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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2019



‘Cadence’ in Canadian Literature: Dennis Lee’s “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space”

Dr. R. P. Singh, Professor of English, University of Lucknow, Lucknow


Dennis Lee’s “Cadence, Country, and Silence: Writing in Colonial Space” is a seminal canon building work   in Canadian literary culture.  In this text , Lee  sets the framework by analyzing specific urge for writing in an emerging  and culturally new land, and finds the process of writing just like making “compassionate noises” at the time of  “helping to lift a heavy crate”, “enjoying music” or “making love”. It comes out of a cadence which emanates naturally without a control.” This cadence for Dennis Lee is a national sensibility in a land where in the initial phase   of the literary journey there was no history and mythology but only geography and landscape. Canadian writing in English has always shown an aim to instill the national sensibility in the readers via literature . Citing Coomi S. Vevaina , we can form agreement with the fact that “Canada has been an independent country since 1857 but its psychological transition from a colony to a nation has been extremely slow and painful mainly on account of the “colonial cringe”  which is deeply imprinted on the Canadian sensibility.” (70).In Canadian history, culture and milieu, we find strange patterns of colonization. It has shown multicolored shades from the time of the early settlers to the modern phase of literary and cultural  discourses, and different other  narratives. Airudh P Trivedi’s statement is quite appropriate here when he states that:

Colonialism , a historical reality in Canada , evoked different literary responses in English Canadian literature .Canada in the early  stages of colonization was an extension of Europe , creating a new Garden of Eden , a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy , and the Canadian was the new Adam. For decades, Canadians have puzzled over the enigma of national identity over their ambiguous destiny, searching for the characteristics which make them distinctly Canadian, something more than American and British. This sort of creative anxiety reaches the level of elegiac eloquence in many great Canadian works , such as George Grant’s Lament  for a Nation(1965),A.J.M Smith’s Masks of Poetry (1962), Northrop Fry’s The Modern Century (1967) and other works dealing with environmental criticism . F.F. Grove’s article “In Search of Myself” and Douglas Lepan’s “A Country Without Mythology” echo the same anxiety. (53)

In this context, Dennis Lee finds ‘cadence’ as “the medium” and “the raw stone” wherein “the poem is already sustained.” To him, “writing means cutting away everything that isn’t the poem”. Dennis Lee finds that one cannot write a poem but “can only help it stand free in the torrent.”  The poem is “what remains, it is local cadence minus whatever is extraneous to its shapely articulation.” The 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 celebration, of dying ….  A poem enacts those living movements in words.” (Lee, ‘Cadence,1)  This ‘poem’ is the concrete form of  the national sensibility, and ‘cadence’ is something like an objective co-relative; it is natural, free flowing ,sustaining  and invisible also, which is ‘imagination’, ‘psyche’ and ‘spirit’ along with being the ‘field of force’. Dennis Lee has expressed and felt this cadence in his poetry as well. His theory and praxis both   show fine tuning and synchronization.  In the words of Trivedi , “ Cadence shapes mediation in a poem . Lee calls himself a meditative poet. But what is this process of meditation? By meditation he means the polyphonic shift from infliction to inflection, the resonance of vocal timbers from one moment to another moment.”(‘Cadence, 60).His meditation is the perfect borrowing of cadence .Meditation emanates out of the association of cadence and country. It is a result of a kind of chemical blending of the sensibility and context. Dennis Lee  writes that  to be a meditation , “a poem must embody in voice the way its experience is initially focused –then processed to envoice another focusing, and then another .To live its way, to deeper and deeper knowing , which is what a meditation does , it must modulate from one vocal embodiment to another.” (Lee, “Polyphony: Enacting   Meditation” 85). Dennis Lee’s observations in “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space” also scales the contexts of Canadian literature.

It is generally observed that as a native from Canada is  forced to use a language which is for the most part alien. Many times, it shows the vocabulary that has meaning for only the metropolitan and urban audience .In fact, these texts  seldom show any relevance for the land  if  fail to create the  association  with  some ordinary reader. It is a deep irony with reference to the literary context, representation and association with the reality . We can easily find it as a kind of cultural imposition and the trend of jeopardizing the local culture and ethnicity  by the imported elitist artifacts .This trend is found not only in the Canadian context but shows its pervasiveness  across the globe where English is in business under the rubric of New Literatures in English. Robert Kroetsch expresses his concern on this issue by stating that “the Canadian writer’s particular predicament is that he works with a language, within a literature, that appears to be authentically his own, and not a borrowing. But just as there was in the Latin word a concealed Greek experience, so there is in the Canadian word a concealed other experience, sometimes British, sometimes American.” (Kroetsch in  Robert etal.,394)

In “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space”, Dennis Lee explores the twofold dilemma faced by writers who are both colonizer and colonized. For Lee and other authors with the home bound flair, the recurring lack of voice, indicates that the contemporary Canadians have more in common with those groups  whose voices have been checked and  eradicated. Arguing that “the colonial writer does not have words of his own...The words I knew said Britain and they said America, but they did not say my home”, Lee emphasizes the fact that he is a product of colonial society, who has learned, yet is also restricted by the colonizer’s language (Lee, in  Robert etal, 399).

