Poetry is a microcosm of the literary world. It has its dominant styles, centres of influence, rock stars, black sheep, child prodigies, power struggles. It has its discontents. It has, especially in the United States and Britain, a healthy system of academic and institutional support; here, it has the Canada Council. It has fans, dedicated ones, though admittedly a lot of them are practitioners as well. But they buy books and attend readings and actively recommend things they like on social media. And, as with any good subculture, it has its infighting: You have not known irrelevance until you’ve witnessed a Twitter argument between two Canadian poets whose vitriol is matched only by their insignificance. But most of the time, it’s content with remaining a niche art form, appreciated by few, but appreciated with vigour. As the old Alexander Keith’s ad said, those who like it like it a lot.
And yet there are people who hope to make poetry mainstream. Few of them have done as much as Scott Griffin, the businessman and philanthropist who founded the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the world’s richest and most prestigious award for the art. Every year, it recognizes the best single volume of work published by a Canadian and the best single volume of work (in English) from around the world. It gives the authors of these books $65,000. Each.
When launching the prize in 2000, Griffin noted that poetry had “slipped from the mainstream of our cultural lives.” And yet today, the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, the prize’s governing body, “aims to spark the public’s imagination and raise awareness of the crucial role poetry plays in our cultural life.” That’s quite the turnaround! And while it’s not exactly true – poetry hasn’t, in the past dozen years, taken unprecedented hold of the popular consciousness – any progress made is in part thanks to the Griffin Prize.
But in this, its 13th year, things are starting to feel a bit comfortable. As usual, there are two short lists: Three Canadian books compete against each other and four international books share their own category. The international books are diverse and interesting, and they more or less represent several of the day’s dominant aesthetics. Two of them, Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda and Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems are astounding, the sort of wholly engrossing works that transport you to another place, another way of understanding the world. But the Canadian list is characterized by a kind of inoffensive geniality. It’s not that the books are bad, precisely. There is good work in each collection, though none of them is truly memorable.
But the problem isn’t the books; it’s the structure of the award. By the prize’s math, Canadian poetry makes up 43 per cent of what’s worth recognizing in the world. Even to a diehard nationalist, this would seem extreme. And we’re having trouble keeping up: Eleven Canadians have been nominated multiple times, meaning that almost a third of the prize’s nominees have been repeats. That’s because we have a staggering number of poets, though very few world-class ones. But shouldn’t a major prize demand talent of that calibre? Can you imagine the Nobel committee establishing a special category for Swedes? Of course not. Yet so many of us cheered when that prize recognized Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, because it was the just celebration of a major international writer.
Twelve Canadian poets have been enriched by the Griffin Prize. On Thursday night, Canadian poetry will be further nurtured; another name will be added, another bank account filled. But nurturing eventually becomes coddling, and now it’s time to encourage that work to take a bigger stage. When announcing the award, Griffin cited a desire “to help promote Canadian poetry beyond our borders.” What better way to do that than by expecting it to compete with the best the world has to offer?
This might mean that no Canadian books would be nominated in a given year. But that would be a growing pain, not the default new reality. As Griffin judge (and very gifted poet) Suzanne Buffam says in her introduction to this year’s prize anthology, “a work of art represents a complex set of choices made, more or less consciously, by an artist in response to a lengthy human history of such choices.” This prize, and the art it is designed to promote, would be greatly enhanced if it stopped contending that we have a separate history, that we require a provincial playing field of our own.
Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail’s Books editor.