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Scott Griffin launches school poetry-reading competition

Scott Griffin

The Globe and Mail

The lost art of elocution is sneaking back into Canadian classrooms thanks to a new competition that will see students from 12 Ontario schools reciting well-known poems for a purse of $10,000 in prizes, to be shared by individual students and their schools.

The brainchild of Toronto businessman Scott Griffin, patron of the $130,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, the program is expected to expand to Quebec next year and across the country in its third year, with an emphasis on recitation in both official languages.

"Poetry is not just for the elite," Griffin said while announcing Poetry in Voice/Les voix de la poésie in Toronto yesterday. "It is a language that should be spoken in cafés, the streets and especially the classrooms of the nation."

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The program has already posted a list of more than 100 poems in English, along with 20 in French, that will serve as the official source material for all competitors. Leaning toward euphonious favourites from old masters, the English list also includes comic verse from Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and the 19th-century Quebec poet William H. Drummond, whose Little Bateese is a personal favourite of Griffin.

Like Drummond, virtually all of the 11 Canadian poets with work deemed eligible for student recitation wrote in rhyming verse. They include such figures as Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott, a career civil servant who developed the residential school system for native children in the North.

The contest rules set out a lengthy list of criteria for evaluating competitive recitations, including "physical presence, "voice and articulation," "appropriateness of dramatization" as well as the accuracy with which students memorize their lines. Points will also be awarded for students who recite in both French and English.

"If you're somewhere out in the north of Alberta you can do your three English poems, but you will not get the mark for bilingual," Griffin said. "It's possible you could even win. But it's better to be bilingual."

Griffin and the program's creative director, poet and journalist Damian Rogers, recruited esteemed Quebec poet Pierre Nepveu, three-time winner of the Governor-General's Literary Award, to help choose French-language poems for the expanding anthology of eligible verse. It will be published in paper form but continue to grow online as the program expands across the country, according to Griffin.

The contest uses a pyramid structure that begins at the class level, with winners advancing to a school-wide competition to determine each institution's representative at the final event, which is scheduled to take place April 12 in Toronto.

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