Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

“your heart’s tongue seized mid-syllable” – Poetry as a Practice with Don McKay

Fans (secretly or otherwise) of The Sound of Music got a kick as host David O’Meara somewhat slyly summoned Julie Andrews and said, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” The afternoon treat, featuring a high-school group joining in, was a masterclass session with celebrated Canadian poet Don McKay who has just released his 584 page tome of his collected poems, Angular Unconformity.


McKay confessed that his social skills were of a limited quantity—owing to his introversion—and that he had mostly used it up at a previous engagement in Montreal, and asked his audience’s forgiveness in advance. The striking thing about this confession is that it conjured up Susan Cain’s Quiet.  As he revealed his biography, he explained in his early days that he was “a bad poet, but eager.” This fault, was the twinned inexperience of age and the penchant of youth for self-expression. The cost being that there isn’t really all that much to express. He admitted to only start surmounting this limitation as he found other interests, such as bird-watching and geology, that took him outside his own self and to the wonders of the natural world.


While speaking in this vein, he mentioned that in the early 1960s lounging around in Montreal cafés reading Camus’ L’Étranger, he felt loneliness and instead of having Suzanne or Marianne make an appearance, he found something far more valuable – the shift to solitude. Learning about this lost art is something that is perhaps harder than it has ever been to do, with our culture affirming the cult of narcissism and where rewarded virtues are public ones, oozed by extroverts.


The mentors whom McKay pays homage to are readily recognizable poets of the English canon: Pound, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. He recommends imitation as a means to become fluent with the mazes of meaning words can conjure in order to find one’s own poetic voice. He also offers an alternative to the idea, perhaps best popularized by Northrop Frye, that literature sources its font in other books. For McKay there is some truth to this, but for him, engaging with the natural world was what provided manna for his poetic longings. He expressed that “I want to be writing rather than be done,” a sentiment that most writers wish were true if it isn’t for them.

Since the left brain is wonderful at “taxonomy,” and classifying the world, what is supremely useful in reductive science is left with “an important aesthetic problem,” of trying to use words to illumine than possess. For this, McKay would elaborate, one has to allow the right part of the brain time to allow its attentiveness to mature. Being in Newfoundland has allowed McKay to appreciate the many geological problems that craggy, beautiful island has helped unravel, and rest in its rugged allure. Some of my favourite moments of the afternoon were in seeing McKay light up in describing the flight of hawks down South through a narrow point by Lake Erie, and in his description of what an “angular unconformity” means in scientific terms.


A quote with much abiding power is one of James Hutton, the founder of modern geology whom McKay deeply admires: “We find no vestige of a beginning, and no prospect of an end.” In opening up windows so that “infinity can pour out” through his poetry, McKay has accomplished much in his long career. It was a satisfying occasion to see the curtains pulled back on his working life for our delectation and grasp.