Don McKay

Donald Fleming McKay, poet, editor, essayist, teacher (b at Owen Sound, Ont 1942). Raised in Cornwall, Ontario, Don McKay split his post-secondary studies between BISHOP'S UNIVERSITY in Québec and the UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO (MA 1966).

McKay, Donald Fleming

Donald Fleming McKay, poet, editor, essayist, teacher (b at Owen Sound, Ont 1942). Raised in Cornwall, Ontario, Don McKay split his post-secondary studies between BISHOP'S UNIVERSITY in Québec and the UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO (MA 1966). He pursued a doctorate at Swansea University College, Wales (PhD 1971), where he studied Dylan Thomas's poetry. Afterward, McKay began teaching English and creative writing at the University of Western Ontario. In 1975 he and Stan DRAGLAND started Brick Books, a small press that publishes Canadian poetry. McKay continues to edit numerous volumes of poetry each year for Brick Books and other presses. His editing and teaching led McKay, in 1990, to the UNIVERSITY OF NEW BRUNSWICK's creative writing program, where he taught and edited The Fiddlehead, a literary magazine, for 5 years. In 1996 McKay retired from teaching to focus on writing full-time, and moved to Vancouver Island with his then-partner, poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky. Since then, he has published 8 books, including essays and 2 compilations of selected works.

Don McKay's peripatetic life and his amateur birding have influenced his writing. While his early work tended toward surrealism and the long poem - Long Sault (1975) and Lependu (1978) - his breakthrough on the national poetry scene occurred in the 1980s with his fourth book, Birding, or desire (1983). In Birding, or desire McKay developed the related disciplines of writing poetry and birdwatching, which would define his persona and career. With poems such as "Close-Up on a Sharp-Shinned Hawk," "The Great Blue Heron," and "Fridge Nocturne," McKay gained recognition as an important Canadian poet who, as one reviewer put it, demonstrates a considerable "gift for metaphor" while paying close attention to the natural world.

Since the 1990s, Don McKay has cemented his reputation as a skilled observer attuned to the small details of domestic life, industrial culture, and nature. Listening to music (jazz, blues, classical) and examining tools (drum pedals, cars, utensils) are ways to consider interior and exterior worlds. The act of listening recurs throughout McKay's work, and music, bird song, and vernacular speech all contribute to an active poetics of listening that is most apparent in McKay's various "songs" for specific birds, iincluding "Song for the Song of the Wood Thrush" and "Song for the Song of the White-Throated Sparrow." In these poems, McKay crafts descriptions that implicate human listeners in ecological relations. In his later poetry, rocks and stones join birds as the chief subjects of McKay's poetic attention.

His fascination with geology emerges from what is perhaps McKay's most influential contribution to Canadian poetics, which he introduced in the essay "Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home, and Nature Poetry" (1993). Writing about the ethics of nature poetry, McKay offers a description of wilderness that refers not only to a physical world in crisis but to the agency and unknowability of the non-human. Wilderness, for McKay, lies beyond the limits of ownership; it is evident, for example, when a sparrow's song resists translation into English, or when a tool breaks down and ceases to function as it is meant to. The "geopoetry" McKay practices in Deactivated West 100 (2005) and Strike/Slip (2006) extends this notion of wilderness to include the earth itself and the difficulties in imagining and comprehending the "slow catastrophe" of the past 4.5 billion years. Hence, language itself reveals its limitations and only metaphor - the wilderness of language - can gesture toward meaning. Don McKay's poetics have been linked to other contemporary poet-thinkers, such as Tim Lilburn, Dennis LEE, Roo BORSON, Robert BRINGHURST, and Jan Zwicky.

Don McKay has won the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD for poetry twice, for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000), and was nominated in the nonfiction category for Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001). He was the Canadian winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip (2006), which was also awarded the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. In 2007, McKay moved to St. John's, Newfoundland. He was named a Member of the ORDER OF CANADA in 2008.


Further Reading

  • Don McKay, Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001); Don McKay, Strike/Slip (2006); Brian Bartlett, ed. Don McKay: Essays on His Works (2006); Méira Cook, ed. Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay (2006).