Dennis Lee’s “Deeper” and National Poetry Month

J.S. Porter

Is poetry in your life? Should it be? What are you missing if it isn’t?

Sometimes people get their poetry from Björk or Radiohead or Arcade Fire. Sometimes they don’t get any at all.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as William Carlos Williams:

…   It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die every day
for lack
of what is found
there

After all, sometimes men and women die from what is found in poetry.  Remember the poetry of Radovan Karadžić (Bosnian Serb politician and psychiatrist) leading to ethnic cleansing and war crimes in the old Yugoslavia?

I’m a little more comfortable with the former New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard’s famous line that “Unless we read poetry we’ll never have our hearts broken by language.”  I think that’s true. And, alas, there are a lot of unbroken-hearted people.

When I read the poetry of Dennis Lee, either his children’s skips or his adult meditations, I regain my faith in what poetry can do – how it can scrub language clean, how it can renew the imagination.

Take his poem “Deeper,” for instance, from SoCool. It has the intimacy of the soul speaking to itself, the murmurs of an inner voice. He does in the poem what the late Seamus Heaney says poetry can do: “If poetry and the arts do anything they can fortify your inner life—your inwardness.”

Often at night, sometimes
out in the snow or going into the music, the voice says,
“Deeper.”
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 is one of the English-speaking world’s great poets. He is also a central figure in Canadian letters as poet, editor, publisher and essayist, and a man of many voices. Children’s voices. Teasing, playful voices. Spiritual and exploratory voices. In-between voices. A little playful, a little prayerful. Play with me, says the young voice. Pray with me, says the old voice. And the poet Dennis Lee says, I’ll do both.  Sometimes in the same poem.

Lee puts joy on the page. He keeps the child alive. There are also times when the line between a poem and a prayer blurs as in the first and last stanzas in “A Song for Ookpik” from Nicholas Knock and Other People.

Ookpik,

Ookpik

Dance with

Us,

Till our

Lives

Go

Luminous…

In So Cool, Lee writes songs of innocence and songs of experience, songs of summer and songs of winter, and songs in-between. The voices simultaneously dance and reflect, think and sing, in “thoughtsong.”

The liminal poems of SoCool take you from childhood into the edges of maturity. Poems like “Deeper” which concludes the book, alongside “The Mystery,” “Night Thanks,” “Long Chant,” and “The Coat,” take you from one state or stage of being to the threshold of another. The book combines the jig with the dirge. Lee’s tongue is at play in these poems; he makes merry, makes sad, makes serious fun, within the one book and sometimes within the one poem.

Suggestion: To celebrate National Poetry Month, get yourself a copy of SoCool. Read it. Read it to your children. You won’t be disappointed. Check out Jeanette Winterson’s website (www.jeanettewinterson.com) for her selection of poems. Browse through the Poetry Magazine website (www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine).  If you’re still itchy for poetry, scratch your urge by picking up one of Roger Housden’s anthologies, say Ten Poems to Change Your Life.

By J.S. Porter

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