- Rocking Cosmopolitanism: Don McKay, Strike/Slip, and the Implications of Geology
A. list of Canadian poets of the last half century whose work exemplifies cosmopolitan tendencies would likely not hold Don McKay’s name at the top. Critics of his ten poetry collections and two essay collections have chiefly understood McKay’s work within the context of ecopoetics and post-Romantic thinking (see, for example, Alanna F. Bondar, Adam Dickinson, and Sophia Forster). This is understandable; however, his poetic and non-fictional meditations on non-human nature, and especially geology, have provocative implications for contemporary cosmopolitanism discourse and suggest an unexplored link between two scholarly fields pertinent to his work. In order to elucidate these broader implications of his writing, and to thereby balance the current critical appraisal of McKay as nature poet par excellence, a view that risks underestimating those broader implications, it is first necessary to clarify the salient characteristics of cosmopolitanism.
At present, there is little scholarly consensus on what cosmopolitanism entails—does it describe a mere familiarity with world cultures; does it describe the real experience of postnationalism, of international travel and migration; is it primarily an aesthetic, an ethic, or both? Besides this semantic difficulty, however, the more obvious reason for McKay’s position [End Page 165] on my hypothetical list of cosmopolitan poets is that, unlilke some others such as Irving Layton, Gary Geddes, and Michael Ondaatje, McKay rarely takes a sustained look at other (human) cultures in his verse. It is rare that he publishes poems that start and end in a “foreign” culture, and instead of populating his work with fleshed-out humans, he more often focuses on the natural world, self identifying as a nature poet in essays like “Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home and Nature Poetry” and “The Bushtits’ Nest” (Vis à Vis 2001) and in his 2001 interview with Ken Babstock. question then becomes whether nature poetry necessarily precludes a sophisticated engagement with ideas from around the world and, more specifically, relevance for cosmopolitanism discourse. When McKay’s poet-speaker explores his interaction with the otherness of nature, grappling with challenging epistemological and ontological issues, does the absence of other in-the-flesh people in the poem negate the mental expansiveness displayed? answer, of course, is no. In fact, McKay’s poetics, especially as it is focused in his recent collection, Strike/Slip (2006), winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, offers a valuable reconception of global connectivity based on a shared link to geology, a link that cuts across (or beneath) cultures and which is mutually supportive of his ethics of appropriation.
The task of identifying the implications of McKay’s poetry for cosmopolitan discourse, aside from what might appear as his “uncosmopolitan” content, is also complicated by his consistently ironic and playful tone (see Forster) and by his “self-effacing poetic persona” (Cook ix). This trademark humility, playfulness, and eschewing of appropriation is identified by numerous commentators on his work, such as Brian Bartlett, Kevin Bushell, Méira Cook, Forster, Ross Leckie, Travis Mason, and McKay himself, and it makes difficult the isolation and generalization of his philosophical positions from his poems. Typically, his self-conscious poet-speakers either attempt to limit impositions on the world observed, which includes limiting any prescriptive philosophizing, or else they fail in their appropriations in such a way that McKay’s disapproval becomes clear. poet, writes Travis Mason, “sets the offhand—the impromptu and distinctively un pretentious—against Poetry, capitalized here not incidentally, as a way to represent and value the more-than-human world with a measure of humility” (88). This reverence and humility, often conveyed through self-deprecating humour, may also explain why McKay is hesitant to explicitly extend the implications of his ecological ethics to the realm of human interaction. Yet, close reading of his poems, especially those in Strike/Slip, and his essays reveals that his ideas can change the way we understand the interconnection of diverse cultures, and therefore the [End Page 166] concept of cosmopolitanism, by providing a spatial conceptualization of that connection and an ethics.
The resurgence of interest in cosmopolitanism in the last twenty years was prompted by rapidly advancing...