Having neither a voice nor language of his own, he experiences writers inactive in away , and to contest and conquer this crisis, he suggests that the authors  must take this “foreign” language and make it his own. As his understanding and  national identity are distinctive, Dennis Lee believes that it is not sufficient to take a British or American story and set it within a Canadian context. Eventually, the language must be translated before visualizing its bearing to the native and local situation and daily experiences concerned. “Translating words which relate to the Canadian experience and all this entails, including “City”, meaning “Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax” rather than the remote metropolis, Lee creates his own language and is able to resume his writing (Lee in  Robert etal., 401). This language, existing independently becomes a distinct Canadian form of expression relevant to life in the late twentieth century, when to be Canadian means more than merely to be a descendant of the original native population. As many Canadians feel that they themselves are native to this country, the question of identity remains a dominant discourse within Canadian fiction, both native and national.” (

Dennis Lee’s “Cadence Country Silence : Writing in Colonial Space” is a lecture that he delivered to the journalists in audience. To Lee , Cadence is the urge to do something for society and nation where he lives. It is the wilderness and the human environment both . Dennis Lee states that, “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.”(Lee, 3).This is, of course, the call of the land , the people and culture around .Lee finds  it suggesting , complaining, and asking for attention initially , and speaks further , “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 kinesthetic perception of the muscles.  More and more I sense this energy as presence, both outside and inside myself, teeming toward words.” (Lee, 4).It becomes more clear when Dennis Lee confesses that “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.(Lee,4).The flow of the cadence is strong , moving and authentic .It takes its own course , and stands unstoppable. To Lee, it is the latent energy with a cause, Its purpose is greater, and exposure well calculated with quite cohering approximation a propos to the urge and voices of the land and clime. Cadence is inbuilt and blended with the acculturation of the human being. It is a part of the greater ‘culturescape’ .The inbuilt raw structure keeps on affecting by different pressures and habits .Whenever it finds a favourable environment, suddenly germinates into a new creeper. For a poet with a cause , the intellectual groundwork is not referred before any act of creation .The locale directs the creator to translate it into words .The realization of the time and clime find shape in the words . “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.” (Lee,6). Language becomes the central concern of the practitioners in New Literature in English .In the same pattern, “language for Lee is the central issue of living and writing in a colonial space. It is an indispensable instrument of distinguishing between authenticity and in authenticity, between presence and absence, between being and non -being.” (Trivedi 54). The following verses of Dennis Lee offer a quite uncommon pattern of language:

I eat the darkness…
hearing the word that rides beneath the silence
My ground is your abyss, and then my breathing
He cannot speak what is , unless his words
be uttered by the darkness where it rides
yes , only in this absence …
only in this poverty
and can the simple-witted spring
achieve right flowers in the fetid concrete(Kingdom of Absence, XXXIV).

These lines are self explanatory and prepare  a thoughtful context between ‘ours’ and ‘there’s’, be it content or the form of language .The problematic is visible across the trajectories of new literatures in English. Writing in a colonial context , is constraining as well as liberating , as it mistrusts  both the language and the culture .However it authenticates  itself by evolving  new strategies of the language that is capable of providing a path to the inner space through  participation in the process of remembrance and recalling of the things that are real and revealing. The most desired goal for Lee is, therefore, shaping a new form of discourse, a new imaginative force in Canadian intellectual life, for it is only through the native speech that we feel our own presence in our own civic space.”(Trivedi 54).By touching the roots, Dennis Lee emerges a global hero .The global perspective with local roots becomes a greater global fit. Dennis Lee’s “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space” offers a true picture of what R.D. MacDonald remarks about him. MacDonald observes about Dennis Lee that “ his own lapse into a noxious silence , to the fate of a whole nation transformed into a colony by the American Mass Media.”(Mac Donald,10). It is therefore, Dennis Lee is contemporary and important not only in Canada but across the globe.



Works Cited and Consulted:

Boundary 2   .Vol. 3, No. 1, Autumn, 1974.

Dennis Lee. From: Body Music, Toronto: Anansi, 1998. 3-25. originally published in 1972.

--- --- ---. “Polyphony: Enacting   Meditation.” Tasks of Passion. Ed. Karen Mulhallen, Donna Bennet  and Russel Brown .Toronto: Descent Edition .1982.

--- --- ---. Kingdom of Absence. Toronto: House of Anansi.1967.

--- --- ---- ‘Writing in Colonial Space’ in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Postcolonial Studies Reader . London: Routledge .1995.

Kroetsch , Robert. ‘Unhiding the Hidden’. in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Postcolonial Studies Reader . London: Routledge .1995.

R.D.MacDonald. “Lee’s Civil Elegies in relation to Grant’s Lament for A Nation”. Canadian Literature No 98. Autumn 1998. 

Trivedi , Anirudh P. “Writing in Colonial Space : Poetry of Dennis Lee”. Indian Journal of Canadian Studies. No 1, 1992.

Vevaina, Coomi S.  “The Shadow of Eden: Mythology of Landscape”. Indian Journal of Canadian Studies. No 1, 1992.