Tell the Ones You Love, now more than ever

Column: The Balm of Poetry Part 6 – Dennis Lee’s Tell the Ones You Love

Tell the Ones You Love – A short, sweet poem about love. As we struggle to cope with the terrible sweep of this unforgiving virus, Rod Mickleburgh says he finds it particularly apt.

Poet Dennis Lee

By Rod Mickleburgh

This affecting poem was written by one of Canada’s best poets, Dennis Lee. His marvelous Civil Elegies, a long, often angry but elegantly written meditation on Toronto, Canada and its colonization by the United States, anchored a collection of his poetry that won the Governor General’s Award in 1972. Award-winning Canadian literature critic Wayne Mount has called Civil Elegies “our Waste Land.”

Of course, Lee may be most known to Canadians for his wonderful, zany poems for children, first collected together in Alligator Pie. They were so good, observed pre-eminent Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, “you can almost hear skipping rope slapping the sidewalk.” Many referenced Canada. Dead Men in Edmonton, Kahshe or Chicoutimi and my favourite: William Lyon Mackenzie King/Sat in the middle & played with string/And he loved his mother like anything –/William Lyon Mackenzie King. Who could resist? Parents couldn’t. They bought his book for their kids in the hundreds of thousands, because, one suspects, many of them secretly adored the poems themselves. All told, Canada’s “poet laureate for children” has written more than 15 books of children’s poems.

Yet, Dennis Lee is such a fine poet, it would be a shame if Alligator Pie were all Canadians knew about his way with verse. It just shines, poem after poem.


By Dennis Lee

Tell the ones you love, you

                                                        love them;

                                     tell them now.

                 For the day is coming, and also the night will come,

when you will neither say it, nor hear it, nor care.

                                        Tell the ones you love.

     I have lost many who mattered, and I will say it again:

                           tell the ones you love, you love them.

                                                   Tell them today.



And not only that, there is more to Lee than his poetry. With apologies to François Girard’s fine film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, here are 10 Short (Other) Things About Dennis Lee.

  1. Dennis Lee and Margaret Atwood were university contemporaries, who worked together on Acta Victoriana, the literary publication of U of T’s Victoria College in 1958.
  2. Along with David Godfrey, Dennis Lee co-founded the venerable, groundbreaking and purposefully nationalist literary press, House of Anansi, a home for so many great Canadian writers over the years.
  3. In the heyday of the Sixties, Dennis Lee was heavily involved in the establishment of Rochdale College, a multi-storied, idealistic experiment in student co-operative living and alternative education in downtown Toronto that eventually degenerated into a chaotic haven for drugs and crime.
  4. At about the same time, he co-edited, with Howard Edelman, a series of essays on breaking down the rigidity of university education, called The University Game.
  5. Dennis Lee wrote the lyrics and Canadian composer Philip Balsam the music for nearly 200 songs, including the theme, for Jim Henson’s beloved muppet show, Fraggle Rock.
  6. The album, Jim Henson’s Muppets present Fraggle Rock, featuring many of their numbers, shared the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album with Shel Silverstein.
  7. Dennis Lee wrote the commissioned novella that formed the basis of Jim Henson’s last movie Labyrinth, with a finished screenplay by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame and featuring an interesting fellow in a starring role named David Bowie.
  8. A line from Civil Elegies, slightly revised by Scottish nationalist Alasdair Gray, is one of 24 inscriptions on the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall.
  9. Dennis Lee’s first book of poetry, Kingdom of Absence, was also the first book published by House of Anansi in 1967. Fifty years later, his definitive collection, Heart Residence, Collected Poems 1967-2017, was also published by House of Anansi.
  10. Dennis Lee is married to my good friend, the Canadian novelist Susan Perly, with whom I “worked” for two unforgettable, laugh-filled years on U of T’s student newspaper, The Varsity.

Dennis Lee. One of the best.



For more Mickleburgh, you can visit Mickleblog or the Ex-Press archives. 
Main image: Fraggle Rock, a Jim Henson creation that showcased love.
THE EX-PRESS, May 2, 2020




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