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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Arnold W. Orage Wins The Percy Epsburgh Prize

Good news. One of Canada's most-deserving poets, Arnold W. ("Wily") Orage (pictured) has won the coveted Percy Epsburgh Prize for Distinguished Achievement in the Realm of Poetry. Epsburgh was one of the leading credit derivative wheelers and dealers in the late 80s and 90s, who parlayed his way with financial instruments, and leveraged buy-outs, into a vast fortune, which he then turned into a larger vast fortune by buying lots of foreign debt and then selling that on to investors in China and Brazil. In the process, he became famous as "Sage II", or sometimes, "The Gnome of Burlington", where his offices were based.

Epsburgh retired, at 55, in the late 90s, before the current credit crunch, and even before the Internet bubble burst, coasting on a wave of "monetary jubilance" as he called it. Agreeing with Wallace Stevens that "poetry is a kind of money" and with William Carlos Williams that "what you can't see is not a thing / but a debt" and with H.D that "firs are as green as cash" he decided to endow a Prize to celebrate poets, "just because I can". Since 1999, then, the Epsburgh Prize has bestowed its warm glow of half a million dollars in prize money (issued in bearer bonds that mature annually "like perennials") each year. Orage is the tenth winner.

Orage, who is a "prairie poet", has written seventeen books, and won the Governor General's Award four or five times, each time for a book with a linguistic constraint. In Wheat, his justly-praised 250-page first collection, each poem begins and ends with the letter W. In Silo, the letter is S. For the more elaborate 342-page magnum opus, Combine Harvester, the letters C and H dance between the lines and stanzas, literally sowing the seeds of a new form of intertextuality. In his classic critique of British and Irish poetics, and defense of the nativist line of modernism, I Too Dig, Orage argues that "anyone can be rooted in the land; but how many can extract the asbtract from the soil, and plant a strangeness in its stead?" Orage, who is six-foot seven, and sturdy, is a typical Canadian poet: weather-beaten, friendly, often inebriated, and a dab hand at pool (billiards without so many rules). His appearances at League of Canadian Poets AGMS are always a hoot. Orage likes to whirl the ladies in the air, and toss the men's hats high, also. His own ten-gallon hat is always tilted at a rakish angle, and he's forever champing on his trademark cheroot, rarely lit these days due to the smoking laws. He cuts quite a figure - a Northern Les Murray without so much weight - emphasizing the differences between the Eliotic traditions of the English language, and his own homespun "Canuck" attitudinizing. "Tell it to the groundhog" he writes in Horizon Unlimited, his most anthologized long poem, "and then tell it to the Britishman / No more rhyme or skill in lineation / No more clockwork elegance and respect / Break all lines of linkage with the homeland / We are as big as the tundra sky / As open and free as an Inuit / Or snow scooped up after a spring thaw. / Pass me a Molson now and let us pray." Congratulations to Arnold. W. Orage on a well-deserved win! He may be Canada's first Nobel.
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