Patrick Lane was a gifted poet, one of Canada’s most acclaimed and beloved. He was deeply concerned with craft, a disciplined master who produced exquisite yet accessible poetry, publishing more than 30 books – mostly poetry collections, but also two novels and a memoir.
For more than 40 years, his muse was another great poet, Lorna Crozier; their love affair was one for the ages, one of Canadian literature’s great fertile partnerships, with each writing beautiful poetry about the other, including their 1979 collaboration, No Longer Two People.
Mr. Lane’s literary talents are well known and have been recognized with the Order of Canada, a Governor-General’s Literary Award, the inaugural British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and many other accolades. He received five honorary doctorates, and delivered legendary convocation speeches. This meant a great deal to Mr. Lane, an autodidact who was unable to attend university.
“He was a great poet, a great man and a great myth,” says Susan Musgrave, another iconic Canadian poet and long-time friend of the couple. “There’s a lot of mythology about Patrick.”
Patrick Lane: hard-drinking – until he got sober – poet, who spent $8 to buy a typewriter he didn’t know how to use, and taught himself to write – about doom and death and other dark, often grisly, matters.
Here’s what is less well known: Mr. Lane was a kind, generous friend and husband, a gifted gardener, skilled carpenter. He was, as Ms. Crozier describes him, “a sweet domestic man” – a terrific cook who could whip up a mean blackened chicken and heavenly chocolate-chip cookies. A champion clothes ironer. A cat whisperer.
He and Ms. Crozier had five cats over their 40 years together. Their most recent addition, a fierce-looking yellow-eyed tortoiseshell they named Po Chu, was a rescue who had been through some trauma. When the cat slashed and bit Ms. Crozier, she suggested they return her. Mr. Lane would hear none of it.
“Patrick said, ‘No, Lorna, she’s just scared.’ And he tamed her. He would hold her in his arms tightly so she couldn’t move and he’d say ‘We love you, you’re safe, you’re safe,’ … and he would stroke her and stroke her,” Ms. Crozier recalled last Friday. “And now, she’s the sweetest cat; she sleeps beside me and she purrs. And that’s the kind of man that Patrick was.”
The previous night, Po Chu had slept with Ms. Crozier after the worst day. Mr. Lane collapsed at home on March 7. He had suffered for more than 2½ years from a mysterious autoimmune disorder. He was 79.
“He’s known as this kind of working-class outlaw who led a rough and tumble life and is a recovered alcoholic. And he was all those things,” Ms. Crozier said, weeping, the next morning from their home north of Victoria. “But he was also a lover of nature and lover of animals.” She paused. “And lover of me.”
“You are the only safety I know, the secret of journeys,” begins Feet, one of the many poems Mr. Lane wrote about Ms. Crozier. It ends, “Wherever you are going tonight, take me with you.”
Neil Patrick Lane was born in Nelson, B.C., on March 26, 1939, to the former Eileen Mary Titsworth and Albert Stanley Lane, nicknamed Red. When Patrick was a boy, the family – very poor – relocated to Vernon, B.C. In Patrick’s final year of high school, his girlfriend, Mary Evelyn Hayden, became pregnant and they married. They had three children, Mark, Christopher and Kathryn.
He worked as a labourer and in industrial first aid. Beginning in 1960, he started writing poetry late at night after his family was asleep.
He was “a mad reader,” who read thousands of books, his friend and fellow self-taught poet Brian Brett remembers. “He gradually accumulated from all that knowledge and all that reading a real understanding of how to write a great line and how to write a great poem.”
In 1961, he wrote what he called his first successful poem, and began getting published.
But his personal life was hit with what he would later call the great griefs of the 1960s. In 1964, his brother Richard died of a brain hemorrhage. Then, in 1968, his father was shot and killed at his workplace by a distraught customer.
Mr. Lane’s marriage ended. Thus began a period of what he called “permanent endless drifting.” And writing. In Vancouver, he co-founded the small press Very Stone House.
Margaret Atwood met him around that time; he and poet Seymour Mayne “were on some kind of road trip and slept on our floor in Edmonton, as poets did in those days,” she recalls. “He was funny and bright and I liked his poetry.”
In 1974, Ms. Atwood, at House of Anansi, published a book of Mr. Lane’s work, Beware the Months of Fire. “It was very strong, direct and decidedly dark; it did not shy away from the subterranean,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Globe. “I think it’s a strong book that holds up.”
