Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Griffin Awards 2010: Nationalism Is So Passé

With only a few short weeks left before the Griffin Poetry Prize Readings and the announcement of the winners in both the International and Canadian categories, I thought it apropos to write a post about its significance in the contemporary landscape of poetry awards and its impact on the public’s perception of poetry. For my money, the Griffin prize is recognized, at least amongst poets, as the most prestigious award a poet can be nominated for here in Canada, and not simply because of the large purse attached to it, or the red carpet gala parties, but because I would argue it is not a nationalist award at all, but an award that celebrates regionalism and internationalism in poetry.

This difference may appear slight but it is worthy of attention when, for instance, you place the Griffin Prize along side the Governor General's Awards. Where the Governor General's Awards have become an angry hornet’s nest of poetry commentators who every year decry the judge’s choices of nominated books – often hijacking the whole purpose of the award as a celebration of Canadian poetry, and turning it into a public spitting match involving self-righteousness and victimhood, indignation and insult – the minor eddies and ripples the Griffin Prize stir up are quite tame in comparison.

As for a clear explanation for why these awards are received so differently by our own community of writers, I do have some ideas.

Canadian poetry is regionalist at its very core; it grows out of a particular geography, a definitive sense of place, but because our country is so vast, and the people and the landscape so different from region to region, one poet’s native soil is not the same as another’s. Certainly, the early poetry of Canada is regionalist in nature, but population trends have changed over the last fifty years. Huge numbers of poets live in major urban centers now, and as their ties to the outlying places, smaller communities, where they grew up begin to diminish, so too does the regionalist impulse in their poems.

Other poets who have lived their entire lives in big cities have been conditioned by their own psychological makeup and relationship to place that nature poetry, for instance, is trivial, or rural motifs are anachronistic, because it does not speak directly to their own experience, or how they perceive reality to be.

This is by no means a criticism but it does explain why poets in urban centers appear more self-conscious of themselves as poets, and thus place form over content, standards of selection over subject matter, and opt for the purely surface effect or set pattern over any coherence of feeling, or emotional discoveries, when judging the worth of a poem.

However, the problem arises when one tries to define the national imagination of our poetry. What constitutes excellence in Canadian Poetry? Aye, there is the rub.

Honestly, I do not think it is possible to identify the national imagination of our poetry, and in fact all such projects have failed in the past, for such a notion does not take into account that Canada is a country of many different regions that are geographically and culturally distinct from one another, so there is no one privileged standard of excellence we all agree upon.

Despite our shared history with England, Canadian English resembles more its Southern cousin American English. In his essay “Notes On Free Verse”, Stephen Dobyns explains that American English “has no model like Oxford-Cambridge English that rises above regional differences and imposes a consistent rhythm upon the language” (114). This is equally true here in Canada. So what does this have to do with the impact of The Governor General’s Awards and The Griffin Prize on our nation’s literature?

I would argue that The Governor General Awards is promoting an outdated, ill-conceived version of nationalism which is really only an elaborate ruse while The Griffin Prize is simply promoting excellence in poetry, both in Canada and abroad, thereby side-stepping the whole nationalism trap altogether. Nationalism, by its very nature, is a magnet for fundamentalism which is why it attracts the noise-mongers and the power-players in our community who are of the mistaken belief that if they can just win, whatever that means, they will have exercised some control over the nation’s tastes when, in reality, patterns of influence are much wider than that. Such persons can no more impose their tastes upon a country, or the canon for that matter, than King Canute could hold back the sea.

Frankly, this is why The Griffin Prize has it over the GGs. It is not attempting to lasso the Canadian poetic imagination. It is not seeking to posit one aesthetic stance over another. Its primary goal is the promotion of excellence in poetry, both in Canada and internationally, and bring it to the attention of the public. I think the international judging panel consisting of one Canadian judge and two Non-Canadians also helps to foster this image.

Where the Governor General’s Awards aim to define what is excellent in Canadian poetry by safely establishing its borders, which is a mug’s game if you ask me given our various geographical regions and multicultural make-up, the Griffin Prize looks at the whole global economy of poetry to find there are many types of excellence in poetry, and such excellence transcends the boundaries of different countries. If I had to define excellence in poetry, I would say it is very close to the definition given by Donald Hall in his essay “The Unsayable Said” where he asserts, “Poetry by its bodily, mental, and emotional complex educates the sensibility, thinking and feeling appropriately melded together” (5).

Perhaps this is a whole lot of words over two very different award ceremonies but this essay does seek to understand why so many friends of mine rub their heads and steel themselves at the mere announcement of the Governor General’s Awards shortlist and, by the same token, seem so much more cheerful and full of goodwill whilst standing in line for their tickets to the Griffin Readings. Poetry should be a celebration.

As for awards in general, the stakes are always small. They do not guarantee a career nor do they guarantee a continued readership. Speaking from my own personal history after winning several awards, and after being nominated for a whole host of others, awards are a fickle business. Luckily for us, poets do not write poems to win awards. My favorite poetry award, by far, is the Griffins Lifetime Achievement Award. A lifetime of writing poetry? Yes, that is something worth celebrating.


  1. Chris, I dunno: I teach the Griffin Prize Anthology every year, at least one semester, if not two, and I've seen its quality decrease as its predictability increases. Last year's Canadian nominees couldn't help but raise the spectre of croneyism, as the GG nominees, as you remark, often do. Nevertheless, the award DOES do some good, as you point out, raising the profile of Canadian poets to international attention, attention they would otherwise miss out on.

  2. Thanks for the comment Bryan. Some other people have written me and suggested it is a very "Toronto-centric" award, whilst others have suggested it loses some respectibility because Scott Griffin is also the owner of Anansi Press, so croneyism and tokenism are there in the background. These are all strong counterpoints but I do think the way it has been set up as an award for poetry excellence, and not simply as one attempting to standardize the Canadian imagination, can make it serve a real purpose here in Canada and abroad. If it is true that the lone Canadian judge is the only one responsible for the Canadian selections, as someone suggested to me today, well, that is a tragedy. A truly international jury is what I think makes this award different. And special.