On Frye and Don McKay, Ecopoet


Don McKay (photo by Shelley Banks; the original copyright photo appeared on http://latitudedrifts.blogspot.ca/2013/05/sage-hill-poetry-colloquium-spring.html)

We are delighted to publish the following article. John Nyman is a graduate student and Toronto-based poet. He is currently beginning PhD studies in Theory and Criticism at Western University.

Frye’s Social Function of Literature and the Ecopoetry of Don McKay

John Nyman

When Northrop Frye claims, in The Educated Imagination, that “literature belongs to the world man constructs, not to the world he sees; to his home, not his environment” (12), his vision seems radically disconnected from that of the nature poet or ecopoet, who seeks to represent or even protect nature by portraying it in literary language. For example, “com[ing] to grips with the practice of nature poetry in a time of environmental crisis” is the central concern of Vis à Vis (9), the first of three books of philosophical and field notes by Don McKay, one of Canada’s foremost ecopoets. In accordance with this aim, McKay begins his book with an ethical stance against the “one pole of our relations to material existence” he calls “matériel,” a “second-order appropriation” which “address[es] things in the mode of utility” (Vis 20)—an address which feels very much like an important part of Frye’s literature as the language of “what [we] want to construct” (Educated 7). Considering these key images in both thinkers’ works, Frye’s vision of the social function of literature and McKay’s deployment of poetry appear to come up against each other in deadlock. However, a deeper reading of these thinkers shows that Frye’s and McKay’s bodies of thought coalesce on an understanding of nature and society as ethically inseparable, which gives shape to their shared vision of poetry. While each thinker approaches this model from a different direction—Frye from a central interest in humanism and McKay from the political standpoint of ecology—reading their understandings with rather than against each other helps us produce a fuller and more fruitful picture of the relationship between humanity and our natural environment.

In Frye’s most direct discussions of the social function of literature, all of the elements he incorporates into his model are linked to the human and defined by their relationship to the human, initially making his perspective very different from McKay’s. In Words with Power, Frye argues that literature is significant because it engages with the language of myth—the “sacred ground” of human society which defines what a human subject “must know” (as an assumption, not a prescription) in the first place (41)—to focus attention on what he calls “primary concerns”: food, sex, property—“in the sense of what is ‘proper’ to one’s life”—and “liberty of movement” (51). In this way, literature moderates society’s normally overwhelming focus on less important “secondary concerns,” which “include patriotic and other attachments of loyalty, religious beliefs, and class-conditioned attitudes and behavior” (Frye, Words 50). But primary and secondary concerns are still both human concerns, and both the language of mythology and the dialectic or logos Frye opposes it to are human forms; nowhere is the nonhuman implicated in the work of the poet. In contrast, McKay’s explorations of poetic practice highlight a concern with “wilderness,” which is essentially nonhuman and unknown, before even the understanding of “place.” At the outset of Deactivated West 100, McKay explains the contours of his central aim, which involves thinking a perspective outside of Frye’s “sacred ground” of human society:

Suppose we try to define place without using the usual humanistic terms – not home and native land, not little house on the prairie, not even the founding principle of our sense of beauty – but as a function of wilderness. Try this: ‘place is wilderness to which history has happened.’ Or: ‘place is land to which we have occurred.’ Our occurrence to the land – the act which makes place place – could be a major change (homestead, development, resource extraction) or a smaller claim (prospector’s stake, survey marker, plastic tape, souvenir stone), but it shifts the relationship; it brings the wild area into the purview of knowledge and makes it – perhaps momentarily, perhaps permanently – a category of mind. (17-18)

This explanation is corroborated by further elaboration of McKay’s concept of wilderness, which he describes in Vis à Vis as “the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). “Wilderness” is an element of what we commonly call nature which is before or beyond humans’ “primordial grasp,” the gesture which leads us to create our non-natural identity by marking nature as ‘other’ and “establish[ing] the place where representation and recollection occur” (McKay, Vis 22). Wilderness also, then, stands against the extreme form of human “grasping” which is the ruthless appropriation or utilization of the natural world amounting to “the colonization of its death” or “a denial of death altogether” (McKay, Vis 20). This process, for McKay, is the making of “matériel,” or “matérielization” (McKay, Vis 20).

