Lee, Dennis (Beynon)

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LEE, Dennis (Beynon)


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 31 August 1939. Education: University of Toronto, B.A. 1962, M.A. in English 1964. Family: Married 1) Donna Youngblut in 1961 (divorced 1972), two daughters and one son; 2) Susan Ruth Perly in 1985. Career: Full-time writer. Taught at Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1964–67, and Rochdale College, Toronto, 1967–69; artist-in-residence, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 1975. Editor, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 1967–72; consulting editor, Macmillan of Canada publishers, Toronto, 1973–78; poetry consultant, McClelland and Stewart publishers, Toronto, 1981–84. Songwriter, Fraggle Rock television program, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1982–86. Awards: Governor-General's award, 1973; Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Medal, 1975, 1978; Ruth Schwartz award, 1978; Philips Information Systems prize, 1985; Vicky Metcalf award, 1986; Mr. Christie's Book award, 1991. Officer, Order of Canada, 1994. Address: c/o Sterling Lord Associates, 10 St. Mary Street, Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1P9, Canada.

Publications

Poetry

Kingdom of Absence. Toronto, Anansi, 1967.

Civil Elegies. Toronto, Anansi, 1968.

Civil Elegies and Other Poems. Toronto, Anansi, 1972.

Not Abstract Harmonies But. Vancouver and San Francisco, Kanchenjunga, 1974.

The Death of Harold Ladoo. Vancouver and San Francisco, Kanchenjunga, 1976.

Miscellany. Privately printed, 1977.

The Gods. Vancouver and San Francisco, Kanchenjunga, 1978.

The Gods (collection). Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

Riffs. London, Ontario, Brick, 1993.

Night watch: New & Selected Poems, 1968–1996. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1996.

Poetry (for children)

Wiggle to the Laundromat, illustrated by Charles Pachter. Toronto, New Press, 1970.

Alligator Pie, illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Toronto, Macmillan, 1974; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Nicholas Knock and Other People, illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Toronto, Macmillan, 1974; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Garbage Delight, illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Toronto, Macmillan, 1977; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Jelly Belly, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. Toronto, Macmillan, and London, Blackie, 1983.

Lizzy's Lion, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay. Toronto, Stoddart, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.

The Dennis Lee Big Book, illustrated by Barb Klunder. Toronto, Gage, 1985.

The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets: An Adult Entertainment. Toronto. Macmillan, 1987.

The Ice Cream Store. Toronto, Harper Collins, 1991; New York, Scholastic, 1992.

Ping and Pong. Toronto, Harper Collins, 1993.

Dinosaur Dinner with a Slice of Alligator Pie: Favorite Poems. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Recordings: Alligator Pie and Other Poems, music by Don Heckman, Caedmon, 1978; Fraggle Rock, music by Philip Balsam, Muppet Music, 1984.

Other

Savage Fields: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology. Toronto, Anansi, 1977.

The Ordinary Bath (for children). Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

Body Music. Toronto, Anansi, 1998.

Editor, with R.A. Charles worth, An Anthology of Verse. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Editor, with R.A. Charlesworth, The Second Century Anthologies of Verse 2. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Editor, with Howard Adelman, The University Game. Toronto, Anansi, 1968.

Editor, T.O. Now: The Young Toronto Poets. Toronto, Anansi, 1968.

Editor, The New Canadian Poets 1970–85. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Editor, with Roberta Charlesworth, A New Anthology of Verse. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1989.

*

Manuscript Collection: Fisher Rare Book Room, University of Toronto.

Critical Studies: Task of Passion: Dennis Lee at Mid-Career edited by Donna Bennett, Russell Brown, and Karen Mulhallen, Toronto, Descant, 1982; Dennis Lee and His Works by T.G. Middlebro, Toronto, ECW Press, 1985; in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors, VIII, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Toronto, ECW, 1994; Dennis Lee and George Grant: Technology and Reverence (dissertation) by Margaret Joan Roffey, University of Western Ontario, 1996.

*  *  *

There is considerable commentary on the work of Dennis Lee, who has made notable contributions to children's verse, adult poetry, and literary criticism. Recognition of his importance and his influence on a generation of Canadian writers is found in Task of Passion: Dennis Lee at Mid-Career, a special issue of Descant magazine issued in book form in 1982 at a public celebration at Toronto's Harbourfront.

