Early Days of a Better Nation - Harry McGrath
On the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall, the most paraphrased non-Scottish writer since devolution meets one of the most misspelled Scottish writers of any era. ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ was included in the 24 original inscriptions chosen for the building because they were ‘of relevance to Scotland and its Parliament’. It was attributed at the time to ‘Alisdair’ Gray.
In fact, Alasdair Gray paraphrased the line from a poem called Civil Elegies by Canadian poet Dennis Lee and has made no secret of that. In September 2012 Gray’s soon-to-be unveiled mural on the wall of the revamped Hillhead subway station in Glasgow was covered by a large black poster that read ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better world’. Gray explained why he had changed ‘nation’ to ‘world’ and said of the ‘nation’ version that: ‘I have always attributed it to him [Lee] but people started quoting it as if I had invented it’.
The Scottish Parliament was slow to make the correct attribution, but eventually ‘paraphrased from Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies Toronto Anansi 1972’ appeared on its website. Now the term ‘better nation’ flies off the tongues of politicians of every stripe. It is the working title for blogs and referenced in innumerable Scottish twitter profiles. But what of the man behind the ‘better nation’ phenomenon?
Dennis Beynon Lee was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1939. In 1980 he lived in Edin-burgh as a Canada-Scotland exchange poet where he met Alasdair Gray. Lee is relaxed about his latest, unanticipated, Scottish connection: ‘I’m tickled to have those lines written in stone in Scotland. And I’m even more tickled by how off-centre, in fact downright loopy, the whole shebang is. If someone said they could magically edit the inscription, make it punctiliously correct, I would cast a ‘Nay’ vote. I like it just the way it is.’
For the sake of punctilious correctness, the original reads, ‘And best of all is finding a place to be/in the early days of a better civilization’. Lee is as sanguine about Gray’s version as he is about the Canongate Wall inscription: ‘How it got slightly scrambled when Alasdair used it… well, probably due to the fact that it was Alasdair who was using it.’
Civil Elegies which provided the original quote was Lee’s second book of poetry and also his third. His first, Kingdom of Absence, was published in 1967 and provided him with a life-long source of reference when explaining to aspiring poets how not to write poetry. In a recent essay called ‘Re-greening the Undermusic’ Lee extracted one of his sonnet variations from the first collection (‘one of those little winners’) and presented it as an example of a poet ‘going nowhere, spinning his wheels’. In 1968 he published a version of Civil Elegies but was unhappy with its ‘big stentorian, public address voice’ and spent the next four years rewriting it. Civil Elegies was republished in 1972 by Anansi, a press that Lee co-founded.
The second version put Dennis Lee on the map. The change in voice between the Civil Elegies of 1968 and that of 1972 provided a foundation stone for his entire career. This transformative period is explained in ‘Re-greening’: ‘I was connecting with the teeming rhythmic energy I’d been tantalized by for so long. If I sat and listened, I could sense a swoop and pummel and glide, a simultaneous whoosh and throb – many vibrations at once. I felt them humming in my body, even though there was no physical source. What was it? I had no idea. Where did it come from? I couldn’t say. But the kin-aesthetic pulsation was unmistakable, and it could govern the way a poem moved. It furnished a kind of undermusic, which the poem sought to track and re-embody. I had no theory to explain this rhythmic cascade. I did give it a name, though; for lack of a better term, I called it cadence. And I conjectured that I’d become open to cadence when I relinquished the colonial ways of framing experience that I’d inherited, and listened to my own here-and-now. But as for what this cadence consisted of, or where it came from, I had no idea.’
This ‘cadence’ eventually provided a ‘calmer meditative progress’ in the second Civil Elegies which explored, in nine long, inter-connected poems, the notion of ‘colonised space’. This conjures up Alasdair Gray for a second time in the form of his recent essay, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, which appeared in Unstated: Writers on Independence (Word Power Books), and the rather unedifying public ‘debate’ that followed it. However, Lee was a lot more comprehensive, uncompromising and (meditative voice notwithstanding) angry.