For McKay, poetry is meant to reach out to or register this wilderness which has been hidden by the act of “taking place,” or transforming nature into “a category of mind.” But despite appearing principally nonhuman, McKay’s focus in this claim begins to intersect with Frye’s around both thinkers’ descriptions of metaphor, which are worth analyzing in detail. Several commentators (Coles, Bushell) have noted the dominant role of metaphor in McKay’s poetry, so it is not surprising that it is a recurrent theme in his works of nonfiction. For McKay, metaphor is a device which reverses language’s functioning as a tool which creates, claims, and appropriates knowledge to matérielize what it names. Instead, metaphor always represents a way that we “occur to the land” we use language to point to. This is because “metaphor’s first act is to un-name its subject, reopening the question of reference” by using “sameness against itself to bring the other […] into the totality” (McKay, Vis 69), where this “other” is the “unnameable” sense of wilderness (McKay, Vis 66). “Thanks to metaphor,” McKay says, “we know more; but we also know that we don’t own what we know” (Vis 69). It is this function which allows metaphor to take part in the act of “nam[ing] without claiming” which is the goal of the poetic use of language. In Kevin Bushell’s terms, “[m]etaphor acts for McKay as a springboard into wilderness” (71). The effect of this, and its importance to poetry, is summed up in McKay’s quotation of Adam Zagajewski, who says that “poetry allows us ‘to experience astonishment and to stop in that astonishment for a long moment or two’” (Deactivated 58). Astonishment is for McKay both the awe felt in the presence of wilderness and the ability to turn towards and register that wilderness, wherein we can reconsider its otherness and our relationship to it.

In The Educated Imagination, Frye agrees with McKay’s claim that metaphor fundamentally “isn’t rational” (McKay, Vis 69), stating that metaphor means “turning your back on logic and reason completely” through “crude, primitive, archaic forms” (Frye 16). However, he contradicts McKay when he says the poet uses these forms “because his job is not to describe nature, but to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind” (Frye, Educated 16). How can we reconcile these ideas? Ameliorating his initially bombastic statement, Frye draws a comparison which tempers his exclusion of McKay’s wilderness from the poet’s work. Frye says that the poet

produces what Baudelaire called a ‘suggestive magic including at the same time object and subject, the world outside the artist and the artist himself.’ The motive for metaphor, according to Wallace Stevens, is a desire to associate, and finally to identify, the human mind with what goes on outside it, because the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says, we are also a part of what we know. (Educated 16).

Several phrases are important here. First, the connection between Frye’s final lines and McKay’s insistence on “know[ing] that we don’t own what we know” demonstrates that both Frye and McKay highlight language that humbles its own ability to grasp, claim, and encapsulate that which it names. Significantly, this strategy is part of what is for both thinkers an essential process of “identify[ing] the human mind with what goes on outside it,” or bridging the gap between place and wilderness. Seeing Frye’s connections to McKay’s ecological concerns in this light allows us to more fully understand his precise use of “with” in the claim quoted above. For Frye, ‘identifying with’ does not imply a merger or takeover of wilderness by human imagination and language; rather, it is a process of identifying two equally important kinds of being simultaneously, and with a more complete and productive knowledge of their relationship to each other. Wilderness, or “what goes on outside” the human mind, is necessary for Frye. Though “the imagination won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything” (Frye, Educated 47-48), without the outside, or the remainder of this “everything,” the imagination does not function (and in fact enters a stagnant condition called idolatry, which we will discuss later). In the condition where “the signposts of literature always keep pointing the same way, to a world where nothing is outside the human imagination” (Frye, Educated 48), what they are more literally pointed towards is exactly this “outside,” or wilderness, and in this sense the constitution of literature as dependent on wilderness as it is on what is inside the human imagination. In McKay’s work, this simultaneous importance of the inside and the outside is captured by his emphasis on home as “far from being a concretization of self, […] the place where it pours itself out into the world, interiority opening itself to material expression” (Vis 23), or, elsewhere, poetic language’s need to “wear ears on the outside of the statement” (Vis 66). Greatly helping us to understand the ethical resonance of McKay’s stance, Frye connects this attitude directly to the social function of literature: if “[t]he fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life […] is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in” (Educated 86), such a vision is impossible without turning towards the outside, or wilderness, which is the location of those possibilities we have not yet fully incorporated into human understanding.

It is especially important to McKay that this kind of balance between the inside and outside of human understanding is not so much a stable state as a commitment to moving between the two, aligning oneself to both simultaneously. We get a strong sense this motion in the distinction between McKay’s astonishment and what he describes as petrification. Both ideas come to the fore in the opening pair of poems from his collection Strike/slip, “Astonished—” and “Petrified—”:


astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short

and turned toward stone, the moment

filling with its slow

stratified time. Standing there, your face

cratered by its gawk,

you might be the symbol signifying eon.

