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The Griffin Prize for Stuff Vaguely Resembling Poetry

Di Brandt is a poet I had never read until now, and perhaps would not have read were it not for her Griffin nomination.

On my better days, I tell myself that literary awards are meaningless, that they routinely overlook the best work and determine verdicts based more on common-denominator compromise than on artistic excellence. On my better days, I am a sage and sensible fellow. But on my better days, I haven't just finished reading this year's short list for the Canadian portion of the Griffin Poetry Prize, administered by the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. My better days--like most people's, I'd wager--are few and far between. On my more human days, I want the Griffin Prize to embody actual excellence, as the Trust's pompous name suggests, and not merely be another high-priced exercise in poetical diplomacy. I know I was not alone in hoping that the internationalist foundation upon which this prize was established would be a curative for the inevitable provincialism and nepotism of juries drawn exclusively from the ranks of CanPo. Hope springs eternal and all that, but this year may well represent the Prize's worst flub yet.

The biggest surprise on this year's list was Leslie Greentree's go-go Dancing for Elvis, published by Calgary's Frontenac House. The reaction to this, even among poets, has been a universal shoulder-shrug. I had no notion that there was any such person as Leslie Greentree writing poetry in Red Deer, Alberta. Of course, being an unknown poet is no disqualification for an award based on Excellence in Poetry. For example, Karen Solie's first book, Short Haul Engine, was the only one on the 2002 short list to demonstrate any such excellence. But after reading go-go Dancing for Elvis, I can tell you that Leslie Greentree is no Karen Solie and her book barely displays any Poetry, much less Excellence therein.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read so much as the cover blurbs. Nancy Holmes effuses that "this book is like a best friend who invites you over for a glass of wine and a gab session." Blurbs rarely have anything better than a tenuous relationship to a book's content, but I discovered on opening go-go Dancing for Elvis that Ms. Holmes had hit the proverbial nail on the head. The writing is not so much poetry as it is randomly broken lines of barely punctuated lower-case text, which, if the line breaks were removed and the punctuation restored, I would call prose but for fear of offending practitioners of that medium. Consider the following:

we're sitting at the kitchen table one day
talking about Yeats
drinking cheap white wine from a
carafe that says cheap white wine
Kirk my guitar-playing friend is bored and fidgeting
to keep him from drinking our wine
I write out the words to When You are Old [sic]
tell him to go away put it to music
("the sorrows of my changing face")

Reading passage after passage of such unaccomplished un-verse makes me want to give Greentree the same advice her speaker gives Kirk. There is no dynamism to writing like this, no verbal dexterity, no powerful rhythm, no imagery or metaphor, no music, nothing at all to lift it above the humdrum of quotidian banality the book represents. But ya gotta marvel at the naive nerve to quote Yeats in the midst of such dreck!

go-go Dancing for Elvis reads, more than anything, like sketchy notes toward a novel the author was either too busy or too lazy to write. Even on the level of subject and story, all questions of clunky prosody aside, this book fails to get out of neutral. I would summarize the "plot" of the book thusly: bored and boring lonely woman, approaching middle age, consumed with self-pity, obsesses over her past (failed relationships, a blow job in a hotel bathroom, etc.) and is deeply envious of her dynamic "beautiful sister" (the eponymous go-go dancer) and the mystery woman Linda Lee, whose telephone number the narrator has inherited. She bemoans her own fundamental inertia while attempting haphazardly to renovate a house and lusting privately after the handyman at the hardware store. This is the stuff of bad personal ads, not good books.

It would seem that this year's Griffin Prize jury has the same kind of low expectations for poetry as Greentree and Holmes do, to judge by their citation, in which they say that Greentree's "unpretentious, sometimes comic, lower-case poems have an irresistible charm." Personally, I hope for something more from Excellent Poetry than to be charmed, even irresistibly so. I'm charmed by winsome dogs and polite children; I'm jarred and shaken and wakened by poetry. Without a transcript of their deliberations, one can only speculate as to what manner of madness prompted the jury to fasten on to this book in particular. It seems to me that it's a case of a trio of aging poets trying to demonstrate that they're hip and with it, to choose a book with appeal to Generation-Insert-Algebraic-Variable-Here. They probably think that go-go Dancing for Elvis is "edgy"--but Greentree's edginess consists merely of frank talk about sex and lust along with a liberal peppering of four-letter words, which, far from being shocking, is rather pedestrian. This nomination will no doubt do great things for little Frontenac House and the writing career of Leslie Greentree. Unfortunately, it does less than nothing for poetry.

Unlike Greentree, Anne Simpson has become one of the usual suspects when it comes to literary awards. Her first collection of poems, Light Falls Through You, was shortlisted for three prizes, winning two, and last year's effort, Loop, is the only collection to have made the short list for both the 2003 Governor General's Award and the 2004 Griffin.

