Millicent Travis Lane

M. Travis LanePhoto: Gordon Hill Pres
M. Travis Lane
Photo: Gordon Hill Pres

M. Travis Lane was born on 23 September 1934 in San Antonio, Texas into a military family that moved almost every year. Her father was Colonel W.L. Travis; her mother Elsie Ward Travis. Their daughter’s peripatetic upbringing may explain why she has stayed in Fredericton, New Brunswick since 1960. With her husband, Lauriat Lane Jr. (a professor emeritus in the Department of English at UNB prior to his death in 2005), she raised two children, Hannah and Lauriat III; they all became Canadian citizens in 1973.

Lane earned an honours BA, Phi Beta Kappa, at Vassar College (1956), and an MA and PhD (1967) at Cornell University. Her thesis was entitled “Agnosticism as Technique in the Poetry of Robert Frost.” While at Cornell, she marked for Vladimir Nabokov, acted as section leader for M.H. Abrams, and served on the editorial board of the Vassar Review. In Fredericton, she taught English 2000, Modern American Poetry, and West Indian writers at the University of New Brunswick, where she has been an Honorary Research Associate since 1967. In The Fiddlehead, she has published numerous, deeply nuanced reviews and essays on Canadian, West Indian, and European poets.

Notable among her many recognitions for poetic achievement are the Pat Lowther Memorial Award (awarded annually to the best book of poems written by a woman in Canada) for Divinations in 1980; the Atlantic Poetry Prize for Keeping Afloat in 2002; and being honoured at the 2004 Alden Nowlan Festival in Fredericton. A frequent guest author at the Blue Bridge Music Festival in the York region of Ontario, her poem “The Apollonian Whale” was set to music by Humphrey Searle in 1980. Her poems “This Far” and “Owl” were also set to music, in this case by Brenda Muller who later teamed up with the classical trio Ardeleana to compose and perform music for Lane's long poem “The Witch of the Inner Wood,” which has been performed numerous times over the years, mostly in churches but also at the Blue Bridge Music Festival. Lane has an entry in The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Canadian Writers Since 1960 (W.H. New), and her work is included in over two dozen anthologies. She is a lifetime member of the League of Canadian Poets, a founder of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, and a member of both the Raging Grannies and Voice of Women for Peace.

Lane draws her poetic inspiration from a variety of sources; it can come from “nature, science, the news, art, music, something someone has said, [and] most of all, other poetry” (Lane CanLit). However, though her poems may seem to be generated by a narrative or occasional impetus, formal aesthetic considerations drive Lane’s work: “[m]ost of what I’m doing is feeling out a cadence, a sound, a feeling” (qtd. in Lynes Words 96). Lane further qualifies: “[w]hen I write a poem, I think a lot about how it sounds, and I revise a great deal in order to get the sound right for the subject” (Lane CanLit). For example, a poem like “What Can Be Named in Numbers” has its genesis in a moment when Lane was:

admiring the beauty of an insect’s flight. I wanted to write a poem that would reflect or imitate that beauty. … The sound that started me on the poem was a conventionally metred five beat line: “What can be named in numbers reassures.”… But that would not be the right sound for the insect stanza. So I tried for a long swooping sailing sound, and broke up the line to imitate the leaps and zigzags of the bug.

Then I do a zigzag of my own. Instead of going on to say how beautiful all this is, I change the direction of the poem and ask, does this beauty require us in order for it to be beautiful? (CanLit)

That change of direction—from formal concern to philosophical question—is characteristic of Lane’s poetry, despite her profession that “Messages are for prose. Poetry is more like dancing” (CanLit). Indeed, poems like “What Can Be Named in Numbers” dance Lane’s readers along in a dizzying manner, haphazard as an insect’s flight, subject to wind and pheromones and other imperceptible concerns; yet, it is the very imperceptibility of those concerns that points to the trope of belief and faith that runs throughout Lane’s poetic oeuvre. For example, the end of “What Can Be Named in Numbers” asks “are we needed after all?” and then answers “Without a noun or numeral the lake / drowns the red sky, is beautiful” (CanLit). Thus, Lane comforts readers even as she challenges us not to plumb the meaning of the insect’s meanderings but to recognize that meaning inheres in that meandering. As with an insect’s flight, so with Lane’s poems; rather than render them down to constituent premises, readers are invited to observe and to relish in the larger significance they gesture toward.

Preoccupation with an insect’s flight typifies a Lane poem. According to Brian Bartlett in his essay “Back to the Basket of Small Things: Size in the Poems of M. Travis Lane,” “In her nine books of poems she celebrates the miniature more often than the massive” (122). However, Lane’s initial focus on the miniature often leads to heftier preoccupations: “Elegy” begins with the image of that little place in a playground “where the bullet nicked / concrete” and leads directly to the observation “[t]he city is paved with invisible blood” (Words Out There 18, also Touch Earth 29). Her related concern with eco-poetics is delineated in Jeanette Lynes’s introductory essay to The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane: “Though Lane’s devotion to beauty in art or nature might be dubbed, by a cynical twenty-first century reader, ‘romantic,’ she is also keenly attuned to spaces in our natural world that have been colonized by resource extraction or designated as combat zones” (xiii). Thus, a poem like Lane’s “Bird Scratch” does far more than objectively describe a landscape; it recasts the natural world as both a source of inspiration and a language with its own “fantastic alphabet”:

I hear the sand dunes sliding through the fields
low breakers like stalled monsters,
bird-scratch, gulls. The morne
leans to the fog. The blue light of a berg
rides its fantastic alphabet.
No letter tips the balance of bad things.
Faith adds its grass weight stem by stem. (Touch Earth 20)

Lane’s concerns—belief, conflict, peace, place, ecologies, language—resist separation into neat categories. She writes, in the introduction to Temporary Shelter, “I have arranged the poems in this book as I might flowers in a vase, not in an order, but with an eye to balance, grace and variation” (xi). Formal, aesthetic considerations inform her writing from genesis to publication.

