Canadian Poetry Online top banner link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page

Dennis Lee. From: Body Music, Toronto: Anansi, 1998. 3-25. Originally published in 1972, and later revised to this form. Reprinted on this site with the permission of Stoddart Publishing.

Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space

What am I doing when I write?

I don't know.

A hockey player may understand very little about the principles of anatomy. But he gets his body across the ice somehow.

What am I doing when I write? The question is too important to discuss at a writers' conference, even this one. It is posed by the writing that wants to be done. And it is answered, sometimes, by the writing as it is done. There's not much left over to analyze what is going on.

Still, it's possible to make companionable noises—like when you're helping to lift a heavy crate, enjoying music, making love.

1.   Cadence

Most of my time as a poet is spent listening into a luminous tumble, a sort of taut cascade. I call it "cadence." If I withdraw from immediate contact with things around me, I can sense it churning, flickering, thrumming, locating things in more shapely relation to one another. It feels continuous, though I may spend days on end without noticing it.

What I hear is initially without words. But when a poem starts to come, the words have to accord with that energy or I can't make the poem at all. (I speak of "hearing" cadence, but the sensation isn't auditory. It's more like sensing a constantly changing tremor with your body: a play of movement and stress, torsion and flex—as with the kinaesthetic perception [END OF PAGE 3] of the muscles.) More and more I sense this energy as presence, both outside and inside myself, teeming toward words.

What is it?

I could give one kind of answer by pointing to a poem I've written, saying, "Feel how the poem moves here, and here; no, feel the deeper music in which it's sustained." But that wouldn't do. The rhythm of what I've written is such a small and often mangled fraction of what I sense, it tunes out so many wavelengths of that massive, infinitely fragile polyphony, that I almost despair. And if I try to define it conceptually, it's equally futile. Whatever categories I use seem to turn the indelible thrum into something abstract or theoretical—which is precisely what it isn't. I may not know what cadence is, but I know one thing: it is no more theoretical than breathing.

Nor can I say whether other writers respond to its prod. When I recognize traces in other people's work, it's more often in music and sculpture than in poetry. Though strongly in Pindar and Hölderlin. As in the Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Charlie Parker, Van Morrison. Or in Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still.

I take my vocation to consist of listening into this energy—for a time it was like the fusion of a burnished cello with a raunchy sax, but lately there have been organ and flute as well—I take my vocation to consist of listening into cadence with enough life concentration that it can become words through me if it chooses.


What is the relation of cadence and poem?

Michelangelo said he could sense the figure in the uncut stone; his job was to chip away marble till it emerged. Inuit sculptors say the same thing. And that makes sense to me. Cadence is the medium, the raw stone; the poem is already sustained in it. And writing means cutting away everything that isn't the poem. You can't "write" a poem, in fact — you can only help it stand free in the torrent. Most of my time [END OF PAGE 4] with a pen is spent giving words, images, bright ideas that are borne along in cadence their permission to stay off the page. The poem is what remains; it is local cadence minus whatever is extraneous to its shapely articulation.

A bad poem, on the other hand, is something a poet made up.

This is why a poem, in my sense of it, wants to exist in two ways at once. As a teeming process which overflows every prior canon of form (or is prepared to, and can when it chooses). And simultaneously as a beautifully disciplined structure, whose order flowers outward from the centre of its own necessity, and doesn't miss a single checkpoint along the way. Cadence, which is the medium of existence for the content all along — cadence teems. Content has the other task, of filling out the orderly formal space of its local being. And those two ways — the energy of unlimited process, and the shapeliness of content living outward to the limit of its measure — have been coinciding all along. If the poem is any good they will go on coinciding within it; it will be intelligible out of courtesy, not timidity. Its form is not to obey form, but to include and carry beyond it.

In the presence of cadence — which feels continuous, as goad and grace and as something I experience almost as mockery — the chance to turn a good phrase, make up a deft poem, the chance to be "a poet," leaves me cold. It seems like the cheapest evasion. For this jazzy, majestic, delicately cascading process I hear surging and thudding and pausing is largely without the witness I might be, if it chose to animate my words.

I don't say that with any false humility, for I am convinced that it does so choose. But it impresses me with the dumbness of most of what a writer is tempted to do, and it leaves me impatient that I can't organize my life so as to listen with greater concentration. For finally, I believe, cadence chooses to issue in the articulate gestures of being. [END OF PAGE 5]


What does cadence feel like?

