For award-winning poet and teacher John B. Lee, its
writing about hockey, history, the Beatles, hard work and an enduring
love of the land.
By Julie Mason
poetry often deals with a state of grace and the elevated sense
of being alive in the here and now of the game," says Brantford
poet John B. Lee, talking about the many poems he has written about
hockey. "You practice playing in order to achieve an automatic
grace. And only once in a while do you achieve that state. Of course,
the better the athlete, the more frequent the perfection of play.
Writing is like that. The more blessed you are with talent, the
harder you work, the more likely you are to achieve those moments
when the writing goes well."
Lee has had many such moments. He has
published 22 books of poetry, with two more collections coming out
in 1998. His work has been recognized with two Milton Acorn Peoples
Poetry Awards, and in 1995 he won the prestigious Tilden/CBC award
for poems telling the history of black settlement in southern Ontario.
Lees work shows his broad range
of interests hockey, music, the Beatles, small-town Ontario,
the drudgery and dignity of farming and the complexities of a rural
Many of his poems celebrate men who work
the land like Tom, the farm worker in Hired Hands, or Herb Lee,
his grandfather, who is the centre of Variations on Herb. "My
grandfather was a world-class shepherd. He was honoured and known
wherever sheep breeding was acknowledged. At the same time, he was
a curmudgeon, a character, difficult to know."
POETRY AT HOME
Although doing "real work"
always came first when Lee was growing up, there was poetry in his
home. "My grandfather had copies of the collected works of
Tennyson, Browning and Longfellow in the upstairs hallway bookcase
located just outside my bedroom door. My Uncle John, who also lived
with us, or rather we all lived together, loves the poetry of Robert
Service. He recently gave me the assignment of tracking down Drydens
translation of Georgics, a long poem about agriculture my
father and uncle are both shepherds, and Uncle John had memorized
a passage about raising sheep."
Many of Lees poems are centred
on the land. "One of the most important things I learned on
the land was the value of work. That discipline makes me a committed
and hard-working writer. I love to work, really. The second thing
I learned, which I cherish as a lesson, is a respect for continuity.
We are merely guardians of the earth. It is given us in trust. We
have a duty to make improvements."
In Tongues of the Children, Lees
most ambitious work to date, he turned his attention to the early
history of the people of southern Ontario. The work includes the
story of the 1837 Western Rebellion in the London District of Upper
Canada, the history of Irish immigrants and the tale of blacks in
Upper Canada from slave years through the 1850s.
Lee, who is related by blood to Harriet
Beecher Stowe, was inspired to "look around for seldom-told
stories of the voiceless in the history of early Ontario."
He sees this collection as his most and least autobiographical book.
"My least in that it is not about my life. My most in that
it emerges from a strong sense of conviction that all lives are
worth remembering, celebrating and ensouling."
TEACHERS IMPORTANT INFLUENCES
Lee began writing poetry in Grade 11.
"My primary inspiration was the poetry anthology I was studying
in school. I read it at random and discovered such wonderful poems
by Dylan Thomas, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Keats. Coleridge
was a particular favourite." The next year he found Canadian
poets, including Irving Layton, who remained a major influence for
school teachers were important to Lee. "Mr. Cooper, a teacher
I had in Grade 12... provided us with a reading list, and I
made my way slowly and secretly from top to bottom." In
Grade 13, Lees teacher "complimented Leonard Cohen
by saying that Cohens great strength was the originality
and freshness of his metaphors. I remember seeing that as a
challenge. I injected a kind of temporarily self-conscious exotica
to my own exploration of metaphor."
Lees first poems were about
the Beatles. "My earliest work was really bad. Im
not ashamed of it. Its like early photographs. If we
make fun of ourselves for the way we were, then weve
forgotten. I like the earnest boy rhyming Ringo-Pingo. He
was a good kid. A big fan of the boys from England."
At the University of Western Ontario,
Lee studied under Stan Dragland, a professor of Canadian literature.
"In addition to being a wonderful teacher of literature,
he was also a masterful editor," says Lee. "He encouraged
my early work and impressed me with his generosity and his
gentle manner. It is no accident that he went on to become
the poetry editor of McClelland and Stewart. I also had the
good fortune to meet Margaret Avison when she was writer-in-residence
at Western. Her enthusiastic encouragement meant a great deal
to me when I was young, impressionable and perhaps vulnerable
For many years, Lee combined full-time
teaching and writing. "I taught high school English and
Dramatic Arts for about 12 years, from 1976 through 1989,
at a small rural school in Waterford... Since I left teaching
full-time, Ive taught creative writing to students of
all ages from K to Grade 13.
No Such Thing
as a Good Master
He may have manumitted his favourite
He may have treated his field hands
Bought them baubles in New Orleans.
Spared the taws and the hanging
Let his children love them like
Suckled his babes at mammys
Allowed them to marry
whomever they wished.
Released the chains that bound
them in coffles.
Purchased a few
to save them from the whip
of Simon Legree.
Schooled the house boys who were
and sweetened the scamps with candy.
But there is no such thing
as a good master.
If you would own a man
there is no art in argument
will change the fact that you have collaborated in context
with the worst and darkest draconian blot on human blood.
If you would own a man
you owe God an apology.
We Are Dying" in Tongues of the Children
Black Moss Press, 1996
"I vary my approach according to
the age, interest level and ability of my students," says Lee.
"The one guiding principle of my teaching is that we read before
we write. I base my ideas on the concept that a poem has three components:
a form, a style and a content. By form I mean the genre of the poem.
By style I mean the elements of individual voice. By content I mean
the experience of the poet contained by the poem.
"I very rarely suggest anything
regarding content, except to say things such as write what
you know and care about. If you dont care about the sky, dont
write about the sky."
Lees own inspiration to write begins
with the first line. "Even if I want to write about a particular
experience, no matter how compelling, I wait until I receive the
gift of the line which opens the poem... Metaphor remains important
to me. When a metaphor of particular beauty enters the poem, it
enriches the experience for me as a writer."
Lee is a staunch supporter of Canadian
writing. "I love Neruda, Heaney, Rilke, Milosz, Szymborska,
Hughes, Berry, Brodsky, Yevtushenko. But then theres Layton
and theres Purdy, and Acorn and Birney."
As he does so often in his poetry, Lee
turns back to the land. "I think field grown tomatoes produced
in Chatham every summer are the best field-grown tomatoes I have
ever tasted. Why would it seem unlikely that we might also produce
some of the best writers in the world?"
You can find more excerpts from John
B. Lees books at the Black Moss Press Web site at www.blackmosspress.on.ca