Nowlan has published many collections of poems (including Under the Ice, 1961 and The Mysterious Naked Man, 1969), as well as plays, short stories and novels. Though largely self-educated, some of his most notable achievements include the Governor General's Award for Bread, Wine and Salt (1967) as well as several Guggenheim scholarships.
About his work, Nowlan says: “I write about what it is like to be Alden Nowlan because that is the only thing I know anything about.” His poems tend to be anecdotal and deeply rooted in the semi-rural life from which he emerged. They often evoke the cruelties of the life in direct, harsh tones. Nowlan’s poetry is frequently marked by indignation and compassion. The poet, for him, reaches out “in fear and gentleness”: he speaks the truth when he sees it, but he offers no panacea and no promise.
In the Nowlan’s poem 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,' he humorously suggests that loving his wife isn’t the same as writing a poem about loving her. A good poem (if the poet can finish it) is a fixed and changeless thing; but evidently a living, changing poet with various emotions must spend some time writing it.