Imagine you're sitting indoors. Down in the basement, a group with a heavily amplified bass is rehearsing. Nothing is audible, but the pulsating of the bass starts to make the girders and beams vibrate. And eventually the vibration makes its way into your body. You feel yourself being flexed by a tremor which you're bound to acknowledge, whether or not you know what it is.

That sensation is disorienting, because it collapses our familiar categories of inner and outer, subject and object. You don't perceive a vibration; you vibrate. Your muscular system has become both the recording instrument and the thing recorded. And the pulse you feel is neither subjective nor objective. Rather, it is your immediate portion of the kinaesthetic space in which you exist.

During my twenties, I became aware of something comparable. It was not my body that was being flexed, or not primarily. It was my — what do I say? My imagination? my psyche? my spirit? I don't know the right term, but the experience was unmistakable. I was imbedded, as plainly as I was in the earth's atmosphere, in a space which was alive and volatile, and whose flexions governed the tension and pulse of my system. If I sat quietly, I would regularly become aware of this preverbal field of force.

That didn't jibe with anything I knew, but eventually it was too immediate to deny. The term I seized on for the insistent tremor was "cadence." And cadence — the direct experience of that energy, not my ideas about it — has shaped my writing since shortly after my first book appeared.

It had no specific content, or none to begin with. It was its own content, a rich symphony of clench and swooping pulsation. Nor could I get any conceptual distance on it; the resources with which I might have analyzed it were already being tweaked and yo-yoed themselves. Often I went for weeks with no apprehension of the process, which nonetheless felt as if it continued its delicate judder and carom and chug without me. [END OF PAGE 6]

And my writing vocation was given. A poem was meant to enact what cadence had been doing all along. Not by describing it, but by reliving its muscular trajectories in words.

2.   Country

I hope I haven't implied that I simply heard the words of cadence and wrote them down. The beginnings were far more hit-and-miss than that.

The catalyst was Friedrich Hölderlin. I discovered his poetry in my early twenties, in a German course, and it changed my sense of how words could move on the page. And shortly after that I started getting intimations of a music, not specifically his, which I could feel bucking and pausing somewhere beyond my range of hearing. But those nudgings of cadence didn't lead to anything concrete right away. My own apprentice poetry was stuck in a creakily traditional prosody, and I couldn't get beyond it.

In fact I spent seven years composing a sequence of sonnet variations, Kingdom of Absence. Listen to one of these pieces:

When I review my troop of scruffy selves
and count personae, when I hear the tramp
of brawling cells in whichway phalanx wheeling,
spun by every creak of the swivelling wind,

and when I see the sleek and shifty mind,
doing his pander,and the awkward—squad volitions
fresh from screwing with his fair daughters;
I flinch that I must answer their salute.

All my limping rabble, and the sparks
from gaudy captains filing into the sun:
crow meat. At the dark wood, in torpor,
I led my soldiers naked into gunfire.
Gouts of blood are splattered beneath the birches.
My hash is coming apart beneath the leaves.

So much is wrong here — the stagey extended metaphor, the overly conscious mix of high and low diction, the young man's knee—jerk despair — that a reader may not pick up on what appals me most. Which is the rhythm. Or more accurately, the whole way of hearing rhythm. This is an ear that no longer hears metrically — or not with subtlety and bite, as in the great tradition from Chaucer to Yeats. But neither has it discovered a different music in the dance of syllables. So it just thumps along, trapped in the latter—day decadence of the iambic pentameter line.

Almost as fatally, the larger rhythmic gestures by which the poem moves are out of synch with themselves. Whatever exploratory energy may be trapped here, it almost certainly doesn't want to proceed by retracing the sonnet's shapes of discovery. But it has taken refuge there, and the structure has become a straitjacket. No matter how many cosmetic liberties the poet may take.

It wasn't until the sequence was published that the dam gave way at last, and I connected with the cadence I'd been hearing for years.


I still remember the summer of 1967. I was twenty-seven. Kingdom of Absence had appeared. And almost at once, the music I'd sensed for so long came barging through.

