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'His poetry will go on': top Canadian writers pay tribute to beloved poet Patrick Lane

Susan Musgrave, Esi Edugyan and Margaret Atwood are among the luminaries honouring Lane, who died last week at 79

Susan Musgrave, Esi Edugyan and Margaret Atwood are among the luminaries honouring Lane, who died at 79

Patrick Lane's poetry garnered countless accolades and honours, among them the Governor General’s Award, the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, multiple National Magazine Awards and the Order of Canada. Over his distinguished 50-year career he produced 25 volumes of poetry as well as several books of fiction and non-fiction. (University of Victoria)

When Susan Musgrave first met famed author and fellow poet Patrick Lane four decades ago, she knew the mythology that surrounded him — that of a hard drinking, hard living West Coast writer.

Over time, however, she got to know the real Patrick Lane — which included that hard drinking and hard living, but also a gentler, more vulnerable side.

Lane died last week at 79 after a lengthy illness, and ever since, poets, novelists, bookshop owners, arts journalists, politicians, former students, literary festival organizers and others have been paying tribute.

Musgrave and her late husband Stephen Reid developed a bond with Lane and his partner, poet Lorna Crozier, especially when the pair moved to North Saanich outside Victoria, B.C. several decades ago.

"The four of us became really quite close and we had a lot of great, great times," says Musgrave, who fondly remembers dinners with Lane and Crozier, who lived nearby. "My favourite dish of his was a blackened chicken, and I'd always request that when we went over for dinner. He'd do it on the barbecue. He was a great cook."

In addition to 25 volumes of poetry, Lane penned multiple fiction and non-fiction books, including his memoir There is a Season. (Penguin Random House)

Lane was widely admired for his poetry, which garnered countless accolades and honours, among them the Governor General's Award, the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence, multiple National Magazine Awards and the Order of Canada. Over his distinguished 50-year career he produced 25 volumes of poetry as well as several books of fiction and non-fiction.

"He and Lorna are my favourite poets in the country, so it was interesting having friends who are also your favourite poets. Usually I either like the people or I like their work but I don't like both," says Musgrave. "So that made friendship easy."

Of course, there were plenty of hard times, too. For years, Lane battled alcoholism, and wrote about his struggles in two books: Addicted: Notes From the Belly of the Beast, which he co-authored with Crozier, and his memoir There is a Season. Eventually his addiction became so severe that it turned life-threatening, and Lane agreed to get help.

He could take a really cruel situation and through beautiful language make it not only palatable, but see the beauty in pain.- Susan Musgrave

"He never went back to drinking, which was pretty amazing. So he got 20 years of good life," remembers Musgrave of the period after Lane kicked the habit. "And he didn't regret his life. We were still able to joke about it, and he incorporated sobriety into his way of being and made the most of it. So he was a really good example of somebody who can do it. If Patrick could do it, anybody can."

In terms of Lane's poetry, Musgrave says she especially appreciated his directness and his ability to find dark beauty in even the ugliest moments.

"Nietzsche has a line that everything we call higher culture is the spiritualization of cruelty … and Patrick was the epitome. He could take a really cruel situation and through beautiful language make it not only palatable, but see the beauty in pain and see the beauty in something that was cruel," she says.

"And I guess great art does that and he did that," she says, adding that Lane also wrote subtler and more delicate works. "[People] don't remember his poem about a bumblebee. They remember the ones that packed the punch because they were dramatic and violent."

Susan Musgrave was a close friend of Patrick Lane's for decades. "I'll miss talking about poetry," she says. "I'll just generally miss there not being more. Although one has to accept that there isn't more of people, always. But his poetry will go on. That's the good thing." (Bruce Stotsebury)

One of Musgrave's favourite Patrick Lane's poems, The Far Field, does exactly as she describes: it takes a deeply disturbing moment and transforms it into something darkly beautiful and indelible in its imagery.

"It's about his father taking him out and making him select this birch or willow branch to be whipped with and how he wanted to keep him there because in that moment there was a connection, a kind of bond, a kind of love — even when you're being hurt by somebody," says Musgrave. "It was so beautiful and true and sad, all of those things."

Musgrave says Lane and Crozier had a vibrant life with family and friends, children and grandchildren, a lovely garden and their beloved cats — and they have plenty of colourful stories that involve everything from a $50 bill being pulled from a fire to an unfortunate cliff-jumping injury.

"He jumped off a cliff when he was 50 and broke something, and his line was, 'I should have jumped further,' not 'I shouldn't have jumped at all,'" remembers Musgrave. "So Lorna said that should be his epitaph."

For countless students, Lane will also be remembered as a patient and passionate mentor. Among those students was two-time Giller Prize winner and Man Booker finalist Esi Edugyan, who had Lane as a writing instructor at the University of Victoria. 

"I first met Patrick 20 years ago — he was the first writing teacher I ever had. I remember him walking into the room in a pilling red sweater, carrying his teaching notes in a plastic shopping bag," said the Washington Black author in an email to q. "He was just extremely unpretentious and straightforward and eager to put all of his energy into the dissection and celebration of poetry. All else was secondary. The words were everything."

From Lane, Edugyan says she got a sense of what the writing life was like, "that writing is first and foremost a vocation, not a job or a hobby," she says. "That it was something you had to do with the utmost dedication and seriousness, or not do at all."

Musgrave, who now lives on Haida Gwaii, was in Victoria and scheduled to have dinner with Lane and Crozier in February, but a severe snowstorm put a freeze on their plans. She still corresponded with Lane by email, with the two old friends regularly swapping poems and photos. 

"The last email I got was a couple of weeks ago, and he said, "F--k, I need to get a new keyboard. This one is full of cookie crumbs and blood," says Musgrave with a laugh. "But I would send him a poem and then he would write back and then he'd send me poem. And I never knew if it was a recent poem or one he'd written a long time ago. It's hard to tell because his voice was pretty consistent. You could always tell a Patrick Lane poem."

The last email I got was a couple of weeks ago, and he said, "F--k, I need to get a new keyboard. This one is full of cookie crumbs and blood- Susan Musgrave

Musgrave says there are many things she'll miss about Lane, including his sense of humour, and "his wacky way of looking at the world."

"I just felt that closeness. There's an understanding that comes from years of friendship. You don't have to prove yourself or be anybody. Like if the roast chicken falls on the floor, you just pick it up and put it back on the plate," says Musgrave. "We could do that sort of thing around each other. You didn't have to have the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie." 

And of course she, like so many, will miss the conversations about poetry. "I'll just generally miss there not being more — although one has to accept that there isn't more of people, always," Musgrave says quietly. "But his poetry will go on. That's the good thing."

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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