In the mid-1970s, Mr. Lane moved to Pender Harbour on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast and Howard White asked him to write for his magazine, Raincoast Chronicles.
The magazine morphed into Harbour Publishing, which went on to publish 10 of Mr. Lane’s poetry books.
“You know, it’s the mystery of genius. Sitting with him in a living room or at a bar, chatting about politics, you would never guess that this was a mind that could write those novels or his great, great poems,” says Mr. White, a lifelong friend. “It’s something that you just had to bow down to and accept as the workings of genius.”
Mr. Lane was then with Carol Beale; they had two children, Michael and Richard.
But in 1976, during an appearance in Regina, Mr. Lane met Ms. Crozier. Nothing happened then beyond some sparks. In 1978, they met again, and that was that. They ended their respective relationships and ran away together.
“This is a chance for love and I said I will not miss that," Mr. Lane recalled in a 2012 interview with The Globe, "and if everybody else behind and around me is shattered by that, then I don’t care, because I want this. And I went and took it.
“I left a lot of lives shattered around me and around Lorna too, but … we really wanted it. Boy, we were wild, kid. We have stories that just would frazzle ya.”
Mr. Lane’s alcoholism was terribly problematic, in their relationship and beyond. In 2000, he got sober. After his release from treatment, he turned to his garden. Digging in the soil became essential to his recovery, his life, his writing.
But poetry felt dangerous. For so long, he had written with a bottle of Scotch on his desk. He turned to prose, writing There Is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden.
“It sold thousands and thousands of copies. But what meant the most to him was the number of e-mails he’d get from total strangers who said the book had changed them,” Ms. Crozier says.
He and Ms. Crozier married in a tiny ceremony in that garden in 2001. Each invited guest was asked to read a poem.
He wrote an award-winning novel, Red Dog, Red Dog, and did eventually return to poetry. “He worked at [his sobriety], and with the great fear that his muse would go,” says his friend Shelagh Rogers, a broadcaster and chancellor of the University of Victoria. “But it didn’t. It was in him.”
Mr. Lane was also a wise and inspiring teacher, who helped shape generations of Canadian poets at the University of Saskatchewan, UVic and workshops and residencies.
Esi Edugyan, who took his first-year poetry class at UVic, recalls him showing up each week wearing the same purple sweater, carrying his papers in a grocery bag and wowing the class. “He was the reason I continued in poetry.”
Steven Price also took that course, and credits Mr. Lane with his decision to become a poet. “I was totally seduced by this charismatic, charming, surprisingly gentle man.”
Mr. Price and Ms. Edugyan are now married and successful writers. “Patrick and Lorna were like our literary parents,” Ms. Edugyan says.
Micheline Maylor took a workshop with Mr. Lane a few years before she became Calgary’s poet laureate.
“Everything about my teaching style changed after I met Patrick Lane. And I became a gentle, wiser teacher. More able to encourage. Because of his encouragement.”
In 2016, Mr. Lane became unwell. His doctor gave him 10 days to live. His language skills collapsed. “My brain was a raw egg swirling in a mixing bowl,” he wrote in The Globe last year.
The novel he had submitted required edits, and a new first chapter. He told his editor he couldn’t do it. She said she wouldn’t let him quit.
Unable to write even a word initially, Mr. Lane laboured. He rewrote that opening chapter, submitted the edits, and Deep River Night was published in February, 2018. He and Ms. Crozier were to tour their books together last fall, but his health continued to decline.
“At one point, he said ‘I’m so sorry; I’ve become such a ghost for you.’" Ms. Crozier recalls. “And I said, ‘I’d rather have your ghost with me than nothing.’”
Last November, his agent, Dean Cooke, received an e-mail from Mr. Lane telling him that, despite his poor health, he had written 80 pages of a new novel.
“I can’t tell you how comforting it is … to know that even at that point he was still writing and he was approaching it with enthusiasm,” Mr. Cooke says. “It’s bound to be powerful.”
Two weeks before his death, Mr. Lane learned he would receive the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in B.C. That ceremony will be held in Mr. Lane’s honour in Victoria on April 27. Ms. Crozier received the same award last year.
“Now our names will be side by side on plaques in front of the Vancouver Library,” she notes. “That pleases me immensely.”
Patrick Lane leaves his wife, Ms. Crozier, five children and 12 grandchildren.