McWhirter, George

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Nationality: Canadian. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 26 September 1939. Immigrated to Canada in 1966. Education: Boys' Model School, Belfast, 1948–51; Grosvenor High School, Belfast, 1951–57; Queen's University, Belfast, 1957–62, B.A. (honors) in English 1961, Dip.Ed. 1962; University of British Columbia, Vancouver (Macmillan prize), 1968–70, M.A. 1970. Family: Married Angela Coid in 1963; one daughter and one son. Career: Assistant master, Kilkeel Secondary School, Northern Ireland, 1962–64, and Bangor Grammar School, Northern Ireland, 1964–65; English teacher, University of Barcelona, and Berlitz School, Barcelona, 1965–66, and Alberni Secondary School, Port Alberni, British Columbia, 1966–68. Assistant professor, 1970–76, associate professor, 1976–82, professor since 1983, and head of creative writing, University of British Columbia, 1983–93. Associate editor, 1970–76, coeditor, 1976–77, advisory editor, 1977–89, and since 1990 adviser on translation, Prism International, Vancouver; editor, Words from the Inside, Kingston, Ontario, 1974–75. Awards: Canada Council grant, 1969, 1975; Macmillan prize, 1969; Commonwealth poetry prize, 1972; Ethel Wilson prize, for fiction, 1988; F.R. Scott prize, for translation, 1988. Address: 4637 West 13th Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia V6R 2V6, Canada.



Catalan Poems. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1971.

Columbuscade. Vancouver, Hoffer, 1974.

Bloodlight for Malachi McNair. San Francisco, Kanchenjunga, 1974.

Queen of the Sea. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1976.

Twenty-Five. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1978.

Ties. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

The Island Man. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1981.

Fire before Dark. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1983.

The Voyeur and the Countess Wielopolska. Vancouver, Tanks/Hoffer, 1988.

A Staircase for All Souls. Lantzville, Oolichan Books, 1993.

Incubus: The Dark Side of the Light. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1995.

Musical Dogs. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1996.

Ovid in Saskatchewan. Toronto, League of Canadian poets, 1998.


Radio Plays: Suspension, 1969; The House on the Water, 1981; The Listeners, 1981.


Paula Lake. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1984.

Cage. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1987.

The Listeners. Ottawa, Oberon, 1991.

Short Stories

Bodyworks. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1974.

God's Eye. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1981.

Coming to Grips with Lucy. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1982.

A Bad Day to be Winning. Ottawa, Oberon, 1991.


Editor and Translator, The Selected Poems of José Emilio Pacheco. New York, New Directions, 1987.

Editor and Translator, Where Words Like Monarchs Fly: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Mexican Poets (1934–1955) in Translations from North of the 49thParallel. Vancouver, Anvil Press, 1998.


Manuscript Collection: University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

George McWhirter comments:

My work to date has been preoccupied with people and substance, people as consumers of substance and at the same time as those consumed by substance. He who eats will in turn be eaten. Such was the base of Catalan Poems. The family, man, woman, and child, one flesh, one substance was the central dramatic vehicle for this. Columbuscade uses the idea of Columbus to deal with the impossibility of escape from the flesh in terms of space; we can jump no farther than ourselves. Even if there was a new world, few would embark; the superscription of the book runs, "All are chosen for the crew, but few embark fearing a new world." This is the fundamental dilemma in Queen of the Sea, which is set in the Belfast shipyards. Recently I have come to regard things and substance as part of the infinite imagination of light. The unknown is the point of disembarkation, the intellect provides place-names as we pass, the real rudder in the rear of the head is the intuition. The main thing that poetry does for me is turn ideas or intimations into the properties of the five senses. This is what life itself does for us.

(1995) Cage, in the person of the Irish American priest Ben Carragher, deals with the conflict of faith and works. In giving the Tetelcingan Indians a cottage industry that manufactures bird cages in the churchyard, the priest dedicates himself to the tangible benefits of a religious organization, which ultimately traps his spirit and his body in the village "for good." The small miracle he has wrought becomes a test of faith.

Fire before Dark, with the long poem "Training in the Language," looks at immigrants being given a second life in their second tongue, a difficult way of being born again.

