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Exploring the interconnections between Canadian writers
Dennis Lee & George Grant
By J. S. Porter, Hamilton, Ontario – www.spiritbookword.net
Philosophers and poets don’t generally have a lot to say to each other. There are, of course, notable exceptions. Heidegger read poetry deeply all his life, Hölderlin was Hegel’s childhood friend, and Dennis Lee was a close friend, editor and publisher of George Grant.
Lee wrote a masterly essay on his mentor called “Grant’s Impasse: Beholdenness and the Silence of Reason” in his prose work Body Music (1998). Lee credits Grant as the first thinker to articulate a hard truth that you can’t talk about the modern predicament without trapping yourself in the language created by modernity. Lee’s succinct way of putting it in Savage Fields is, “What form of thought can arise which does not re-embody the crisis it is analyzing?”
Grant wrote the concluding essay, “Dennis Lee –
Poetry and Philosophy”(1982), for a Lee tribute by the Toronto magazine Descant,
called Tasks of Passion: Dennis Lee
at Mid-Career – and reprinted in
The George Grant Reader. In the essay Grant speaks openly
of his respect and deep affection for Dennis Lee. He also reveals a detail that
I haven’t found him so explicit about in other writings, or even in personal
letters. “Whether for good or ill, a tiresome old
manic-depressive such as myself would never have put the writings he cared about into a book if it were not for Lee’s sane encouragement.”
The thinker and the poet met at Rochdale College in Toronto, where Lee taught for a time and Grant used to visit to see his daughter Rachel. Each found the other a kindred spirit in opposition to the Vietnam War. Prior to meeting Grant in the flesh, Lee had met him on the page, in “Canadian Fate and Imperialism” – first published in the Winnipeg socialist magazine Canadian Dimension.
The reading was a turning point for Lee. He found his poetic voice. Grant biographer William Christian quotes Lee as saying, “To find one’s tongue-tied sense of civil loss and bafflement given words at last, to hear one’s own most inarticulate hunches out loud… was to stand erect at last in one’s own space.” Grant returned the compliment by saying that Lee had great clarity about the horror of the Vietnam War and the complicity of the Canadian government. He also understood that the “technological multiversity was not outside that complicity but central to it.”
Grant gratefully acknowledged Lee’s influence throughout his writing life. He dedicated Technology and Empire (1969) to Lee, and his wife Sheila – a volume Lee edited and published at the House of Anansi. Grant also included Lee in the dedication to English-speaking Justice (1976). Lee, on the other hand, uses a Grant quotation as an epigraph to his “Civil Elegies” in Civil Elegies and Other Poems (1968): “Man is by nature a political animal, and to know that citizenship is an impossibility is to be cut off from one of the highest forms of life.” The quotation is from Grant’s essay “Canadian Fate and Imperialism.”
Grant has continued to be poetic nourishment for Lee in his songs of innocence and experience, of summer and winter, and songs in-between. Lee has learned, particularly in the volume SoCool (2004), to dance and reflect, to think and sing in “thoughtsong.” The words he incarnates or is claimed by include Awe, Beholdenness, Thankfulness, Mystery and Tremendum. The words are also at the heart of what Grant reached for, but may not have fully enfleshed.
In Lee’s poem “Deeper,” if you lean your ear into it, you may hear Grant’s voice as well as Lee’s:
Often at night, sometimes out in the snow
or going into the music, the voice says,
I don't know what it means.
Just, "Push it. Go further. Go deeper."
And when they come talking at me I get
antsy at times, but always the voice keeps saying:
"That is not it. Go deeper."
There is danger in this, also
breakaway hunches and I believe it can issue in
flickers of homing; but I
cannot control it, all I know is the one thing –
"Deeper. You must go further. You must go deeper.”
Dennis Lee, like his deceased friend George Grant, knows that in “the slaughterhouse world” you must always be open to “the luminous presence.”*
*(Lee’s phrases in “The Death of Harold Ladoo” from Nightwatch: New & Selected Poems 1968-1996.)
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"The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their "vital interests" are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the 'sanctity' of human life, or the 'conscience' of the civilized world." - James Baldwin, Source: page 489 of COLLECTED ESSAYS (1998), from chapter one of "The Devil Finds Work" (orig. pub. 1976)
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