Picked up the new Books in Canada today. In it is Carmine Starnino's bracing evaluation of Don McKay's latest, and Griffin-winning, book--a review that places the book within the context not only of McKay's oeuvre, but also of the school of poetry populated by McKay's ephebes and mentees.
Not surprisingly, Carmine's not on the McKay bandwagon and he has some pretty blunt words for those who are:
His popularity operates on the principle that anyone who doesn't venerate his work hasn't really understood it. Perhaps that's true. And perhaps his popularity reveals us to be a country of astonishingly easy graders.
No doubt the choir will be up in arms--even if only in decorously quiescent private conversation--over this assault on the high priest of contemporary CanPo, but the number of dissenting opinions vis-a-vis McKay's putative greatness is growing to an unignorable critical mass. Carmine adds his voice, as he points out, to Richard Greene's, Shane Neilson's, my own and, more surprisingly perhaps, Don Coles', in wishing that McKay's ample talents were not so often prodigally squandered and that his half-arsed verses weren't held in such veneration. None of us argues that McKay is a "bad poet" per se, just that he could be much better and that he is nowhere near as good as his champions like to think.
I've long suspected that McKay's inflated reputation has a lot to do with his personal charm. I run into the odd person who says some version of "I'm not crazy about his poetry, but he's such a nice guy." These folks, able to tease the poetry and the person who wrote it apart, seem to be in the minority. Perhaps on some level McKay's fans are moved to overestimate his importance because it makes them more special, too: not only is Don McKay one of the best poets writing in English today, but he edited my manuscript. Where would apostles be, without a messiah?
McKay has certainly done what a Canadian poet needs to do to find an audience in this country of big spaces and small population: travel and teach. He's from Ontario, has lived in BC, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, has strong links to Alberta and Saskatchewan, is connected to both the literary and academic communities, and has made many friends in the process. Almost everyone who writes glowingly of him knows him and has worked with him in his capacities as mentor, professor and editor. And when you know someone and love them--this side idolatry in some instances--it's only natural to gloss over their faults and shortcomings, or even to see them as positive virtues: "Oh, there's Don being Don again, isn't he just too much?"
I attended a reading he gave in Halifax a couple of years ago and certainly found him charming. But that's the extent of my contact with him. Maybe if I'd done a workshop at Banff I'd be more inclined to sing with the choir, but not having come under Big Bird's (wish I could say I came up with that nickname on my own) wing, it seems to me that he is not so much a choral conductor as someone waving his arms erratically, counting on the fact that the singers will get his drift.