A Staircase for All Souls sees British Columbia as the physical paradise for which the immigrants, who have come from the Old to the New World, have forfeited the spiritual. The title is ironic. For the souls on the West Coast of Canada, they sail permanently between two shores: eternity and the flesh.

*  *  *

The poems of George McWhirter represent a playful though highly formal approach to poetic expression. While his poems feature cryptic metaphors and complicated analogues, they are linked chronologically and tend to relate a larger narrative. Each of his five major books serves to reconfirm and to reassess its immediate precursor at the levels of both versification and ideology. Individual poems do not stand independently but instead function to advance the greater argument of the volumes in which they appear. In Queen of the Sea, for instance, McWhirter's subjects are mainly places and things. His impressionistic approach in poems such as "The Floating Restaurant," "Keel," "A Launching," and "The Plate Shop" reveals a departure from his earlier Catalan Poems, a closely knit series of narrative verses featuring dialogue and the intimate thoughts of a cast of recurring characters.

The McWhirter canon can be seen as a succession of converging and diverging stylistic and philosophical notions. On the one hand, his poems can be exclusively imagistic, while, on the other, they can espouse complicated, hypothetical ideas at length. In Catalan Poems McWhirter tells the magical story of Eduardo Valls, a citizen of dying Catalonia. The poems constitute an array of darkly intriguing and paradoxical characters, from Maria Jesus, a Madonna-prostitute figure ("a country girl / Who offers herself for hire"), to Raura, the surrealist aficionado who fancies a real dinner with Dali at a San José market. The collection anticipates the intensely Spanish flavor of McWhirter's verse and touches upon the poet's thematic preoccupation with expatriate and immigrant experience. The itinerant, exotic nature of Catalan Poems is an essential facet of McWhirter's style and is featured in other books such as Twenty-Five and The Island Man.

Like Queen of the Sea, Twenty-Five is also a series of impressionistic descriptions of places and objects. In this book of poems about Mexico, which have titles beginning with "One" and ending with "Twenty-Five," McWhirter's subjects range from Vera Cruz to hummingbirds. Unlike Queen of the Sea, however, Twenty-Five is consistently tricky and comic, fraught with wordplay and fantastic, often sensual visions. In "Five" "The dog tackles the turkey / and he gobbles." In "Eighteen"

Her tamales toddle
fat and slimy out of their corn
wrapper. They squat
in the hand like weary white
selignite waiting for an order.

The oddly integrated images continue in The Island Man. In "Saturday-Morning Drag" the author asks his readership to "consider Fate, plain and plastic / as an old Volkswagen wheel." The Island Man, however, distinguishes itself in other ways as well, for it describes in an overtly autobiographical fashion McWhirter's dealings with linguistic duplicity and cultural dislocation. Quite a few of the poems in the collection rely on the author's experience and observations as a well-traveled Irishman turned Canadian. "One thing that defies comprehension to the island / man is the continent," says the persona of "Insular" in speaking about Canada; nevertheless, "he will begin the study of a nation / at his leisure." In fact, much of The Island Man is the leisurely study, as McWhirter says in "Saturday-Morning Drag," "charting the traffic / of peoples—Irish and Canadian, Indian and white."

The charting continues in Fire before Dark, a volume that concerns itself primarily with Irish and western Canadian traditions. McWhirter's long poem "Training in the Language" articulates the dilemmas and the benefits of living in a multicultural society; as the poem says succinctly at its outset, "And when we got there, / we couldn't understand / The half of them." One of McWhirter's more important poems, it analyzes cultural alienation at the level of language—"languaging" in the multicultural vernacular of West Coast life—"Kalamari," "Kitsilano," "salmon from the Pacific." Even differences as subtle as Irish and North American English are explored. Representative of McWhirter's poetic philosophy, "Training in the Language" espouses mutual understanding and reconciliation. He envisions Canada as

  this great scarred glacier of a place, unable
To snap the beam of scalding sunlight from its eye
Will melt, evaporate.

Yet while the image of a commingling of cultures across the many provinces that make up Canada—of "bald tundra, / Or badlands / Orgumbo"—appears to be a reality, McWhirter admits that Canada, like other countries, deceives itself. The great cultural "mosaic" of the nation, he suggests, "isn't so, / The land up there still suffocates with snow."

—Susan C. Hines