What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere

sediments accumulate on seabeds, seabeds

rear up into mountains, ammonites

fossilize into gems. Are you thinking

or being thought? Cities

as sand dunes, epics

as e-mail. Astonished

you are famous and anonymous, the border

washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone

inside you steps from the forest and across the beach

toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.



your heart’s tongue seized

mid-syllable, caught by the lava flow

you fled. Fixed,

you stiffen in the arms of wonder’s dark

undomesticated sister. Can’t you name her

and escape? You are the statue

that has lost the entrance into art,

wild and incompetent,

you have no house. Who are you?

You are the crystal that picks up

Its many deaths.

You are the momentary mind of rock.

(You can also watch a video of McKay reading “Astonished—” and “Petrified—” on the Griffin Poetry Prize website: here)

McKay’s distinction between astonishment and petrification is basically figured in the difference between stone and rock, the words’ roots: for McKay, “a stone is a rock that’s been put to use […]. What happens between rock and stone is simply everything human […]” (Deactivated 59). What is integral to stone is that it represents the presence of a wild material—wild because of its unknowable formation, and inscription of the structures of that formation, outside of human history in the realm of “deep time” (McKay, Shell)—in a materiality which is also used and comprehended by humans. This is what happens when “tools exceed the fact of their construction and exemplify an otherness beyond human design,” or a “wilderness” (Vis 57), or when “[a]rt occurs whenever a tool attempts to metamorphose into an animal” (McKay, Shell 141). This remnant of human concern in astonishment is crucial to its value, and also explains McKay’s repeating metaphor of ‘turning’ in “Astonished—.” If the process of astonishment is one in which its subject is “stopped short / and turned towards stone,” then it is an experience of otherness that is temporary and (eventually) reversible, since the subject’s initial focus—their goal, or the human concerns they were initially turned towards—remains in the field of possibilities. Astonishment is ultimately a splitting of the subject towards wilderness, where “[s]omeone / inside you steps from the forest and across the beach / toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean,” but where the subject’s humanity or sense of place and home is also preserved. The subject is physically transformed by the experience, or even made unrecognizable—“[her] face / cratered by its gawk”—but this transformation opens a series of questions, or an interstitial space between human concerns and wilderness which the subject is momentarily able to “turn” through. Here, the possibility of imagining deep time—as “slow / stratified time” or in the way “you might be the symbol signifying eon”—or the seeming infiniteness of wilderness (as opposed to the “hereness” McKay poses against it in The Shell of the Tortoise (117)) is realized, but does not define the subject’s entire experience. Instead, it creates “the capacity to think backward or forward from place to its mothering wilderness” (Deactivated 26), a motion we can even see in the bridging sibilant movements of the ‘as’ sounds in the poem’s title and its first words, “astounded, astonied, astunned.”

Contrary to this sense of movement and possibility, “Petrified—” (which appears on the reverse side of “Astonished—”, not its facing leaf) emphasizes stillness and loss. The subject of petrification’s humanity (her “heart’s tongue”) is “seized,” she is “[f]ixed,” she “stiffen[s],” and she loses the ability to “name” and “escape.” Recalling McKay’s discussion of metaphor as a technology which reconnects language (as a tool) to its wilderness, petrification stifles one’s ability to re-cross this bridge. The subject is left stranded, without a “house” in more than one sense—in her isolation, her being lost in wilderness or infinity, and her inability to exercise the “claiming” that makes “home.” She loses hold of her humanity, as she is asked by a now unquestionably other subject, “Who are you?” and thus becomes “wild and incompetent.” This is “the vertigo which can afflict us when stone suddenly and unexpectedly reverts to rock, when we are not simply astonished, as in moments of geopoetic insight, but petrified” (Deactivated 47). It is thus also akin to the romantic notion of the sublime (McKay, Shell 43), or what a Canadian literary context recognizes as “being ‘bushed,’ overwhelmed by wilderness energy and made strange to human society” (McKay, Shell 44). Linking this figure to the central character in Earle Birney’s poem, “Bushed,” who “could only / bar himself in and wait / for the great flint to come singing into his heart” (quoted in McKay, Shell 45), McKay shows that this petrification involves the subject’s being taken from her own humanity, into wilderness, where she encounters a kind of evacuation of life similar to that perpetrated on objects in the process of matérielization, but from the opposite direction. Petrification, then, as “wonder’s dark / undomesticated sister,” involves being grasped by the wilderness that refuses to give its subject back, transforming her into “the momentary mind of rock,” fully isolated from human intervention. Though it brings the human subject towards wilderness, it also fully evacuates her claim to humanity. Petrification, then, is the risk of fixedness or objectness that accompanies the poetic striving for astonishment.