The editors of the volume, Karen Mulhallen, Donna Bennett, and Russell Brown, observed how modest was Lee's output. His works at the time included three collections of adult poetry, Kingdom of Absence, Civil Elegies and Other Poems, and The Gods; a book of literary criticism, Savage Fields, as well as influential uncollected essays; and the collections of children's verse Alligator Pie, Nicholas Knock and Other People, Garbage Delight, Jelly Belly, and The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets. As the editors pointed out, Lee is concerned with "central traditional themes. Our interest in his work comes from his having found an approach, a diction whereby he can detrivialize, to repeat a word used by George Grant … and treat adequately the major, the critical ongoing issues of our era."

Lee played a transitional role in the evolution of literary thinking in Canada, linking the humanistic concerns of the 1950s with the nationalistic and cultural aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s. His range of awareness is wide enough to encompass the academy, the marketplace, and the antiestablishment. He has taught at several universities, he was the first editor of the influential House of Anansi Press, and he helped found Rochdale College, the controversial free university that flourished in Toronto in the 1960s.

Whatever Lee writes has a feeling of rightness to it. One senses the person in the voice, "the texture of our being here," "the grunt of prose," the "grainy sense of life." In his poetry and criticism he exposes the vestiges of colonial Canadian assumptions, both Victorian and American, and the commercialism of contemporary Western society, finding characteristics of an armed and wounded culture that has grown to global and epidemic proportions. As he writes in the meditative work The Gods, we must "honour the gods in their former selves, / albeit obscurely, at a distance, unable / to speak the older tongue; and to wait / till their fury is spent and they call on us again / for passionate awe in our lives, and a clean high style."

A generation of Canadians, exposed to Lee's verse as children, now take irreverent delight in pronouncing Canadian place-names and joking about eating "alligator pie" and going out for a walk with "Nicholas Knock." Lee once said with glee, "I'm the only poet with eight-year-old groupies."

Civil Elegies remains Lee's most impressive and influential volume. In a suitably elegiac tone, he defines himself in sociopolitical terms as a liberal leftist or cultural and social activist worried about the drift of opinion and world trends. He cautions himself, "There is nothing to be afraid of," but even the poet has his doubts about this. Like so many others, he takes refuge in the "excellent pleasures" of the bourgeois way of life, but even these are found to be wanting in the end.

The style, which contrasts throwaway allusions and tough talk, is a form of free verse that verges on "free prose." Lee's ruminations are inspired by discontinuities in contemporary culture as discussed by George Grant, the moral philosopher who wrote the influential study Lament for a Nation (1963). Grant saw Canada as a conservative country on a liberal continent trapped in the economic and electronic web of modern technology. In "Elegy 6" Lee peers into the future: "Though I do not deny technopolis I can see only the bread and circuses to come." Like so many other poets who take culture as their theme, he turns to the past for the measure of its mark. In "Elegy 2" he finds in the measure of the past a standard for the future:

   Master and Lord, there was a
   measure once.
   There was a time when men could say
   my life, my job, my home
   and still feel clean.
   The poets spoke of earth and heaven. There were no symbols.

The excellent pleasures of the bourgeois life resurface in Riffs, which is a sequence of eighty-eight sections devoted to tracking an adulterous love affair through its ups and downs and ring-a-rounds. Lee's title is taken from the world of jazz, where a riff is a repeated phrase underlying an improvised solo. Improvisation is certainly a good word to use to describe the tone and style of the whole suite of poems. Perhaps what Lee is doing with great skill may be sensed by quoting from the opening and closing sections:

   When I lurched like a rumour of want through the network of plenty,
   me-shaped pang on the lamp,
   when I ghosted through lives like a headline, a scrap in the updraft,
   and my mid-life wreckage was close & for keeps
   …
 
 
   The dolphins of need be-
   lie their shining traces.
   Arcs in the air.
 
 
   They do not mean to last. One
   upward furrow, bright & the long disappearance,
 
 
   as though by silver fiat of the sea.

The author's verbal resources permit him to encompass monologue, dialogue, many levels of diction, meditation, contemplation, and even swear words in a sequence of poems that capture the urban idiom of an educated literary person living in North America.

—John Robert Colombo

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Lee, Dennis (Beynon)

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