The new voice sounded like this:

It would be better maybe if we could stop loving the children
and their delicate brawls, pelting across the square in tandem, deking
from cover to cover in raucous celebration and they are never
winded, bemusing us with the rites of our own
gone childhood; if only they stopped
mattering, the children, it might be possible, now
while the square lies stunned by noon.
What is real is fitful, and always the beautiful footholds
crumble the moment I set my mind aside, though the world does recur. [END OF PAGE 8]
Better, I think, to avoid the scandal of being — the headlong particulars
which, as they lose their animal purchase
cease to endorse us, though the ignominious hankerings
go on; this induces the ache of things, and the lonesome ego
sets out once again dragging its lethal desires across the world,
which does not regard them. . .

I found myself scrambling night after night to keep up with these long, hurtling lines. They were no longer clumping through preset metrical patterns. Instead, they moved with a periodic yet off-balance gait which seemed to emerge directly from this cascade of energy (for which I had no name as yet). I remember sitting up each night in a kind of dictation high — both cowed and exhilarated by the rhythms that had taken me over.

Soon the nightly runs coalesced into a full-dress meditative sequence. It kept coming and coming, and the first version of Civil Elegies appeared in 1968.

But then something bizarre happened. I dried. For the next three years, I couldn't write a thing that worked. Twenty words on a page would set me wincing at their palpable stiffness and falsity. I still went into my study and fiddled, but I wound up scrapping everything I wrote. And I had no notion where the music had gone. The dry spell was as unexpected as the breakthrough had been.

I have a better sense of it now. There was a longstanding check on my pen, which returned shortly after cadence declared itself. Words had arrived, but words had already gone dead. And so there were old dues still to be paid.


To get at this complex situation, I need to explore how cadence can be blocked at deeper levels than the personal. And for that, I need to start from its hereness, its local nature. We never encounter cadence in the abstract; it is insistently here and now. But if we live in space which is radically in [END OF PAGE 9] question for us, that makes our barest speaking problematic to itself. For voice does issue in part from civil space. And alienation in that space will enter and undercut our writing, make it recoil upon itself, become a problem to itself.

What does that mean? Writing "becomes a problem to itself" when it raises a vicious circle: when to write involves something that seems to make writing impossible. Contradictions in our civil belonging are one thing which has that effect, and I am struck by the subtle connections people here have drawn between words and their public space.

Abraham Yehoshuah spoke yesterday of writing in a divided language. In part, modern Hebrew is charged with religious connotations which go back millennia, but which some Israelis no longer accept. And in part it is brand new, without the grainy texture of a living language. New words, technical ones in particular, are regularly created ex nihilo to make modernity articulate in Israel. Thus contemporary Hebrew embodies the tensions of ancient and modern, sacred and profane, which tug at Israel itself. Using it well demands a provisional triumph of citizenship, a reconciliation of jostling civil currents at the level of words and phrases.

And Michèle Lalonde speaks of coming to verbal maturity in Quebec in a kind of linguistic no-man's-land, speaking a French one has been taught to despise, and a rag-tag-and-bobtail English fit only for the Pepsi billboards which denote one's servitude. In such a situation, writing must be carried out in a language that embodies the very experience—societal humiliation— which must be transcended in order to write. In Quebec, as in Israel, writing is a problem to itself at the level of diction.

For an English Canadian, exploring the obstructions to cadence means exploring the nature of colonial space.

Yet our civil alienation is not manifested so dramatically in language. The prime fact about my country now is that it has become an American client state. But we speak the same tongue as our new masters. Thus while our comfortable inauthenticity has many tangible monuments, from TIME to Imperial [END OF PAGE 10] Esso, the way it undercuts our writing is not so easy to discern — precisely because there are no conspicuous verbal battlefields in which the takeover is visible. Nevertheless, many writers here know how the act of writing calls itself into question.

I won't linger on the more obvious aspects of the tidal wave. How almost none of the books on our paperback racks are our own, because the American-owned distributors refuse to carry them. How our filmmakers have to go to the States to seek distribution for Canada, and are usually turned down. How most of our prime-time TV is filled with Yankee programs; how Alberta schoolchildren are still learning that Abraham Lincoln was their country's greatest president.

Every one of these idiocies must change. But I want to get beyond the familiar litany, for there are dimensions of cultural colonialism which go deeper than specific abuses. This entails stepping back and exploring how, in a colony, the bare exercise of the imagination becomes a problem to itself.