Within Frye’s conceptual framework in The Double Vision, petrification and astonishment can be mapped to the “single vision” of idolatry and the more advanced “double vision” which ultimately brings human society closer to the literature of primary concern. In “The Double Vision of Nature,” idolatry involves our “continually sliding back into a state of nature” (Frye, Double 27) in which “we no longer feel part of nature but are helplessly staring at it” (Frye, Double 25). Like McKay’s petrification, it is about stillness or stagnancy, and an inability to progress or develop as a society. More significant, however, is Frye’s claim that idolatry is a “single vision” which cannot simultaneously perceive the natural and the human environment (Double 25). In other words, idolatry involves being engrossed with nature in such a way that we lose perspective, causing our worldview to collapse into singular categories; for McKay, these categories are the infinite or the “anonymous.” Frye’s “double vision,” however, is a perspective that maintains at least two visions of the world simultaneously—that of the inward human world and the outward world of the non-human or wilderness. We could also say it maintains the possibility of moving between them, as Blake does in the verse that provides the title for Frye’s book:

For double the vision my eyes do see,

And a double vision is always with me:

With my inward eye ’tis an old man grey;

With my outward a thistle across my way. (Double 22)

For McKay, this possibility of this movement is precisely the “geopoetic insight” of astonishment, a “turning toward stone” which leaves available “the capacity to think backward or forward from place to its mothering wilderness.”

Although idolatry stems from an obsession with nature, Frye says that it more precisely means “regarding [nature] as a mirror of ourselves, from within the prison of Narcissus” (27). Idolatry, then, (along with McKay’s petrification) is not essentially defined by the content or direction of one’s perception, but by the collapsing of one’s perceptive distinctions into a “single vision” which accompanies this state. In other words, humans exist in a state of idolatry both when they are caught up in “the illusions of staring at nature” and when their attempts at “building a human world of culture and civilization” “ha[ve] not achieved any genuine rapprochement with nature itself, but simply regard nature as an area of exploitation” (Frye, Double 26-27), a situation frighteningly similar to McKay’s matérielization. Whether the subject is trapped in nature, in herself, or in a Narcissistic mirror she believes to be the natural world, the fact that any outside to her perception is excluded from thinking means that she will be unable to think past the narrow, incomplete logic of the single vision. In contrast, Frye’s double vision sees both sides of the divide between nature and humanity simultaneously, moves sympathetically between them, and recognizes them as part of a complete system. This in turn means “a steady process of work that transforms the natural environment into a human one” and ultimately leads to “the fulfilling of […] human primary concerns” (Double 27-28). In Creation and Recreation, Frye names this process of building a human identity with nature “recreation”—“another creation,” on the heels of the wilderness we might call the unnameable creation of God, “which involves human effort,” and whose “idealized forms […] are again projected on the future” (21). Where we can see Frye’s and McKay’s theories working together, this kind of vision completes our understanding of what is at stake in McKay’s “home-making,” which is more broadly a home-making for the fulfilment of humanity’s primary concerns in life to come.


Works Cited

Bushell, Kevin. “Don McKay and Metaphor: Stretching Language Toward Wilderness.” Don McKay: Essays on His Works. Ed. Brian Bartlett. Toronto: Guernica, 2006. 59-80. Print.

Coles, Don. “A Gift for Metaphor.” Don McKay: Essays on His Works. Ed. Brian Bartlett. Toronto: Guernica, 2006. 55-58. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Creation and Recreation. Toronto: U Toronto P, 1980. Print.

—. The Double Vision. Toronto: U Toronto P, 1991. Print.

—. The Educated Imagination. Toronto: House of Anansi, 1997. Print.

—. Words with Power. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1990. Print.

McKay, Don. Deactivated West 100. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau, 2005. Print.

—. Strike/slip. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006. Print.

—. The Shell of the Tortoise. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau, 2011. Print.

—. Vis à Vis. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau, 2001. Print.


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2 thoughts on “On Frye and Don McKay, Ecopoet

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Thanks for your comment, Shelley, and for the information about the source of the photo, which I have now included in the post.


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