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russell smith

This evening, at a party known for its genuinely joyous feel, the biggest purse in Canadian literary prizes will be awarded. A total of $200,000 of philanthropist Scott Griffin's money will be given out. One poet will win the International Griffin Poetry Prize, worth $75,000, another will win the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, also worth $75,000. In the international category, four books are shortlisted; in the Canadian, only three. Each of these finalists gets $10,000 just for getting this far. Compare this to the biggest prize in Canadian fiction, the Giller, which awards a paltry $50,000 to the best book or short-story collection of each year.

Why so much money? Poetry is the most difficult and densest of all writing forms: It is tricky and laborious, it is the premier league for those gifted with sensitivity to language, the deadly arena of hyper-educated combat, in which clumsy gladiators will quickly be exposed and suffer a caustic death. It is the summit of linguistic ability and of literary achievement. And, of course, because of this, it is the least popular and worst paid of all literary endeavours. Most published poets are academics who teach literature at a university, because that is the only environment that can support them. Those without tenured jobs live in poverty.

So this prize serves primarily to aid our best poets financially – the lucky few finalists will receive some remuneration for the years of study and labour and the contribution to international learning at a high level that they have made. Winning prizes is the only way they can ever get a windfall from their work.

This possibility brings its stresses. In this country, the world of poetry is a small and fractious one. There are schools, isms, side-taking, there are rifts and declarations and denouncements. The lyricists resent the avant-gardists; the avant-gardists have a reputation for being rather full of themselves. For some reason, the lower the stakes, the more emotional the poets become with each other. They are continually having fallings-out and Facebook wars. It doesn't help that they have all slept with one another.

So they watch with anxiety to see if any particular tendency is rewarded or singled out in the Griffin short lists (particularly the national one). Luckily, the Griffin juries have avoided, year after year, playing to any local camp, because they are not local jurists: each year, the jury is composed of two famous poets from outside the country and one from here. This jury judges both the national and the international prizes.

This year, the jury is made of of one American (Heather McHugh), one Briton (Fiona Sampson) and one Canadian (David O'Meara). They have shown, in their short lists, no predilection for the avant-garde or experimental, but a love of the densest, most heavily referential and most musical of lyric poetry.

The international short list is an elderly group: The youngest is 60; the eldest, 91. The list comprises two Brits (David Harsent and Sean O'Brien), an American (the Vietnam vet Yusef Komunyakaa) and a Pole (Second World War resistance fighter and communism survivor Tadeusz Rozewicz).

The Brits both write dark, dense modernist poetry, tending to long line lengths, made up of perfectly grammatical sentences. They both favour nightmarish landscapes. O'Brien's book, November, is a series of dreamlike urban landscapes. It ends with a mythological night on the town that echoes Dante's Inferno. Harsent's similarly black-covered book, Night, features as a setting a recurring garden that flickers from night to day and from nostalgia to menace. Both are formally elegant and studied; Harsent, in particular, manages complicated and sometimes buried rhyme schemes. Both of these guys see the world as an essentially terrifying place.

Komunyakaa's canvas is wider: His melancholic and occasionally bitter verse frequently references the atrocities of the past, in particular a long section on visiting the sites of the Holocaust in Poland. (And his book cover is also black – poetry book designers seem a Gothy bunch.) Rozewicz, the elder statesman of Polish letters, is known for a direct and conversational style that hides metaphysical depths. His observations reflect a wonderment that the world has continued to function after what he has seen. His book of selected poems, Sobbing Superpower, is translated from Polish and so is perhaps the least aesthetically pleasurable to read.

The three Canadian finalists are also well-known, but their median age is slightly younger (two boomers and an Xer).

Phil Hall's book Killdeer has already won the Governor-General's Award, and it's the only odd one here: It's a rambling, prosy monologue about his own poetic practice and his encounters with the Canadian poets who influenced him. He calls it "essay-poems." It is, like much Canadian nationalist literature, essentially nostalgic.

Jan Zwicky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria, has produced a frankly emotional book of love poems, Forge, that attempts to duplicate the effects of music (many of the poems are titled after canonical classical works). Zwicky's rapturous tone, simplicity of language and purity of emotion will likely make her book the most accessible to an audience not already poetry-prone.

The youngest, Ken Babstock, the Newfoundland-born Ontarian, has already been shortlisted for the Griffin and didn't win (in 2007). His work is the knottiest of the bunch, so perhaps the most likely to intrigue the professionals on this jury. (Speculation on the winner is of course pointless though, as juries are labile compounds.) Babstock's rapid-fire association is so stripped of grammatical help that it becomes list-like, and his lists – of objects, of textures, of signs – manage to mix the contemporary, the commercial, the historic and the natural; in his vision brand names jostle obscure medical or zoological terms. "Quaker Oats. Cigarettes, teaberry, Jordache," a typical line reads. I did not know what dehiscence or euonymous meant before trying to read Babstock. He mentions Emily Haines, Daniel Libeskind and Joe Sakic in the space of one poem.

Not one of these books isn't difficult. Not one doesn't contain some classical or literary reference that the generally educated reader might need a footnote for. Indeed, there are 40 pages of translator's notes on the Rozewicz book. Hall's book ends with a bibliography. One of Zwicky's poems, Diotima to Hölderlin: A Remonstrance, bears an epigraph from Plato – in untranslated, untransliterated Greek.

You need time and patience for contemporary poetry. But entering the refracted world of poetic language, particularly for a few hours at a time, will change the way you see the bus stop and the sunset when you emerge.

Will this exciting competition bring these daunting and rewarding non-narrative texts to a wider audience of book lovers? I doubt it. I have seen no increase in public discussion of poetry itself in between prize sessions – and we the mainstream media are probably now going to refrain from even mentioning poetry until the same time next year – but this brief focus on the silver-tongued is still an exciting moment for the country and the world.