Let me return to my early experience. I began writing about 1960, when I was twenty-one. My sense at the time was that I had access to a great many words: those of the British tradition, the American, and so far as anyone took it seriously, the Canadian. (When I speak of "words," I mean all the resources of the verbal imagination — from nouns and verbs to structures of plot and versions of the hero.) Yet at the same time those words seemed to lie in a random heap, which glittered with promise so long as I considered it in the mass, but within which each individual word went stiff, inert, was somehow clogged with sludge the moment I tried to move it into a poem. I could stir words, prod them, cram them into place. But there was no way I could speak them as my own.

Writers everywhere don't begin with an external, resistant language; something more was involved than just getting the hang of the medium during apprenticeship. In any case, after I'd published one book of poems and finished another, [END OF PAGE 11] I stopped being able to use words on paper at all. Everywhere around me — in England, America, even Canada — writers opened their mouths and words spilled out like crazy. But I just gagged. And looking back at my earlier writing, I felt as if I'd been fishing pretty beads out of a vat of crankcase oil and stringing them together. The words weren't limber or alive, or even mine.


Those of us who stumbled into this problem in the 1960s were suffering the recoil from something Canadians had learned profoundly after World War II— at least where I lived, in southern Ontario. To want to see one's life made articulate on paper, in movies, in songs: that was ridiculous, uppity. Canadians were by definition people who looked over the fence at America, unself-consciously learning from its comics, pop music, and television how to go about being alive. The disdainful amusement I and thousands like me felt for Canadian achievement in any field, especially those of the imagination, was a direct reflection of our sense of inferiority. And while we sneered at American mass culture, we could distance ourselves from it only by soaking up all the élite American culture we could get: Mailer and Fiedler and Baldwin, the Beats and the hip. And we fell all over ourselves putting down the Canadians. This was between 1955 and 1965.

And like intellectual sellouts everywhere, we were prepared to capitulate, not for a cut of the action, but simply on condition that we not be humiliated by being lumped with the rest of the natives. We were desperate to make that clear: we weren't like the rest. The fact that we would never meet the Americans we admired didn't cramp our style. We managed to feel inferior anyway, and we compensated like mad. We kept up with Paris Review and Partisan, shook our heads over how Senator McCarthy had perverted our best traditions; in some cases we went down to Washington to confront our power structure, and in all cases we agreed that the greatest blot on our racial history was the way we had treated the [END OF PAGE 12] Negroes. It boggles the imagination, but that was what we did — it's how we felt. We weren't pretending, we were desperate. And the idea that these things only confirmed our colonialism would have made us laugh our continentalized heads off. We weren't all that clear on colonialism to begin with, but if anybody had it, it was our poor countrymen, the Canadians, who in some unspecified way were still in thrall to England. But we weren't colonials; hell, we could have held up our heads in New York. Though it was a bit of a relief that no one asked us to try.

My awakening from this condition was private, and extremely disorienting. It was touched off by the American critique of America during the war in Vietnam. But it ended up going much further. From that muddled process I remember a couple of months in 1965, after a teach-in at the University of Toronto. It lasted a weekend, and as I followed the long, dull speeches in the echoing cavern of Varsity Arena, two things dawned on me. The first was that the American government had been lying about the war on a colossal scale. And the second was that the Canadian media, from which I'd learned most of what I knew about Vietnam, were spreading its lies.

I present these discoveries in all the crashing naiveté with which they struck me then. Interestingly, while the first revelation shocked me more at the time, it was the second that gnawed at me during the ensuing months. I couldn't get my mind around it. I did not believe that our newspapers or television had been bought off directly by Washington. But if it was not a case of paid corruption, the only reason for cooperating in such a blatant deception — consciously or not — was that they were colonial media, serving the interests of the imperial rulers. Mind you, that kind of language made me bridle; it conjured up images of five-hour harangues in Havana and Peking, foreign frenzies of auto-hypnosis. I'd read about that in the papers too. But no matter. It was the only language that made sense of what was happening.

Even worse, I had to recognize that this imperial influence [END OF PAGE 13] was not confined to the media. It also included my head. More and more of the ideas I had, my assumptions, even the instinctive path of my feelings, seemed to have come north from the States unexamined. That had once been what I strove for. But now the whole thing had turned around, and I was jarred loose. After ten years of continentalizing my ass, what had I accomplished?

I was a colonial.

