Acclaimed poet and travel writer David McFadden saw the mystical, magical and humorous in everyday life. The Hamilton native ignored literary trends and wrote accessible, conversational poems and stories.
“Everybody, when they first read his poetry, they say, this isn’t poetry, it’s just a guy talking!” says poet and long-time friend George Bowering.
While his poems seemed so casual, they were carefully crafted. Mr. McFadden often worked with complex forms, challenging himself to write highly structured sonnets or haiku. Later in life, he rewrote his lengthy 1983 poem The Cow That Swam Lake Ontario, in rhyming couplets.
He won the coveted Griffin Prize for Poetry in 2013 for his collection What’s the Score? It included poems such as It’s Not Funny Anymore, which ends with the lines: “There’s no water not even in my bathtub. / There’s no xylophone under my Xmas tree. / There’s no yarmulke in my youth and I’d just like to say / There’s hardly any zither in my Zen.”
Mr. McFadden wrote travel books full of funny anecdotes, tracing his travels around the Great Lakes and Newfoundland and visiting Britain with his elderly father.
He published about 40 volumes of poetry, fiction and travel writing.
He was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry three times and was nominated for the Griffin Prize in 2008 for Why Are You So Sad?
At that awards banquet, the always witty Mr. McFadden sat with his editor, Stuart Ross. When someone else won, he turned to Mr. Ross with a mischievous grin and said, “You could have edited my book better.”
Mr. McFadden offered to write a testimonial for the poet Gary Barwin, who’s also from Hamilton. “Another breath of fresh air from Hamilton, Ontario,” he slyly wrote about Mr. Barwin’s book.
When his two daughters were children, he often inserted their conversations into his poems. Jenny McFadden recalls herself and older sister Alison saying, when their dad walked into the room: “Shhh, don’t say anything. Dad will write it down.” Then, he used that phrase in a poem.
He also had his daughters help him with his writing. “We were his first readers,” Ms. McFadden recalls. From quite young ages they were paid between five and 25 cents for catching errors. The rate depended on the severity of the mistake.
Mr. McFadden kept writing well into his 70s, even after receiving the diagnosis of logopenic progressive aphasia as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. The illness impaired his ability to speak, remember words and understand complex ideas. In 2014, he wrote in Toronto Life, “So far, I’m still able to write. I do it slowly, making sure that I’ve done it well. I think about it, and how I would read it, and finally I get it to where it’s supposed to be.”
His final book of poetry, Abnormal Brain Sonnets, was published in 2015. Mr. Ross says Mr. McFadden “worked those poems over and over.” Some lines ended mid-thought and many poems went off on tangents. “This one needed the most editing of all his books, but it was still a very light edit. The poems went off to really magical and intuitive new places,” he recalls.
Going through a round of chemotherapy for lymphoma about a year ago further undermined Mr. McFadden’s mental and physical health. Last fall, he began wandering. Once, when he stayed out all night, he was beaten on the street, which led to further deterioration. Mr. McFadden died on June 6, at age 77, from complications related to his illness.
David William McFadden was born in Hamilton on Oct. 11, 1940. His father, Bill, worked in the offices at Stelco, while his mother Jean (née Pidgeon) worked at the local Birks jewellery store.
His younger brother, Jack, recalls that Mr. McFadden was accident-prone in his youth. One time, after Mr. McFadden fixed his own bike, he did a hairpin turn heading down Hamilton Mountain and a wheel fell off. He was in his 50s when he finally got his teeth capped to repair the damage. Mr. McFadden was also a skilled catcher in baseball, but always knelt too close to the batter, so one day got a bat to the forehead.
He wrote poetry in high school and, while still a teenager, corresponded with Jack Kerouac. He published his first poem in 1958. He married his girlfriend from high school, Joan Pearce, in the early 1960s and worked at The Hamilton Spectator, first as a proofreader and then as a reporter.
Colleagues say his childhood in working-class Hamilton and his work at the newspaper contributed to his accessible writing style. “He was this amazing and divergent thinker, yet was grounded in everyday life,” Mr. Barwin says.
Mr. McFadden kept writing poetry on the side – his first volume, The Poem Poem, was published in 1967 – and he started a literary magazine called Mountain. Meanwhile, the couple had two daughters. The eldest, Alison, born in 1964, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, and was in and out of hospital for much of her childhood. Jenny, her sister, says this was a big stressor on the family. (Alison went on to get a double lung transplant and became a nurse and a mother. She died at age 35.)
Jenny recalls going on very long walks with her dad while Alison received treatments – he was a big walker – and having extended conversations. “He really instilled a sense of awe in me,” she recalls. “If I asked him why the sky was blue he would not give me an answer, he’d ask me more questions. He made me feel I could figure out why the sky was blue. To him, everything was open.”
The McFaddens divorced in 1979 and he left Hamilton to serve as writer-in-residence at Simon Fraser University and then as a writing instructor at the David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, B.C., where he was founding editor of the literary magazine Writing. He returned to Ontario in 1983 to work as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario.
(Mr. Bowering says he resigned from The Hamilton Spectator the day before his father left Stelco “so he could beat him to it.” The senior Mr. McFadden lived to be 101.)
His first nomination for a Governor-General’s Award came in 1987, at which time Mr. McFadden was living in Toronto and writing full time, as well as doing copy editing and typesetting to help make a living.
In 2009, a writer friend asked him to escort another friend, the artist, singer and psychotherapist Merlin Homer, to a book launch. “David was the sweetest person I ever met. He was funny, he was gentle. His mind was always going and always full of poetry,” Ms. Homer recalls.
This late-in-life romance soon took off and the two were married in 2011. “It was the most moving thing. They were luminous. You could swear they were literally glowing,” Mr. Barwin recalls.
This was around the time that Mr. McFadden received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis: He had been forgetting words while speaking for a few years. Invigorated by his personal life and knowing he had limited time, he worked hard in the following years to complete several writing projects.
In 2015, when Mr. Ross got married, he asked Mr. McFadden to read, even though speaking was a challenge by this point. For the last reading he ever did, Mr. McFadden slowly read out five love haiku, his wife standing behind him with her hand on his back.
“He didn’t get the kind of attention that a lot of poets of his generation got,” Mr. Ross says, “but he really had fans. If someone picked up his work, they could instantly connect with it.”
Secrets of the Universe
From Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Insomniac Press, 2007). originally published in The Art of Darkness (M&S, 1984)
You’re waiting for a bus at Ward and Baker
and a woman comes up to you
and asks for a dance.
You tell her you don’t want to dance
for there is too much snow
and not enough music
and she says you didn’t mind
dancing with me last night.
And when you tell her she’s mistaken
you didn’t dance with her or anyone last night
she says oh yes you did
and when you ask where
she says up there
on the roof
and she points to the roof of Hipperson Hardware.
In fact, she says, as her voice drops
and a shy look comes into her eyes
I’ve even danced with you on other planets
Venus and Mars for instance
and then she walks away
leaving you to wonder about the part of your life
that is secret even from you.
Editor’s note: David McFadden won a Griffin Prize in 2013. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information in the photograph cutline. This is a corrected version.