life. Wikipedia lists forty murdered writers, including Joe Orton, also savagely bludgeoned to death by his long-time companion. What makes these five writers important to us now, however, is not the manner of their deaths, but the quality of their writing. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Pat knew she was walking along the razor’s edge, emotionally and physically, an anxiety reflected in many of her poems; and that she had a great capacity to imagine and empathize with the fragility and suffering of others, whether Chilean miners or women living in the company of disturbed and dangerous men.
Pat had a great ear and the gift of metaphor. Writing of mountains in the poem I mentioned above, she sings:
They’re not snobs, these mountains,
they don’t speak Rosicrucian,
they sputter with
to splat into the sea.
On first reading, as a west-coaster, I was taken with the aptness of the metaphor of those distant creeks coming down from the high mountains, and the exuberance of the newly minted word “bumsliding,” which is all you can do on such steep, wet, mossy slopes. That kind of eye and imagination would be enough for most poets, but not for Pat Lowther. She had to make magic for the ear as well, not only piling up the s-, b-, c- and m-sounds, but also throwing in those three active verbs—speak, sputter and splat—that make the whole stanza nest in the ear.
It’s not the manner of a writer’s dying that confers fame, but the manner of her living, singing, telling and imagining. That’s why we have coined the phrases “deathless prose” and “immortal verse.”
Gary Geddes is the acclaimed author of over 20 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.