It was during this time that I began to find literary words impossible. I didn't know why. But writing had become a full-fledged problem to itself. It had grown into a search for authenticity, but all it could be was a symptom of inauthenticity. I could feel that with every nerve end in my body. And so for three years I shut up.


Though I hope not to over-dramatize this, it was when I read a series of essays by the philosopher George Grant that I began to comprehend what we were living inside. His analysis of "Canadian Fate and Imperialism," which I read in 1967 in Canadian Dimension, was the first that made any contact with my tenuous sense of living here — the first in which I recognized the words of our civil condition. My whole system had been coiling in on itself for want of them. As subsequent pieces appeared (they were collected in 1969 as Technology and Empire, the book of Grant's from which I learned most deeply), I realized that somehow it had happened. A man who knew this paralyzing condition firsthand was nonetheless using words authentically, from the centre of everything that had tied my tongue.

One central perception was that in refusing the American dream, our Loyalist forebears — the British Americans who came north after 1776 — were groping to reaffirm a classical European tradition, which taught that reverence is more fully human than conquest or mastery. That we are subject to sterner necessities than liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that we must respond, as best we can, to the demands of [END OF PAGE 14] the good. And that our lives here have an organic continuity which can be ruptured only at the risk of making our condition worse; that any such change should be undertaken in fear and trembling. (Grant did not claim that all Hellenic and Christian societies lived up to those ideals, only that they understood themselves to be acting well or badly in their light.) I knew that the Loyalists were not a homogeneous group, and that many had come north for the main chance. Yet convictions like these demonstrably underlay many of their attitudes to Europe, to law, the land, indigenous peoples. Their refusal of America issued, in part, from a disagreement about what it meant to be human.

What the Loyalists were refusing was the doctrine of essential freedom, which in an argument of inspired simplicity Grant sees as the point of generation of technological civilization. That doctrine led to a view of everything but our naked wills — the new continent, native peoples, other nations, outer space, even our own bodies — as raw material, to be manipulated according to the urges of our desires and the dictates of our technology. But not only did this view of an unlimited freedom seem arrogant and suicidal; it also seemed wrong. For we are not radically free, in point of fact. And to act as if we are is to behave with lethal naiveté.

Mind you, this overstates what Grant finds in the Loyalists. In fact, he declares that the typical Loyalist was "straight Locke with a dash of Anglicanism"— the British tradition he held to had already broken with the classical understanding of the good. Loyalism was a gesture in the right direction, perhaps, but it never succeeded in being radically un-American. It did not have the resources to reconstitute modernity.

his undercutting of a past he would have liked to make exemplary is a characteristic moment in Grant's thought, and it reveals the central strength and contradiction of his work. He withdraws from the contemporary world, and judges it with passionate lucidity, by standing on a fixed point — which he then reveals to be no longer there. Or at the very least, to be no longer accessible to the modern mind. This way of [END OF PAGE 15] proceeding makes his thought difficult to live within, a fact which his own best work explores rigorously.

I found this account of being alive less indulgent than the liberal version that achieved its zenith in America, far closer to the way things are. Now there were terms in which to recognize that, as we began to criticize our new masters during the sixties, we were not just hoping to be better Americans than they, to dream their dream more humanely. Our dissent went as deep as it did because, obscurely, we did not want to be American at all. Their dream was wrong.

Before Grant, a person who'd grown up in as deeply colonized a decade as the fifties had no access to such a conscious refusal of America. Our tiresome beginnings had always been a source of embarrassed disdain to us: no revolution, no Wild West frontier, no six-gun heroes. As this was stood on its head, Grant gave us access to our native space.

But Grant is scarcely an apostle of public joy. By now, he says, we have replaced our forebears' tentative, dissenting space with a wholehearted American one. The sellout of Canada which has been consummated over the last few decades does not involve just natural resources or corporate takeovers, nor who will put the marionettes in Ottawa through their dance. It replaces one way of being human with another.

For the political and military rule of the United States, and the economic rule of its corporations, are merely the surface expression of modernity in the West. That modernity is also inward. It shapes the expression of our bodies' impulses, the way we build cities, what we do with our spare time. Always we are totally free agents, faced with a world which is raw material, a permanent incitement to technique. There is no court of appeal outside that circuit. And even though we can observe this worldview destroying the planet, that does not give us access to a different worldview.

