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Toronto, Rhode Island poets win $50,000 Griffin Prize

Griffin Poetry Prize 2009 nominee A.F. (Albert Frank) Moritz.

Charles Earl

A Rhode Island academic described as "America's most original daring and scary poet" won the 2009 Griffin Prize for international poetry at a ceremony in Toronto Wednesday night.

Rising, Falling, Hovering by C.D. Wright is a "work of harrowing power and genius," said jury chairman Michael Redhill.

Toronto poet A.F. Moritz won the prize awarded annually to a Canadian poet for his work The Sentinel.

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Both annual prizes are worth $50,000.

Established in 2000 by industrialist Scott Griffin and administered by an all-star roster of literary trustees, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, the Griffins are often described as among the richest and most prestigious poetry awards in the world.

Ms. Wright's work "reminds us what poetry is for," the jury citation said. "This is poetry as white phosphorus, written with merciless love and depthless anger."

In accepting the prize, however, the poet was laconic, thanking the Griffin Trust for the best party in the world.

"I wouldnt have missed it for anything."

Canadian winner Mr. Moritz made a special point of thanking his publisher, House of Anansi Press, owned by Mr Griffin.

"These two days have been a wonderful time," he said. "Why don't we all get together and do it again next year?"

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The Griffins are certainly unique in Canada, where reading and publishing poetry remain the most marginal of literary activities. But as this year's jury remarked - each member having read 500 submitted books before deciding on a short list of seven finalists - the lack of readers has done little to suppress the flood of words. The prizes, awarded at a glamorous banquet featuring grilled veal tenderloin and plantain croquette, are more than enough to create a mini-boom in Canadian poetry.

Contemporary poets appear not to know that they live in an "era of dumbing down," according to Mr. Redhill, whose recent novel, Consolation, was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. The jurors "were struck over and over by the continuing freshness of the art form and the level of invention, commitment and passion among its practitioners," he wrote in a preface to an anthology of the nominated works. After making the difficult selection from such a vast body of submissions, he wrote, "it is a host of the turned away that my heart aches for."

Critic James Wood bemoaned what he called "a crucial shrinkage of respect" for poetry in modern culture, noting the demise of poetry reviews in popular journalism. and the dominance of "the great fat greedy monster of the novel."

This year's short list did inspire some grumbling due to what appeared to be a narrow regional focus. All three of the short-listed Canadian poets live in Toronto and environs. Two of the volumes - Revolver by Kevin Connolly and Mr. Moritz's The Sentinel - were published by House of Anansi, a literary press Mr. Griffin bought out of bankruptcy in 2002 and has since transformed into what one British publisher called "the red-hot centre of literary publishing in Canada."

Rules for the contest state that "no trustee may participate in the selection of judges if he or she has a financial interest in a publishing house that issues contemporary poetry." However, they include an exemption for Mr. Griffin. "To preserve the integrity of the Griffin Poetry Prize, he no longer takes part in the selection of judges," they state. "And like other trustees, he is prohibited from involvement in the judging process."

The trust also altered its eligibility rules for this year's competition to prohibit books containing previously published work, allowing collections only in the case of translations into English. Under the new rules, neither of last year's winning volumes - John Ashbery's Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems and Robin Blaser's The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser - would have been eligible for entry.

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The result this year was a marked shift away from senior voices and toward younger poets publishing new work, although the short list's lack of demographic diversity - six of the seven finalists were white, middle-aged men - was equally apparent.

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