As in her poems, so in her reviews: she chooses books that explore deeply the relationships between aesthetics and politics, form and faith. Furthermore, her reviews are especially inviting, and they have led numerous readers to race out and buy the book. In the Summer 2010 issue of The Fiddlehead, for example, Lane says of a recent translation of Nichita Stănscu’s Occupational Sickness: “Stănscu writes of a world for which war is the normal condition. When a woman gives birth, she gives birth to a soldier. Every child is born a soldier” (183). In this statement, Lane goes directly to the heart of Stănscu’s book; the idea that “child” and “soldier” are synonymous is both unexpected and apt. The ability to create such metaphors differentiates great poetry from good; Lane’s capacity both to recognize such forgings in the work she reviews and to forge them in her own situates her as an important poet in any context, but particularly in the New Brunswick literary community where she has inspired and mentored many fellow poets.

Lane’s major prizes include the following: Mary Harding Baylor Prize (1952); Northern Light Editor's Prize (1975, 1980); The Pat Lowther Memorial Award (1980); Arc Poetry Prize (1982); Fiddlehead Poetry Prize (1991); Writers' Federation of New Brunswick Poetry Prize (1994); Amethyst Review Prize (1997); Atlantic Poetry Prize (2001); Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in English Literature (2003); Atlantic Book Prize (2002, for Keeping Afloat); and Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award (2006).

Kathy Mac (Kathleen McConnell), Summer 2010
St. Thomas University

For more information on M. Travis Lane, please visit her entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Selected Primary Sources

Compton, Anne, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie, and Robin McGrath, eds. Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2002.

Crocker, Elaine, ed. Choice Atlantic: Writers of Newfoundland and the Maritimes. St. Johns: Breakwater, 1990.

Elder, Jo-Anne, and Colin O’Connell, eds. Voices and Echoes. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1997.

Lane, M. Travis. “Afterword: Those Mysteries of Which We Cannot Plainly Speak.” The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane. Ed. Jeanette Lynes. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007. 77-80.

---. All-Nighter's Radio. Essential Poets 173. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2010.

---. The Book of Widows. Illus. George A. Walker. Contemporary Canadian Poets 6. Victoria: Frog Hollow, 2010.

---. “CantLit Authors: M. Travis Lane.” 21 Apr. 2010. Canadian Literature. 20 Aug. 2010

---. The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane. Ed. Jeanette Lynes. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007.

---. Divinations and Shorter Poems, 1973–1978. Fiddlehead Poetry Books 290. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1980.

---. “Elegy.” Words Out There. Ed. Jeanette Lynes. Shelburne: Roseway, 1999. 18-20.

---. Homecomings: Narrative Poems. Fiddlehead Poetry Books 200. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1977.

---. An Inch or So of Garden. Limited ed. New Brunswick Chapbooks 6. Fredericton: U of New Brunswick, 1969.

---. Keeping Afloat. Essential Poets 106. Toronto: Guernica, 2001.

---. Night Physics. London, ON: Brick, 1994.

---. Poems 19681972. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1973.

---. Reckonings: 197985. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1988.

---. Solid Things: Poems New and Selected. Toronto: Cormorant, 1989.

---. “Structuring Miscellany.” Temporary Shelter. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1993. ix-xi.

---. Temporary Shelter. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1993.

---. Touch Earth. Toronto: Guernica, 2006. Essential Poets Series 137.

---. Walking Under the Nebulae. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

Lane, M. Travis, Molly Lamb Bobak, and Nancy Bauer. Molly Lamb Bobak, M. Travis Lane. Fredericton, NB: Beaverbrook Art Gallery, 2007.

Lane, M. Travis, Margaret McLeod, and Joe Blades. River Readings. Fredericton: Wild East Publications, 1993.

Mitcham, Allison, Stephanie Mitcham Sexton, and Theresa Quigley, eds. Poetic Voices of the Maritimes. Hantsport: Lancelot, 1996.

1995/96 Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry. Beverly Hills: Monitor Book Co., 1996.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bartlett, Brian. “Back to the Basket of Small Things: Size in the Poems of M. Travis Lane.” The Antigonish Review 147 (Autumn 2006): 121-36.

Lynes, Jeanette. “Introduction.” The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane. Ed. Jeanette Lynes. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007. ix-xvi.

---. “M. Travis Lane and the Art of Layers.” Words Out There: Women Poets in Atlantic Canada. Ed. Jeanette Lynes. Lockeport, NS: Roseway 1999. 96-101.

New, W.H., ed. “M. Travis Lane.” The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Canadian Writers Since 1960. web.