Hence to dissent from liberal modernity is to fall silent, for we have no terms in which to speak that do not issue from the very space we are trying to speak against. We may sense "intimations of deprival" to which modernity is not open, but [END OF PAGE 16] we can sense them only inarticulately. Grant explores this impasse with a clarity which induces vertigo.

I recognize all the bleakness for which he is often criticized. But only with my head. For months after I read Grant's essays, I felt a surge of release and exhilaration; to find one's tongue-tied sense of civil loss and bafflement given words at last, to hear one's inarticulate hunches out loud, because most immediate in the bloodstream — and not prettied up, and in prose like a fastidious groundswell — was to stand erect at last in one's own place.

I do not expect to spend my lifetime agreeing with George Grant. But in my experience, the sombre Canadian has enabled us to say for the first time where we are, who we are to become articulate. That gift of speech is a staggering achievement. And in trying to comprehend the deeper ways in which writing is a problem to itself in Canada, I am bound to start with Grant.


But perhaps — and here was the breakthrough — perhaps our job was not to fake a space of our own and write it up, but rather to speak the words of our spacelessness. Perhaps that was home. This dawned on me gradually. Instead of pushing against the grain of an external, uncharged language, perhaps we should come to writing with that grain.

To do so was a homecoming — and a thoroughly iify homecoming it was. You began by giving up the notion of writing in the same continuum as Lowell, Ginsberg, Olson, Plath, Hughes. Yet it was not a matter of taking an easier road; finding your own voice would be chancier than echoing theirs. Rather, it meant assuming that what is for real can be claimed by a Canadian in the language of his own time and place. If he can learn to speak that language. And so you began striving to hear what happened in words — in "love," "inhabit," "fail," "earth," "home" — as you let them surface in your mute and native land. This was an eerie, visceral process; there was nothing as explicit as starting to write in joual. There was only the decision to let words be how they are for us. [END OF PAGE 18]

But I am distorting the experience again by writing it down. There was nothing conscious about this, initially at least; it was simply a direction one's inner ear took up. I know I fought it.


The first mark of words, as you began to re-hear them in this empty civil space, was a blur of unachieved meaning. That much I knew already. But the oppressiveness started to change, for I could sense something more.

Where I lived, a whole swarm of inarticulate meanings lunged, clawed, drifted, eddied, sprawled in half-grasped disarray beneath the tidy meaning which the simplest word brought with it from England and the States. "City": once you learned to accept the featureless character of that word —responding to it as a Canadian noun, with its absence of native connotation — you were dimly savaged by the live, inchoate meanings trying to surface through it. The whole tangle and Sisyphean problematic of people's existing here, from the time of the coureurs de bois to the present day, came struggling to be included in "city." Cooped up beneath the familiar surface of the word as we use it (city as Paris, London, New York) — and cooped up further down still, beneath the blank and blur you heard when you sought some received indigenous meaning — listening all the way down, you began to overhear the lives of millions of men and women who went their particular ways here, whose roots and legacy come together in the cities we live in. Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver: "city" meant something still unspoken, but rampant with energy. Hearing it was like watching the contours of an unexpected continent declare themselves through the familiar lawns and faces of your block.

Though that again is hindsight. You heard an energy, and those lives were part of it. Under the surface alienation of our words, and under the second-level silence, there was a living barrage of meaning. Private, civil, religious — unclassifiable, finally, but teeming to be uttered. And I felt that press of [END OF PAGE 19] meaning. I had no idea what it was, but I could sense it swarming toward words.

And buoyed by that energy, I started to write again.


Why does this tale of writing, falling silent for three years, beginning to write again, feel slightly foreign?

Because I barely recognize the protagonist, for one thing. The story implies a ten-year coherence of purpose — which I admire as I read. But what I actually felt during most of that decade was a sense of beleaguered drifting. And while it was punctuated with flashes of clarity, I'm mortified to report that they were usually at odds with one another.

Moreover, the chronology is awkward, uncooperative. The story implies a sequence that runs like this. Poet writes artificial early work; dissatisfied with its stiffness, he stops writing; George Grant's essays furnish an explanation for his block; as a result something called "cadence" happens to him, and he starts to write again.

That's easy to follow, and edifying. But in fact it went more like this. Poet writes artificial early work, while being haunted by a deeper music; after his first book appears, he connects with that cadence; meanwhile he's reading George Grant in dribs and drabs; for no discernible reason, he stops being able to write when the second book comes out; three years later, again with no obvious cause, he returns to that book and revises it.

