Saturday, 25 October 2014

Are You at Risk of McKaybetes?

"In rooting (in both senses) for the often empty calories of [Don] McKay’s words," writes Michael Lista, "our waistlines lengthening and blood sugar spiking, too many of us have succumbed to our national disease: McKaybetes." On the occasion of McKay's collected poems, Angular Unconformity, Lista tries to unpick the mystery behind that debilitating condition:
The question is: why McKay? Why did he, and not the half-dozen or so other top poets of his generation (who I suppose are now post-eminent), become the institution? There are a couple of reasons. By the time Birding, or desire appeared in 1983, McKay, with his ear for vernacular and rural affectations, looked like a natural inheritor of Purdy’s laureateship — itself rather dubious, looking back. His ecological high-mindedness was glossed with just enough aesthetic disaffection to make him seem cool, an attribute, real or imagined, about which Canadian poets are hysterically self-conscious. And the drive of his poems, all torque and no traction, dovetailed nicely with the emerging poetics of trying to get nowhere as quickly as possible (which itself is a cliché: “It’s less about the destination than the journey”).
Of course, there are Canadian poets who, bang for buck, are much better for your intellectual health:
It has to be said: If you put McKay cheek-to-jowl with other top, but less socially influential, practitioners of his generation, his work pales. Let’s meet him on his home turf, nature writing. Here he is on flora: “Flowers begin inhaling through their roots / exhaling darkness.” Again, McKay goes in for the sonorous vagary. Here’s the ex-pat Eric Ormsby on another flora, lichens: “Far-off they’re starlike, spiky as galaxies./ Like us they clutch and grip their chilly homes/ And the wind defines their possibilities.” Not only is he more magisterial by being precise, Ormsby less anthropomorphizes the lichens as he floralizes us, and in doing so sees the natural world in the human X-ray. Here’s the exquisite Robyn Sarah on a desiccated bouquet: “Brittle, dry and brown, / it seemed to speak too plainly of a waste / of friendship, forced to flower, culled in haste.”
Zach Wells dips his toe into the debate:
Michael Lista, in one of his strongest columns to-date for the National Post, has weighed in on Don McKay's doorstopper Collected Poems. He gets it mostly right, I think, but when he says that McKay has "spent a lifetime avoiding seeing the human in the natural world," he has done little more than repeat the press kit. As I argued in my long review essay of McKay's oeuvre-in-progress seven years ago (an updated version of which can be read in my recently published prose collection), this isn't really what happens in McKay poems. Rather, I'd rephrase Lista's statement thus: "Don McKay has spent a lifetime pretending to avoid seeing the human in the natural world." In actual fact, he does it all the time, especially if you compare him with that pre-eminent observer of the non-human world, John Clare--a birdwatching poet who comes up remarkably infrequently in prose by and about McKay. What appears to be a disjunction between McKay's poetics and his poems is actually evidence that McKay's poems tend to be more versified poetics than poems in their own right. Which is another reason, I think, he has been well-received by academic readers: not only do his poems tell you what you should be observing, as Lista points out, they also tell you what you should be thinking while you observe, and they tell you what you should be thinking about the poems themselves. They are therefore very easy to write about and to package in an interpretive argument.

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