Born in Owen Sound, Ontario and raised in Cornwall, McKay was educated at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Wales, where he earned his PhD in 1971. He taught creative writing and English for 27 years in universities including the University of Western Ontario and the University of New Brunswick.
McKay is the author of twelve books of poetry, including Long Sault (1975), Lependu (1978), and Apparatus (1997). He has twice won the Governor General's Award, for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000). In June 2007, he won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip (2006).
Although McKay has been publishing since 1973, literary writing on his poetry is recent. Much critical examination of his work is yet to be done.
He has made a wide impression as a teacher and editor. He is the co-founder and manuscript reader for Brick Books, one of Canada's leading poetry presses, and was editor of the literary journal The Fiddlehead from 1991-96. He has participated in the Sage Hill Writing experience in Saskatchewan and he is Associate Director for poetry at the Banff Centre for the Arts Writing Studio. He has edited many books by fellow poets, including Ken Babstock, George Elliot Clarke, Tim Lilburn, Barbara Colebrook Peace, and Michael Redhill.
McKay is an avid birdwatcher; and bird themes and flight are dominant topics in his poetry. In Birding, or Desire (1983), the quirky protagonist is never far from his Birds of Canada hobbyist's field guide. McKay's passion for birds and nature percolates throughout all of his work. McKay sees his writing as “nature poetry in a time of environmental crisis.” McKay's poems are ecologically centred, inspired by the conflict between inspiration and spiritual, instinct and knowledge. Other members of this emerging group of “ecopoets” include Tim Lilburn, Dennis Lee, Roo Borson, Robert Bringhurst, and Jan Zwicky.[by whom?]
His book of poetic philosophy Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness, details many of McKay's beliefs on metaphor, wildness, and the homing instinct. McKay's essay “Baler Twine,” touches on his main poetic themes as well as those of Matériel and poetic attention.
- Air Occupies Space (1973)
- Long Sault (1975)
- Lependu (1978)
- Lightning Ball Bait (1980)
- Birding, or Desire (1983) (nominated for a Governor General's Award)
- Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (1987)
- Night Field (1991) (winner of the 1991 Governor General's Award for poetry)
- Apparatus (1997) (nominated for a Governor General's Award)
- Another Gravity (2000) (shortlisted for the 2001 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize)
- Varves (2003; chapbook)
- Camber (2004) (shortlisted for the 2005 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize)
- Strike/Slip (2006) (winner of the 2007 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize)
- Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay edited by Méira Cook (2006)
- Song for the Songs of Birds, audiobook (2008)
- Leaf to leaf-Foglio a foglia (Italian translation by Sara Fruner and Filippo Mariano), edited by Angelo Longo (2010)
- Paradoxides (2012)
- Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (2002) (nominated for a Governor General's Award for Nonfiction)
- Deactivated West 100 (2005)
- The Muskwa Assemblage (2009)
- The Shell of the Tortoise: Four Essays and an Assemblage (2012)
- Brian Barlett, ed. Don McKay: Essays on His Works. (2006)
- McKay, Don. Vis-à-Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness. Wolfville: Gaspereau Press, 2001, p.9.
- "Governor General Announces New Appointments to the Order of Canada".
-  Web page titled "Don McKay" at the "writing canada into the millennium" Web site, accessed October 6, 2007
-  Web page titled "Griffin Poetry Prize 2007" at the Griffin Poetry Prize Web site, accessed October 6, 2007
- "Pond" from Strike/Slip, on CBC Words at Large
- Griffin Poetry Prize biography
- Griffin Poetry Prize readings, including video clips
- "The Poetry of Don McKay" by Stan Dragland (from University of Toronto Quarterly)
- "Faulty Lines: The Poetry and Poetics of Don McKay" by Zachariah Wells
- Gaspereau Press interview with Don McKay
- Poet of the Month from CBC Words at Large (April 2007)
- Don McKay contributes to the What Is Stephen Harper Reading? project
- Don McKay Papers, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
- Don McKay fonds, Library and Archives Canada