How does it all fit together? There are so many loose ends, I've given up looking for a sequential logic. None of the causes and effects are in the right place. But even a thematic account of the process, which is what I've sketched in this essay, dramatizes and streamlines things that were much more tangled, murky, and banal as they occurred.

We are getting closer to the centre of the tangle. Why did I dry?

The words I knew said Britain, and they said America. But they did not say my home. They were always and only about someone else's life. All the rich structures of language were available, but the currents that animated them were not native to the people who use the language here.

But the civil self seeks nourishment as much as the biological. And if everything it lays hold of is alien, it may protect itself in a visceral spasm of refusal. To take an immediate example: the words I used above — "language," "home," "here" — have no native charge. They convey only meanings in whose face we have been unable to find ourselves since the eighteenth century. This is not to call for arbitrary new Canadian definitions, of course. It is simply to point out that the texture, weight, and connotation of almost every word we use comes from abroad. For a person who wants to recreate our being human here in words — and where else do we live? —that creates an absolute impasse. [END OF PAGE 17]

Why did I dry?

The language was drenched with our nonbelonging. And words — bizarre as it sounds, even to myself— words had become the enemy. To use them was to collaborate further in one's extinction as a rooted human being. And so by a drastic and involuntary stratagem of self-preserval, words went dead.

The first necessity for a colonial writer, so runs the conventional wisdom, is to write of what he knows. His imagination must come home. But that first necessity is not enough. For if you are Canadian, home is the place that is not home to you — it is even less your home than the imperial centre you've dreamt about. Or to say what I really know, the words of home are silent. And to raise a stirring classical ode to the harvests of Saskatchewan, or set an American murder mystery in Newfoundland is no answer at all. Try to speak the words of your home and you will discover, if you are a colonial, that you do not know them. You are left chafing at the inarticulacy of a native space that may not even exist. So you shut up.

Those are reservations that need to be recognized. But they matter less than the experience that generates them. [END OF PAGE 20]

One thing I find now is that I can write only from the promptings of cadence. And being a colonial, I find they surface mainly when I hunker into the muteness of words. I can no more observe something in the street, go home, and write it up than I can fly.

So it will not do to ignore our halting tongues and simply write of other things; nor to spend all our energy castigating the external causes, as if the colonial condition were wholly outside us; nor to invert that tongue-tied estate and fake a passionate cascade of words, as if we could will ourselves to be everything we are not. The impasse of writing that is problematic to itself is transcended only when the impasse becomes its own subject, when writing accepts and enters and names its own condition as it names the world. Any other course (except in deliberately minor work — though I don't put that down) leads to writing whose joints and musculature don't work together.

To name your colonial condition is not necessarily to assign explicit terms to it. It may be, as in the poetry of Milton Acorn or Gaston Miron. But the weight of the silence can also be conveyed by the sheer pressure behind the words that finally break it. Then to name one's condition is to recreate the halt and stammer, the wry self-deprecation, the rush of celebratory elan and the vastness of the still unspoken surround in which a colonial writer comes to know his house, his father, her city and land — encounters them in their own unuttered terms, and finds words being born to speak them. I think of Al Purdy's poems.

Beneath the words our absentee masters have given us, there is an undermining silence. It saps our nerve. And beneath that silence, there is a raw welter of cadence that tumbles and strains toward words. It makes the silence a blessing, because it shushes easy speech. That cadence is home.

We do not own cadence. It is not in Canada; Canada is in it, along with everything else. Nor is it real only for colonials. But it has its own way of speaking our lives, if we are willing to be struck dumb. And through us, it seeks to issue in the articulate gestures of being. Here. [END OF PAGE 21]

3.   Silence

What are these gestures?

In one session of this conference, Claude Vigée spoke of the stillness, even the death, which one must reenter before words can be spoken. The void underlies each syllable, and affords its perpetual context. And many of the hallowed terms of the century were invoked to echo that silence: nothingness, the abyss, nonbeing, meaninglessness.

But Abraham Yehoshuah disagreed. No writer starts with an experience of void. You begin with a character, a situation, a snatch of rhythm — some concrete thing that grabs you. That sets the project: to make the story or poem. And once you write it, it's written. What part does the void play in that? It is simply mumbo jumbo, called in for its fashionable aura of spiritual extremis.

