New & Selected Poems

204 pages,
ISBN: 0771052154

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Space is Old Hat
by Bruce Meyer

The reissue of Dennis Lee's poetic opus in Nightwatch is something of a landmark, or rather a benchmark, in Canadian literature. On the one hand, there is the expansiveness of a voice that has been called "prophetic", of a poet whose works have had an impact not only on a generation of poets but also on one of critics-a vision that has set a thematic precedent in our literature, articulating the tension between the individual and the environment. On the other hand, there is the sense of record, a chronicle of a career and its various leitmotifs and themes.
Lee is grandiloquent. His profound sense of rhetoric gives his poetry a wonderful flavour; his aphorisms, often cryptic, are stabbing attempts at philosophical wit and axiom; yet beneath all the baroquely Roman embellishments, one is still left to sort out the ideas from the experiences-a puzzling and labyrinthine linguistic structure that equivocates and hesitates and hovers over conceptual problems without penetrating them emotionally; a poet of the mind who treats experience as a complex algebra.
It is interesting to re-read Lee's long poem, "Civil Elegies", the centre-piece of the volume that won him the 1972 Governor General's Award for poetry, and a work that now stands as a cultural artifact of a time past and of societal aspirations that were not fulfilled. In his high rhetoric, Lee seems to be mourning a society that never really articulated its consciousness in literature or art, before it was summarily dismissed by works such as "Civil Elegies" and over-paved by the changes in consciousness and social awareness that have made Lee's vision obsolete in the interim. His musings against napalm and the Vietnam war seem as remote and time-locked as the character of A-Okay Smith in Laurence's The Diviners. But what is more passé is the obsessive preoccupation with the spatial theories of George Grant and Northrop Frye, which haunt and constrain Lee's broader considerations.
In "Civil Elegies", he speculates on the relationship between "space" (landscape, geography, and the ways in which civilization fills space) and the isolated modern individual. The poem's persona sits in Nathan Philips Square, musing on existentially alienated man, Vietnam, the nascent Trudeau government, and the ramifications of what Northrop Frye called "the new concept of wilderness" (in the 1974 film A Journey Without Arrival). It all seems naive now, so boyishly innocent and awkward. What is more, the persona judges people by appearances-the crowds on Bay Street, the inhabitants of the non-descript high-rise apartments-and condemns modern Canadian society while lamenting a profound loss of meaning and a dislocation within the contemporary context. Alienation was a big thing in the sixties, if anyone cares to remember.
The lamentations in "Civil Elegies" are actually condemnations of FOOF culture (the new catchword for Anglo-Canadian culture, the letters standing for Fine Old Ontario Family). The problem-though no-one dared to say it at the time-is that Lee never takes the trouble to understand or articulate what that culture entailed or meant to those he condemns. Instead he openly trashes it. But wait, since 1972 there have been some pretty stunning achievements that have articulated that vision and that culture: Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Barry Callaghan, Timothy Findley. Yet "Civil Elegies" had a major impact on the dismissal of Anglo-Canadian culture by a large body of critics. And somehow, those condemnations are clichés today: the finger pointed accusingly at the establishment bankers and politicians; the heartfelt though uneasy indictments of Upper Canadian Protestantism and its associated puritanism; and the definition of what is Canadian by virtue of a process of negation, of saying that a Canadian is defined by the fact that he or she is not American. Whatever claims the poem has towards articulating and refining a "national vision" are undercut by the poet's sourness towards anything that slightly smacks of Canuckism. "Civil Elegies" today seems like a compendium of all that is old-hat about the way Canadians read themselves: self-denial, angst, more angst, angst against God, fear of history, dismissal without investigation of history...conspicuous self-denigration.
Lee's vision in "Civil Elegies" is the product of Frye's misreading of Canadian literature. As recent critics such as B. W. Powe and Paul Stuewe have pointed out, Frye's iconographic and mythopoeic structuralist imperatives created a fondness for tossing out anything that didn't really fit his theories; and his theories about Canadian literature were limited if not just plain wrong. He said that the "central question of Canadian literature is where is here." His sense of what made a work Canadian was based on his reading or misreading of Canadian history that, for instance, justified Susanna Moodie but completely missed the point of Anna Jameson (who is now more contemporary than she was in 1836, with her concerns for social justice, multiculturalism, feminism, and participatory democracy). Frye's theories locate Canadian writing as an external perception, a matter of shock at geography: explorer lit, landscape diaries, and animal stories. In some ways, Frye's reading is justified by the early poems of Atwood (who has since moved far beyond this limited scope) and some early cartographic writings like David Thompson's, but completely fails to embrace works like O'Hagan's Tay John, Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (both of these have, thankfully, been resurrected and reinterpreted since 1972), and Ondaatje's The English Patient. The "space preoccupation" has been a cul-de-sac, a severe limitation imposed upon the writing that writers responded to. It codified the various malaises, especially landscape obsession, definition by negativity, and the voice of ennui and lamentation. (When there is no tragedy, what is there to lament the loss of?) Certainly works such as Laurence's The Diviners or, more recently, Kogawa's splendid Obasan and the stories of Alice Munro pose the much more universal and mature question of who am I?
