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Mind & Life: Accounting for Dennis Lee

“a fascination with language betrays a fascination with humanity...”
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Mind & Life: Accounting for Dennis Lee

by Jacob McArthur Mooney

“…he is rooted in books & inthat other place, were icons come alive among the faultyheroes & copouts, groping for some new tension ofmind & life, casting the type in their ownwarm fresh…”Dennis Lee, “Sibelius Park”

Later this summer, on the last day of August, the poet Dennis Lee is going to become a seventy-year-old man. His country, on that day, will be 142. The many-headed city that he has come to represent will be 175. Many of his major creations will be approaching mid-life. The House of Anansi Press, the wild child of Canadian Literature he co-founded with Dave Godfrey, will be forty-two and is now something of the CanLit Crown Prince. His Governor General’s award for Civil Elegies will be a dusty thirty-seven. Paul Martin Sr., the former External Affairs Minister and Elegies’ primary enemy, will be dead seventeen years; his son, having risen to an even higher political office, has been defeated, and recently retired. Lee’s iconic children’s book, Alligator Pie, will be thirty-five, and many of its younger siblings having since grown up and left for college. Some have even spawned chanting new generations of rhythmic verse; most recently 2004’s So Cool.

Part of nearing seventy and being Canada’s most recognizable poet (who never wrote a novel) means that people might want to celebrate your genius. This is happening on Friday, July 10th, at the Toronto Archives as part of The Scream Literary Festival. The book-length reading and dinner is a recurring tradition for this decidedly youth-skewing festival and in recent years, has been a way for one generation of Canadian literati to reach out and touch their predecessors. Dennis Lee is the senior Canadian poet that all the junior poets agree is worth reading, no matter what their personal aesthetic bent. Looking over the Scream’s list of readers, it’s easy to spot the younger writers who mirror an Elegies-era or The Gods-era Lee in either their broad engagement, their syntactical magic show or both (check out the Scream performances of Jeramy Dodds and especially Ryan Kamstra for startling examples of this convergence). On a personal level, my literary awakening has been twice midwifed by the work of Dennis Lee. I learned to read with Alligator Pie and, some years later, learned to read poetry with Civil Elegies and Riffs. This is a common biography among Canadian poets born in a certain range of years.

Lee is an ideal guest for the Scream’s annual dinner. He’s as worthy of the recognition as those who were feted before him (including Christian Bok and Dionne Brand) but, even more than his predecessors, he exemplifies the ethic on which the Scream has built its representation. As an artist-run celebration focused on the fraternity of audience, it’s exactly the kind of festival one could imagine a younger Dennis Lee pouring his endless creativity into, if it took place in the Toronto of the late sixties instead of the early 21st century. The dinner promises to double as a homecoming for its honoured guest.

Lee’s legacy stands alone among Canadian poets in at least two areas: concreteness and breadth. More than any other poet of his generation, we can see evidence of Lee’s work scattered throughout our daily lives, no matter how distant from poetry we’ve chosen to be. The man has stepped out from poems to meet us in movies (Labyrinth!) and songs, and has entertained children across mediums and decades. The Dennis Lee oeuvre will always be with us because it has dispersed into crevices too rooted and numerous to ever be forgotten. Dennis Lee is not just a citizen of Toronto’s (or Ontario’s, or Canada’s) creative history. His most recent book of poems, 2007’s yesno, made the Governor General’s Awards shortlist. And in rooms across the world, late at night, TVs can be heard tuning into Fraggle Rock, bookended by the iconic theme for which Lee wrote the lyrics.

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“But what good is that in a nation oflosers and quislings?”Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies

To see septuagenarianism looming in Dennis Lee’s near future is as inarguable a sign of time’s passing as exists for Canadian culture. His breakthrough success (1972’s Civil Elegies, the entirety of which Lee plans to read at the Scream) is so evocative of a certain point in the history of burdened optimism that it forever fixes its creator to a specific time and place ? as the perpetual radical twentysomething buzzing around Yorkville in the years before Canada stopped concerning itself with questions of what it meant to be Canadian.

Even more important than its introduction of Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies is memorable for its reintroduction of anger into Canada’s literary arsenal. A real, blood-and-spit kind of anger. And not just personal anger, either, or domestic anger. Instead, a massive, coast-to-coast, national anger. Anger as unifying theme. Lee’s early-career masterwork hums with a volatile disappointment that imposes itself on its readers, and that drags them into hard and surprising new territories. The humanism in Elegies is the kind that’s willing to put its head down and charge, unflinching, through to the far reaches of its philosophy and arrive as a kind of reactionary anarchism; as an anger that presents itself as both pout and polemics, before settling into its heartbreaking final movement as one young man sits in a public square surrounded by his fellow citizens and tries to give voice to his loneliness and rage.