Notice that the disagreement is not between abstract theories of literature. It arose when two practising writers described the daily act of putting words on paper. Their workaday experience is diametrically opposed, or at least their accounts of it are.

I find myself in agreement with both accounts. A good piece of writing bespeaks encounter with emptiness as its source; a good piece of writing bespeaks encounter with things, things as they are, nothing but things alive with their own thingness, as its source. What's more, I'm convinced that both accounts must be true of any piece of writing — and simultaneously or it will degenerate into portentousness or banality.


There is a moment in which I experience other people, situations, things as standing forth with a clarity and a preciousness that make me want to cry and to celebrate physically at the same time. I imagine many people have felt it.

It is the moment in which something becomes overwhelmingly real in two lights at once. An old person whose will to live and whose mortality reach me at the same instant. A child [END OF PAGE 22] who is coursed through with the lovely energies of its body, and yet is totally fragile before the coming decades of its life. A social movement charged with a passion for decent lives, and at the same time with the egotism and shrillness that will debase it. A table, at once a well-worn companion and a disregarded adjunct. Each stands forth as what it is most fully, and most preciously, because the emptiness in which it rests declares itself so overpoweringly. We realize that this thing or person, this phrase, this event need not be. And at that moment it reveals its vivacious being as though it had just begun to exist.

The recognition itself is "subjective," I suppose; it is we who change at that moment. But the double situation of the child, the table, the social movement is already a given; its life and its death are simultaneous, whether we recognize that or not. The fact that we can be open to it only rarely does not change this coincidence of what is with its own nonbeing. And at those privileged moments the table, the child, the grandparent stand fast and also come toward us in clarity, saying, "Write me."

Thus Claude Vigée is right. It is in meeting the nonbeing with which living particulars are shot through — their mortality, their guilt, their incipient meaninglessness; or in a colony, their wordlessness for us — that we cherish them most fully as what they are. Until that time, we may have cared for them only as things we can own. But in that luminous, perishable aspect they assume their own being for us.

And Abraham Yehoshuah is right. What we know is never a general emptiness — unless we are merely playing with the idea of emptiness, which is a pursuit for dilettantes. We do not encounter Void, we encounter this void and that. And in the concrete ground of their own lapsed existence (which haunts Abraham's own splendid stories, by the way), it is this friendship, this orange tree, this street corner which take on resonance and demand to be written.

Each is home to the other. Hence to give homage to the void for itself is idolatry — but to give homage to the world for [END OF PAGE 23] itself is idolatry too. To accept nonbeing at home in what is, to accept what is at home in nonbeing, is perhaps the essential act of being human. Certainly it is the beginning of art, and of much philosophy. And (if very great scientists are to be believed) of much of science as well.

And what is — this tree, this enemy, this rooted housing bylaw — makes its mortal being known to us as cadence. That is what I started to hear. In cadence, each thing declares not only what it is, nor even how it is — but that it is. At all. Thus each thing comes to resound in its own silence.

The inauthenticity of our public space is only one such grounding. I am certain that the silence I go into is more than civil. But to write in colonial space is to have that civil silence laid upon you. Whatever else overtakes you, the world you move in and the words you want to use are already cankered with it. When they come alive in cadence, they come alive in it.


There is one more thing. The mystique of void is seductive, as I know to my cost. Yet nobody sane will give thanks for what is evil, nor for what keeps scotching vulnerable lovely things without remorse. Death, suffering, deprivation can't just be slotted into some higher scheme of things, as handy aids to ontological contemplation. Evil and innocent pain: to recognize that they teem at the heart of being is not to say that they are comfy, or good, or even acceptable.

hat granted, your first response to things that strike at life and goodness undergoes a change, when you discern that everything is most fully itself in the presence of its own emptiness. I cannot say more about that change, however, since I do not understand it very far.


A poem enacts in words the presence of what we live among. It arises from the tough, delicate, heartbreaking rooting of what is in its own nonbeing. From that rooting, there arise elemental movements of being: of hunger, of play, of rage, of [END OF PAGE 24] celebration, of dying. Such movements are always particular, speaking the things which are. A poem enacts those living movements in words.

Quick in its own silence, cadence seeks to issue in the articulate gestures of being. [END OF PAGE 25]

Dennis Lee's works copyright © to the author.

Canadian Poetry Online bottom banner link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Digital Collections home page link to University of Toronto Library catalogue link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page