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The Griffin Prize Shortlist Announced

As the editorial in Carcanet's PN Review #147 observes, in Britain, with the decline of public interest in poetry, and the death of engaged serious newspaper reviews of poetry, prizes are the way most people hear about a book of poems. The editorial observes that, while for the media, poetry is never news (one could recoin a phrase: poetry is news that never becomes news), prizes are news. So what the poetry publishing slash marketing people did was, create a lot more prizes, to generate more interest.

In a way, this is a good thing. What's wrong with prizing poetry? All who love the art want to see it more visibly appreciated, not less. As that infamous editorial goes on to observe, though, prize juries too often (all the time?) fall into the hands of certain coteries, cabals, elites, gangs, - call them what you will, you know them when you see them. Basically, prizes tended to be judged by peers and colleagues, and almost no attempt to even appear disinterested is undertaken in the "Anglo-Saxon" poetry world - so, poets published by the same publisher, poets who are best friends, or lovers, or married, or editors of each other, or who share the same address or agents - select each other's work. It's not entirely a fair complaint, since try to find a jury of poetic peers that does not love or hate the defendant. The poetry world is small. Anyway, enough with the ponderous preliminaries.

The latest huge prize shortlist has been announced, and it is The Griffin Prize, Canadian and International lists. The Canadians include Kevin Connolly, Jeramy Dodds, and A.F. Moritz, for The Sentinel (a book I reviewed at Eyewear). This seems a reasonable group. I am not sure why, however, Jason Camlot's brilliant Insomniac Press book, The Debaucher, was not on that list - it is easily as formally and linguistically adept as any of these. Of the three going for the prize, Moritz, surely, has the advantage. Connolly is good, but part of a strong Toronto-based generation, which includes Ken Babstock and David O'Meara, and is not necessarily the representative poet of his group. Moritz, on the other hand, may be the great Canadian poet of the moment, or one of them.

Turning to the International list, is, as one might expect, turning to the big leagues. Here two of the major poets of the moment - Derek Mahon from Ireland, and C.D. Wright, from America, go head to head, nominally competing with the recently-deceased major Scottish poet Mick Imlah; and the slightly less-well-known but still respected Dean Young, also an American. Imlah's Lost Leader is something of a magnum opus, and was surprisingly beaten to the post at the T.S. Eliot Prize awards in London recently. Depending on one's perspective, it may be the one to beat. I wouldn't count Mahon (or Wright) out either. Young would likely be the dark horse, but such things happen. So - the media gets the news, and the suspense.

It says something about Canada's stock of poets that "our" list will likely fail to set pulses pounding - there's no world-renowned Canadian poet currently, outside the radius of the Carson-Cohen-Atwood-Ondaatje group; and of that list, two are best loved for their prose, one for their songs, and the final one, well, for the poetry. As I've said before, while I understand why the Griffin Prize has two categories - to raise the Canuck profile while celebrating English-language poetry everywhere - I think it would be just as astute to simply have one prize, and let Canadians go head to head with their Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh, New Zealand, Australian, South African, and Carribean peers.


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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.