Sunday, July 06, 2008
Don McKay and Geopoetry
That's Don McKay -- or rather a distant silhouette of Don McKay, in probably the worst photo I will ever post on this blog -- giving the the Anne Szumigalski memorial lecture this year. A most engaging and erudite lecture it was. It took place at St. John's Fluvarium, a pavilion on a river where you could go down and see the river life through glass windows -- reeds bending with the current, fish spawning, etc. A suitable setting for his topic -- geopoetry, or poetry about geography (read nature, earth, non-human cosmos, universe.) Within those vast frames of reference he compared the Romantic poets with the likes of Chris Dewdney, and by implication, himself. Considering the way he framed the issue, it should come as no surprise that the Romantics should come away as, if "seductive", as he put it, rather naive and human-centred in their expressions of awe at the unknowability of nature, while Dewdney and others, with their familiarity with science, are wholly comfortable with a universe so enormous and utterly ancient it makes the entire human enterprise seem an infinitesimal speck. This makes Dewdney et al wiser, and more capable of respecting nature in and for itself.
My problem with that thesis is that both Dewdney and himself are comfortable academics who write out of equanimity. Their work, whatever its merits, is largely cerebral. None of the present-day geopoets I bet have been able to write anything with the passion, verve and lyricism of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Tintern Abbey, Ozymandias, the Lucy Poems, The West Wind, Kubla Khan, Mont Blanc, let's see, what other flaming masterpieces? Seductive indeed. It strikes me, though, there's something crucial missing in a lot of their work.
But before I go much further out on a limb with my pronouncements, I should actually read more of McKay, Dewdney, as well as Tom Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, recent Roo Borson & Robert Bringhurst, to name those described as "ecopoets" on the Wikepedia site. That would, of course, keep my lips moving for quite a while. And my brain hurts to contemplate it, I'm afraid...
Update, June 8: Well, I have less to be afraid of than I thought. I've read about 30 pages of Camber, McKay's selected, and am quite enjoying it. Clearly my calling him "cerebral" was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. He does beautiful renditions of birds, and who ever heard of an untranscendent bird? (Unless it's a flightless bird, a chicken, turkey, ostrich or penguin...and penguins are awfully cute, their own kind of transcendence.) There's something to my criticisms above, but it will require a more nuanced critique. Consider the above a critique in progress (in other words: a half-baked critique!).
Last year I started reading Strike/Slip, and found my interest flagged: after reading through Camber, I think I'll give it another go.