Judging a literary prize isn't easy. Reading so many books in such a short time is a herculean task, and then there's the heartbreaking chore of selecting a winner. All this must be doubly hard for judges of the Griffin Poetry Prize; not only do they select one book of poetry as the best in English Canada each year, they must choose another winner for the entire English-speaking world. According to the Griffin Trust, this year's crop amounted to nearly 400 books from a dozen countries.
First on the Canadian short list is Kate Hall's debut collection, The Certainty Dream. This book is concerned with those cornerstones of surrealism, ambiguity and the unconscious mind. It's fertile ground, but difficult to plow; one must avoid being derivative and meaningless all at once. But Hall isn't rehashing 85-year-old experiments for their own sake, nor is she writing "innovative" gibberish. On the contrary, her dreamscape is both current and welcoming, and she maintains a clarity of diction that keeps the peculiarity of her images in breathtaking focus. This is strong writing filled with delights. Like the other books on this year's list, it would make a worthy winner, but a first book has never won the Griffin Poetry Prize, and I feel the odds might be stacked against her.
- The Certainty Dream, by Kate Hall, Coach House, 80 pages, $16.95
- Coal and Roses, by P.K. Page, Porcupine's Quill, 94 pages, $16.95
- Pigeon, by Karen Solie, House of Anansi, 100 pages, $18.95
- Grain, by John Glenday, Picador, 50 pages, $14.99
- A Village Life, by Louise Glück, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 72 pages, $27.50
- The Sun-Fish, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Gallery, 64 pages, $52
- Cold Spring in Winter, by Valérie Rouzeau, translated by Susan Wicks, Arc Publications, 130 pages, $31
The other poets on the Canadian short list have both been nominated before. Karen Solie, nominated this year for Pigeon, was also nominated in 2002 for her debut collection, Short Haul Engine. That first book struck a delicate balance between lyrical and narrative sensibilities, and Solie's successive work has continued in this vein with stunning results. Balance is key in Solie's writing. Words are ephemeral things, but in her hands they become palpable. Her work is cerebral, but its effects are especially visceral. And always, there is a sense that no matter how dire her subject, the best possible world is still within reach, and the reader is buoyed by that notion. Pigeon is no exception, and it shows why she has become one of the most admired Canadian poets of her generation.
The other veteran is P.K. Page, who was nominated in 2003 for Planet Earth: New and Selected Poems and again this year for Coal and Roses: Twenty-one Glosas. Sadly, Page, one of the finest lyric poets our nation has ever produced, passed away in January of this year. At the age of 93, she was still at the top of her game, as this newest collection amply demonstrates. Her glosas not only showcase her mastery of form and facility with voice, but also her passion for the art form and willingness to pay homage to those who've inspired her. Few poets have had a career of such longevity and persistent excellence, and for this, her place as one of the major Canadian modernists is assured.
The international short list begins with Scottish poet John Glenday, author of Grain. For those not familiar with his work, Glenday's poetry is spooky good. It is deceptively simple, and it transcends the perceived limitations of the short lyric as only the best kind of writing can. His diction and imagery can be commonplace, yet they lend his poems a quiet, often ominous, power that forces us to see our familiar world as something as strange as any surreal apparition. In doing so, his poems restore our sense of wonder in the real. What better task could we ask of our language?
Former American poet laureate Louise Glück is honoured this year for A Village Life. I have long admired her skillful poetry, but must admit I find it austere and uninviting. This book changes all that. Glück's searing poetic intelligence is at work, but so too is an amplified sense of intimacy. The speaker that contemplates and reports has become one that also lives and shares. Once stark, her elongated lines now overflow with a rich, often witty flair. The effect is like a dam being burst, as though this voice had been held back and now it rushes forth to greet us. A Village Life shows how an established persona can still have an important breakthrough. It's a generous collection that is sure to gain this celebrated poet an even wider readership.
Ireland's Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's The Sun-fish was a pleasant surprise, but only because I wasn't familiar with her work. This means the Griffin Prize is doing its job: Introducing Canadian poetry to the world while introducing the world's poetry to Canadians. Ní Chuilleanáin's work has something of Glenday's magic and something of Glück's vitality, but wrought with a voice all her own. It's a voice that lends mythic importance to living history, but also an imminent familiarity to myth. It's a calm, confiding voice, but one brimming with musicality, unafraid of the grand gesture. If there's such a thing a complete poetic voice, it must sound something like Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's.
Finally, there is Cold Spring in Winter (originally Pas Revoir), by French poet Valérie Rouzeau, translated by English poet Susan Wicks. This is a long poem sequence in which the voices of an adult woman and her childhood self mourn the loss of their dead father. It is a cascading threnody composed of overlapping wordplay and child-speak, chock full of verbal idiosyncrasy and inventiveness. A translator could scarcely set herself a more daunting assignment, but Wicks's version succeeds with all the raucous, haunting gusto of Rouzeau's original.
I can't remember a time when I so thoroughly enjoyed reading all the books on a prize's short list. I generally think a list is excellent if I like more than half of the titles, so this is a happy anomaly. It would have been painful to have to cast the deciding vote in either category, but The Globe and Mail has asked me to guess which books will win, and so I will. Ask me on another day, and I might give a different answer, but right now my gut tells me that on June 3, Karen Solie and Louise Glück will be the chosen ones. But I've been wrong before.
Poet Paul Vermeersch's most recent collection is The Reinvention of the Human Hand.