In Elegies, every acquiescence to the impossibility of urban reawakening is followed by a louder, more intense demand that such a reawakening begin immediately. It’s still the saddest book in the history of Canadian letters.

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“Whacked grammar of terracognita. Old lingoaphasic, nuworldspeak mutemutant mutandis—fumbumbling whataleph? whose googoo? Which syllab? Test-living whatschizoparse of am?”Dennis Lee, “googoo,” from yesno

Critics have made much of the apparent shift in poetic style seen in Lee’s two most recent collections. There’s a very specific musicality to both Un (2003) and its somewhat more accessible (but still staggering) companion, yesno (2007). A reader needs to let these books take them by the hand a little and, even in the context of an inherently experimental poet like Lee, this has caused a segment of his fanbase to slip. The trick to getting both of these books is to realize that this departure is much slighter than it would seem from a rudimentary reading. The key difference between Civil Elegies and Un is one of efficiency. The sprawling, 500-word rants in Elegies contain no more crises of thought than the best pieces in Un’s fifty or so postcard-sized dispatches. While Lee’s great early book made a show of its verboseness, its visionary speechifying, these new volumes are based around the decidedly beautiful idea that as a poet grows older, he should be able to say progressively more with progressively less.

I would disagree, also, that there has been a shift in Lee’s area of interest, from the (well, civil) arenas of Civil Elegies to the contemporary environmental concerns brought up in Un and yesno. What separates these new books from the eco-poetry being written on any of the country’s three coasts is their syntactical fireworks and their proudly voiced anthropocentrism. Where Jan Zwicky’s poems are meditative and stark, Lee elects to be manic. While Robert Bringhurst digs up ancient proverbs and incantations, Lee sticks more to the modern and the common. This is because Lee is a social poet even before he is an introspective one; he has never stopped his ritualised watching of the human game. And because he has never let go of his roots, these new books read as something thoroughly unique, as a kind of social eco-poetry. Their fascination with language betrays a fascination with humanity, just as strong as that on display in Civil Elegies. And we forget, or perhaps only I’ve forgotten, that Elegies both begins and ends with an environmental appeal, from the air pollution that opens the first elegy to this layered apostrophe at the end of the last one: “for to/be here is enough and earth you/strangest, you nearest, be home.” This idea of Earth is presented at its most flexible, meaning everything from the patch of ground on which Lee erects his soapbox, through to his neighbourhood, his nation and his planet. Seen from the viewpoint of an entire career, Lee’s approach to the civil concerns of “home” and their ecological equivalents (call them “habitation”) are essentially one and the same.

As much as Lee and his publisher, House of Anansi, see his two newest books as specific to a set poetic project, they are most interestingly confronted within the larger project that began in the love poems of Yorkville. Dennis Lee isn’t a poet that adopts a new voice with each book, it would be more accurate to say that he is a poet of constantly assimilating ideas. Un and especially yesno are collages and inside them we find the formal concerns of his earliest work: the Beat-ish mutterings of Elegies, the jazzy free verse of Riffs and even the coy songsmithing of Alligator Pie. Those who name Dennis Lee a chameleon for his ability to disappear into separate poetic personalities (the entertaining uncle, the playful na’er-do-well, the serious lyrical philosopher) must be reading from a different perspective. What’s incredible about books as disparate as The Gods and Riffs is that for all their distances, the reader is constantly aware of the man behind the mask. The storyteller’s voice never abandons the story and the Dennis Lee-ness of these books is their unifying characteristic. And isn’t this a greater success? What do you call an artist with such a self-evident voice that no adaptation or departure can disguise him? The word “genius” seems to oddly miss the point.

I hope that this is what comes out of his reading at The Scream on July 10th. I’ll be there, volunteering with the serving of dinner. I can’t for the life of me imagine a valid reason you could have for not coming.


If Hope Disorders Words: Dennis Lee Reprised
Friday, July 10, 2009, at 7 p.m.
The Toronto Archives
255 Spadina Road

Cost: $40 for dinner plus reading; $15 for reading only

Featured Performer: Dennis Lee

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Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the collection The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008). He is blogging on all things Scream Literary Festival at http://www.thescream.ca/blogs. He lives in Parkdale.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
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