Dennis Lee's collected prose is even thinner on the ground and, until the publication of Body Music
, even more fugitive than his few books of poems. Anansi, which in 1977 published his only previous book-length critical work (the three-part essay, Savage Fields
), has had Lee rake together eleven articles and interviews. At their oldest they go back a generation. The most recent appeared in a literary periodical last summer. "All the essays have been revised since their last publication," warns Lee, a great producer of subsequent versions.
Many of these soundings bounce off the rough contours of a few very big ideas. Lee anatomizes his compositional method; he goes about his art's development; a personal and quasi-political, ever-so-modern poetics is summoned up, given flesh, and contrasted to earlier analogous theories. Other writers are assessed, favourably, and in some instances their works and ways are echo-located, the bumps and concavities observed to be similar to those Lee finds in his own poems. Body Music includes congenial appreciations of Al Purdy, George Grant, Bronwen Wallace; Gaston Miron and Judith Merill are also mentioned lovingly, but mainly as friends.
In prose, Lee stated his anxiety about Canada as an American colony most fiercely in 1972 with "Cadence, Country, Silence". This essay, which opens one in Body Music, incorporates Lee's early notions about the way back from a blind alley faced by a colonial writer. Beneath the "words our absentee masters...have given us, there is an undermining silence. And beneath silence, there is a raw welter of cadence...That cadence is home."
This is Lee's most important thesis and, over the years, he nails it to the door again and again-in variations on the theme. "Cadence, Country, Silence" and other essays sketch the poet's act of attending, of receptivity to that raw welter, in necessarily personal terms circa late twentieth century. I understand Lee's description as newfangled and inelegantly imaged talk about his muse. He won't call cadence by that old-fashioned name, perhaps from embarrassment at seeming anachronistic. "I take my vocation to consist of listening into cadence with enough life concentration that it can become words through me if it chooses". Because the pre-verbal "luminous tumble" Lee meditates upon is, of course, heard from where he is/Canada, and then because "voice [the poetic articulation of cadence] does issue in part from civil space", he concludes that, since he is citizen of a colony, the imperium impedes the authenticity of his words: "...the act of writing calls itself into question". For a while, Lee says, he dried up. His references are primarily to his own early poems, which he all but disavows: "After ten years of continentalizing my ass, what had I accomplished?"
George Grant to the rescue. Though his sorrowing analysis of the Canadian political and cultural capitulation did not point to an escape route, it at least helped Lee correct his political stance, to amend his poetics. What is most important here is not the obvious problem of America's domination of the continent, but rather the way in which and the extent to which this domination affects Lee's work as poet. "If you are Canadian," Lee claims, "...the words of home are silent."
Next in Lee's anatomy of silence comes a lovely little epiphany, a revelation central to the creative act. "It is the moment in which something becomes overwhelmingly real in two lights at once...We realize that this thing, this phrase, this event need not be. And at that moment it reveals its vivacious being as though it had just begun to exist." Lee has stated clearly here a universal principle of contingency that at once greatly modifies our sense of freedom, both delimiting and highlighting. Several other modern thinkers serve up more or less the same crucial proposition-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, George Steiner, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking-or pose it interrogatively. Steiner, in his essay on Heidegger, refers to Leibniz's formulation: "Pourquoi il y a plutôt quelque chose que rien?"
Lee has made his nut writing children's verse, "as an adult child". The same means of access to the right words in the right order has been employed in these compositions. Lee claims in the essay "Roots and Play": "...the point is not to experience only nice things. It's to experience all things directly again." Again, "[t]here was no need to give a poem roots; if you just sat still for a spell [nice pun there], letting things find their way into you they would be happy to come as themselves... If a poem could utter its locale by its inflections as much as its content, the search did not depend primarily on capturing the externals of time and place. It depended on writing in a way that rang true."
Among Lee's contemporaries, Al Purdy serves as a splendid example of what can be grown on native ground. "The Poetry of Al Purdy", Lee's most competent critical thrust, finds essential to the elder poet's technique a reliance on polyphony. Accounting for the abrupt changes in voice or subject that characterize the charting of the universes in Purdy's poems, Lee states that "a second or alternate universe is latent in the familiar one, and can assert itself at any time. What's intriguing is to chart the behaviour of this parallel reality-the cosmos of process." (Cadence calling.)
Purdy, who for Lee qualifies as a "lesser titan" among contemporary poets, is significant not only because he taps into the "tremendum", but because he does it in this land, even if with ambivalence about the fact of our belonging to it. Lee cites "The Runners": "I think the land knows we are strangers". There is, Lee goes on, along with the ironic defensiveness of Purdy's stance, an identifying courtesy at work here, no question of domination arising.
Part Three of Body Music reverts to the subject Lee's readers can't get enough of-cadence and poetics. Lee enlarges the definition in two recent interviews and a set of numbered notes framed in part as an interview with himself. This question-and-answer format echoes the early "Polyphony" (1978) and shows just how tentative Lee has to be about his most important concern. "The Luminous Tumult" draws our attention back to the several big bangs that cooled into the first version of Riffs (1982).
More interesting to the lay reader are "Poetry and Unknowing" and the fifty-eight insights, "Body Music" (subtitled "Notes on Rhythm in Poetry"). Most helpfully in the latter composition, Lee offers a summary modern poetics. Going beyond (say) Pound's notions puts Lee on such a new frontier he has to coin words to catch up-from kinesthesia, kintuition. He's definitely onto something important, neologisms notwithstanding. I assent to his defence of what he likes to call polyrhythm, "one alternative to the impasse of modern reason-to the inability of technical thought to know the world, except by shrinking it to its own value-free categories".
W.H. Auden said that he was only a poet when he was writing poems. But you have to be something when the tumult withdraws; you have to keep the shop swept, the tools clean, the works oiled. Lee doesn't subscribe to organized religion, but he does admit in "Poetry and Unknowing" to a "kindergarten" meditative practice and considers himself, with as much genuine public humility as he can muster about something so private, to be a traveller on the via negativa. He sits, aspiring to pass beyond preconceptions-or conceptions, for that matter.
Lee reckons his practice, poetry aside, aims to show him a way out of the modern sociolinguistic box that reduces the old absolutes, good and evil, at best to relative truths. He draws the poetry and meditation together at last, or suggests that "they're intimates". Beyond that, he cannot go. It's a good place to stop, giving reason a prophetic rest so the mind can, as his lovely image has it, "love through its own eclipse. And eventually, I believe, it needs to find another form of reason".
Ted Whittaker is a frequent contributor to this magazine.