The narrator of Civil Elegies – commonly assumed in critical discourse to be Lee himself – is positioned in Nathan Phil-lips Square, Toronto’s agora. The city is booming and in flux but he is not impressed. Choked by a ‘noxious cloud’ of pollutants, he contemplates the condition of Toronto and, by extension, Canada. He seems sick in mind, heart and body; his personal sickness echoing in his country’s condition. The narrative wanders and returns but one theme endures: Canada is colonised by the United States, particularly in its cultural and mental spaces.
The lines that follow the ‘better civilization’ injunction are blunt: ‘For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered/ everything that counts, till we have/nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose’. The lines that Canadian critics invariably cite are even more brutal: ‘But what good is that in a nation of / losers and quislings’.
Lee gave the lie to the benign Canadian, later to become almost a national brand. The sustained raw anger of it all is born in colonised space but it is also stoked by Canadian politicians who supplied Agent Orange for deployment in Vietnam and a compliant Canadian population that allowed that to happen. He displayed, in the words of one critic, ‘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’. In this respect as in others – essays that called for ‘freedom from inhibiting educational institutions’, interviews on the influence of music on his poetry – Lee appears to have more in common with Tom Leonard than Alasdair Gray.
Nevertheless the nation of losers and quislings gave Civil Elegies the Governor General’s Award in 1972, to which Lee responded by switching almost immediately to children’s poetry. He wanted to write for his own children but also needed to make a living and, remarkably for a man who had just received the highest literary award in the land, was ‘very nervous because there were poets my own age who were doing much better work than I was at that point – Atwood and Ondaatje, Gwen MacEwen – so I was fighting for space as an adult poet myself.’
However, the shift from adult concerns may not have been as absolute as it first appeared. Lee was bent on ‘reclaiming language and liberating imagination’ in the young and cites the influence of lines from a New Zealand poem that he stumbled across:
In Plimmerton, In Plimmerton,
The little penguins play,
And one dead albatross
Was found at Karehana Bay
The poet – Dennis Glover – was unknown to Lee but he was taken by ways the poem seemed to dance with the penguins and its confident use of local place names which, if replicated in Canada, might form part of a more general reclamation project.
Lee’s career as a children’s poet was remarkably successful. He worked with Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, and influenced the childhood of generations of Canadians. He often spoke of his embarrassment at not being able to find a less clichéd way of describing his children’s poems than that they came from his ‘inner child’. His inner child, however, had a dark side:
Bugs and beetles, don’t be late
Set your feelers nice and straight:
Puke the slimy crud you chewed,
And smear it through the humans’ food.
But he did not abandon writing poems for adults. When he was in Edinburgh in 1980, ‘this really multiple-voiced deluge of riffs came through’ often ‘after too much booze’. The love-affair inspired, jazz influenced, quick-fire pieces introduced what one critic called ‘near-sense’ poetry to his repertoire. They are also a nice demonstration of range from the poet who painted the great canvas of Civil Elegies and reclaimed language for the children:
Wal, acey deucey
trey divide – I`m a guy
with a fine wide-eyed
lady freckles too &
squirms when she feels good I feel so
tricks an she`s
As indicated by the two versions of Civil Elegies, Lee is a constant reviser. His latest collection Testament: Poems 2000-2011 contains reworked poems from Un (2004) and Yesno (2007). Both were praised for their musicality just as Riffs (1993) received critical acclaim for its improvisational qualities when it emerged, belatedly, from his Edinburgh days. The aforementioned ‘Re-greening the Undermusic’ revisits many of Lee’s themes: writing in colonised space, cadence, and variations on the environmental concerns raised in Civil Elegies. The essay was first presented as a lecture at Vancouver Island University in October 2012 and trailed as Lee ‘revisiting his 50 year career’. One thing missing from it is any indication of the anger that fired him in 1972, but asked in a different context for his thoughts on Canada’s right-wing Prime Minister, Lee said: ‘apart from his having decided to bite the bullet on allowing gay marriage, I can’t think of anything in his tenure that doesn’t make me gag’. At 73 years of age, the ‘blood-and-spit’ is still there.