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Pratt Lecture addresses ‘false dichotomy’ between humanities and science

By Janet Harron

Recently, Governor General Michaëlle Jean sat in the speaker’s chair in the House of Parliament and read the speech from the throne. On March 27, Dr. Don McKay will deliver the 2010 Pratt Lecture from his own metaphorical speaker’s chair.

In The Speaker’s Chair: Field Notes on Betweenity, the poet, professor and nature lover will address what he considers to be the false dichotomy often struck between humanities and science.

“Basically I’m asking whether the humanities and the sciences can speak to one another. Historically this false dichotomy embedded in the structure of universities hasn’t served us well,” said the winner of the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize, the world’s most generous poetry award. In light of this perceived conflict between the two disciplines, Dr. McKay suggests that, instead of things being either one thing or another, that another category of thinking, “betweenity,” which avows both, be considered.

The first part of the lecture’s title, The Speaker’s Chair, was inspired by a 1999 painting of the same name by artist Grant McConnell. In the painting, the seat of power is shown on a ferry crossing a river in the bush. Dr. McKay explains that the chair is depicted as rendering a more flexible notion of authority and central power.

“It’s a very powerful metaphor,” he said, offering the interesting aside that the Greek root “pherein” is the same for both metaphor and ferry. In the lecture he plans to address issues inspired by the painting, including (briefly) Newfoundland’s position in Confederation.

Born and raised in Ontario, Dr. McKay taught creative writing and English for 30 years at various universities. He co-founded Brick Books, one of Canada’s leading poetry publishers, in 1975. Associate director for poetry at the Banff Centre for the Arts Writing Studio, Dr. McKay has also edited many books by fellow poets, including Ken Babstock, John Steffler, and Michael Redhill. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2008 and now makes his home in St. John’s.

Dr. McKay’s 12 books of poetry include Long Sault (1975), Birding, or Desire (1983) and Apparatus (1997). He has twice won the Governor General's Award, for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000), and in June 2007 he won the $40,000 Griffin Prize for Strike/Slip.

Dr. Robert Finley, chair of the Pratt Committee, said the appointment of Dr. McKay as Pratt lecturer was a unanimous decision.

“Don McKay moved to Newfoundland only a few years ago, but his presence here, his careful reading of this landscape, is already an immeasurable gift to our community,” said Dr. Finley. “For us on the selection committee, the opportunity to have him deliver the Pratt Lecture has seemed a perfect way to celebrate that gift, and, at the same time, to fulfill the mandate of the Lectureship, honouring the memory of another of our greatest poets, E. J. Pratt.”

The Pratt Lecture is sponsored by the Dean of Arts and the Department of English Language and Literature and is named for Newfoundland poet E. J. Pratt.

Don McKay will deliver the 2010 Pratt Lecture on Saturday, March 27, at 8 p.m., in the Inco Innovation Centre, room IIC-2001.

The lecture is free and open to the public. Free parking is available in Lots 15 and 18. Reserved seating is available for those with special needs. A reception will follow the lecture in the lower concourse of the Inco Building.
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