The perspective or vision of Canadian literature has shifted from an external one (manifested in "Civil Elegies"), where the landscape is an objective experience, to an internal one, where the landscape has been subsumed into the individual, where the world, in a Berkeleyan sense, is now contained in the subjective experience of "in here" rather than "out there". In fact, this transition of visions (if that's the best way to say that writers were getting bored stiff with having to write about wilderness) can be seen showing itself in Lee's 1985 anthology The New Canadian Poets, in such voices as A. F. Moritz.
Frye and Grant (whom Lee cites in the epigraph to "Civil Elegies") were working from the justifications and interpretations of a Eurocentric, occidental view of history. Their misconceptions became so persuasive and pervasive that they forgot that any discussion of a landscape is secondary to what the individual is doing in the landscape. For this reason, Lee's fine biographical/place poem, "Sibelius Park", pushes against the thrust of "Civil Elegies": the landscape, the place, becomes a psychological experience, an inner landscape, a world of one's own making. It is one of the rare poems where Lee does not lament; his complaints are celebratory, allusively biographical, and self-imaginary. This is a good poem.
Throughout Lee's poetry, there is the overwhelming sense of the elegiac. He laments the loss of friends (as in "The Death of Harold Ladoo"), the absence of definition (as in "Civil Elegies"), and the death of deep-seated spirituality in modern man (as in "The Gods"). But though his elegies touch such an impressive and wide range of material, they are problematic. They use the urban in place of the pastoral-a kind of gothicism à la Jay Macpherson but without her playfulness and wit. And missing from his elegiac poetry, particularly in "Civil Elegies", are a sense of celebration and a clarity about what it is he is lamenting. His views of what a Canadian is, and of how a Canadian should be considered, are based largely on "definition by negativity": a Canadian is not an American, not an outpost clerk of the British empire, etc. This is not fair provision for the need to be funked out by reality.
The process of "definition by negativity" is in many ways archaic. In fact, it is the malaise of Canadian literature, a celebration of emptiness rather than presence, an utterance of self-denial and boredom rather than substance and content. Let's face facts: we don't live in a Lawren Harris painting. The world, however miserable it may appear on the most miserable of Canadian days, just doesn't measure up to the anxiety that is expended over its greyness. Yet "Civil Elegies" was intended to be and was taken to be a statement on what it is to be Canadian-and we just aren't that miserable.
Lee's return to these themes in his most recent poems in Nightwatch, themes he already gave ample play to in Civil Elegies and Other Poems (his 1972 collection), suggests that he is still preoccupied with the Grant-Frye axis of Canadian self-perception: the issues of space, environment, the role of civilization in the contemporary world, and the presence in the landscape of a persona that never seems to rise above the station of observer. Surely his own conclusions in Savage Fields, his 1977 mythopoeic structuralist reading of Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, should have reminded him that a conscious attempt to create a system is, perhaps, nicely Blakean but altogether limiting, that systems make strange bedfellows for artists and critics, and that what a system includes or explains rarely justifies the exclusion of what it fails to accommodate. Lee's pursuit of a philosophical system of understanding becomes even more problematic when the system's content is largely fatalistic. The literature of fatalism leads nowhere; at the core of any justifiable system of artistic merit there must be life and participation, not just observation and ennui.
The glory of Canadian literature lies in its subjectivity, not its objectivity, and Lee's poems are highly objective, highly eloquent, and tidily rhetorical. He speaks in aphorisms rather than images. He offers theorems when emotions are due. When one considers the poets who are his contemporaries, poets such as Newlove, Lane, and Ondaatje, one finds passion, not simply the explanation of what passion looks like from a distance.
"Riffs", which was issued as a separate volume in 1993 by Brick Books, is a series of "jazz meditations" on the theme of love. Lee obviously knows that the word "jazz" was derived from the Creole jasser, which means "to gossip". These highly personal lyrics-which are also very linguistically playful-are a fascinating compendium of snippets of ideas, conversations, insinuations, and observations. As in much of his poetry, the philosophical and rhetorical sense is still there, but in a much less overt way-perhaps because these are not meant to be public utterances. It is in "Riffs" that the voice of Lee's poetry becomes less concerned with thinking its way through problems, even less concerned with thinking for that matter, and more concerned with sensuality, emotion, and a desire to show the reader what he is trying to say rather than simply tell the reader what should be known. As in the final poems in the collection (when they are not burdened by the weight of philosophy or reason), there is a bluesy quality to "Riffs", the sense of an old pro "blowing" his soul to the four winds and working through the complexities of artistic and experiential challenges.

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