Saturday, 30 April 2011

Montreal Prize

Montreal, a 400-year-old-plus city of several million souls, the home of the great wave of Canadian modernist poets of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as legends like Leonard Cohen, has a strong tradition of poetry, and a number of vital small poetry presses.  It also is enriched by its bilingualism, a superb creative writing program at Concordia University, some lively reading events and festivals, and an international vibe at the cultural cross-roads of Europe and America.

Yet it is rarely these days at the forefront of poetic matters in Canada - Toronto tends to hold the keys to the kingdom.  So it comes as a welcome surprise to learn that Andrew Motion will be judging the world's biggest cash prize for best single poem - called The Montreal Prize.  I have some problems with poetry competitions (perhaps the biggest question being, do such occasions ever actually locate the most strange, original or unsettling works, or the ones that rather confirm already-established norms), but not enough to not enter them, from time to time; or even to host them.  Motion is a good choice as first judge.  World-famous, intelligent, and a fine poet, he is a safe pair of hands, and immediately accords the prize prestige.  Motion is, however, a very mainstream lyric poet (not a bad thing in the Eyewear household mind you), and this will make it intriguing to see what happens to the more experimental poems that get entered; if indeed any are.

Frankly, Canada needs a prize that emphasises the individual well-made poem, since some of the chief pleasures of poetry are to be found invested in such objects; experimental Canadian poets who tend to construct their poetic writing as book-length texts may have the wind of theory at their backs, but sometimes create works of terrible aesthetic quality that lack enduring appeal, at least to a wider audience.  Of course, as Charles Bernstein would no doubt be the first to tell you, the wider audience is a myth; poetic (open form) process is all; and who cares if a poem is well-made if it is banal?  Thus, like all poetry prizes, this one will yet again, stir the tempest in the tea-cup which is the age-old battle over evaluation and poetics.  Perhaps the best thing to assume is - in Bob Holman's famous quip - the best poem never wins.  The winner may well be Montreal - and international poetry, the idea of which is still sadly tenuous.
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