It's easy to see why the compass needles of jurists are drawn to Simpson's work like it was Lodestone Mountain. Unlike Greentree's prosaic colloquialism, Simpson's verse is rife with elements that insist, "This is Excellent Poetry; take it lightly at your own peril." She tackles subjects of great moment and casually showcases her erudition with references to literary classics and foreign cultures. She employs clever, complex structures and conceits as well as carefully crafted vers libre: in her first book, the Trojan War is retold in a sequence of poems about punctuation marks; in Loop, the WTC disaster is depicted in a crown of sonnets inspired by the paintings of Bruegel. She makes statements that seem to bear the weight of great wisdom and pain: "Now you wind yourself in the cloth of suffering, cloth of twilight, but it does no good" ("Lear").

But there's something, or rather there are many things, I find phony and off-putting about this poet's work. For all its surface profundity, Simpson's poetry is remarkably shallow. One example of this is a compulsive habit of resorting to the indeterminate pronoun "something" to signify spiritual depth:

In that blue hour, something calls you
from sleep, summons you to the window.
("The Blue Hour," italics are my own)

Weeds lay tangled below, a great square
of something intricate, unknown,
and I thought how it could be caught
by four corners: a carpet lifted into the dark, undulating up and up. I
 might have been pulled into the blue-black,
too high, too far, but something called me

back....

... There, before us, birds
ascended as if drawing something
with them, the sheen of water, a wavering
transparency....
("Carpets," italics are my own)

These are just a few examples. There are many, many more in this book. What this kind of re-iteration says to me is that this is a poet who only half-believes what she's saying and so needs to fill in the gaps with ineffable mystical vagaries. It's little better than a pseudo-spiritual pose, but one the judges seem to have fallen for, as "Carpets," with its thrice-repeated "something" and its corollary religious preciousness, was chosen to accompany Simpson's biographical info on the Griffin Web site.

Looking over both of Simpson's books, a disturbing pattern emerges. She seems to scour literature, history and the papers for scenes of wreckage and death that she can then turn into poems. In her first book, she writes not only about the Trojan War, but also about the Montreal Massacre, a nineteenth-century train wreck and the genocide in Rwanda. In Loop, besides a slew of references to literary tragedies, we find the September 11 sonnets and a meditation on a plane crash (presumably the Swissair disaster at Peggy's Cove), as well as glibly dropped references to the war in Kosovo and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Now, as I said, these are weighty topics, and they certainly merit poetic treatment, but in poetry, it's not the subject that matters; as Irving Layton put it, "it's all in the manner of the done." And Simpson does not do these subjects justice. She flits from one tragedy (to employ the ubiquitously bastardized sense of the term) to another, exploiting them as opportunities for lyric insights like "We take the shape of soil, abandon words" ("The Tower of Babel I"). There are far too many such self-aware, pedantic stock poeticisms to allow the poems to connect with the reader. Indeed, the basic conceit of pairing Bruegel's paintings with the charred wreckage of the Towers in such a thoroughgoing manner as a corona of sonnets strikes me as an obscene and insulting gesture. There is so much distance between poet and subject that she never becomes more than a speculative spectator; all notes of grief, anger and sympathy therefore ring hollow. I'm not saying that it is not a poet's business to write on such topics, but rather that Simpson fails to make them her business.

Ironically, in the Twin Towers sequence, we find these lines: "Half- / heard, the phantoms speak: No, you weren't there -- / We turn; we sleep. But once there was a prayer" ("Hunters in the Snow"). In the villanelle "The Grand Canyon," she uses the following refrain lines: "I haven't gone there: tell me what you've seen" and "We think we know it, but we've never been." Thus, Simpson does betray some basic awareness of her own inability to do justice to objects and events of which she has no firsthand knowledge--and yet she forges on anyway, digging up the dead and making them sing and dance for her. As a poet she is a tourist in the realms of human misery and suffering.

She makes sure to show us how choked up she is about it all with a distracting predilection for syntactic disruption, miming her disingenuous incapacity for articulation through the excessive deployment of portentous full-stopped sentence fragments:

These watches. Ticking, still. Each hour is cold:
the rims surround quick voices. Shut in rooms.
Gone. Tick. The towers. Tock. Of fire. A fold
in air. We're smoke, drifting. A painted doom
where cities burn and ships go down. Death's
dark sky--a grainy docudrama.
("The Triumph of Death")

Her catchpenny treatment of these events--her reduction of them to tropes and occasions for, as she herself says in a publisher's press release, indulging in "the play of poetic forms"--constitutes gross artistic and moral irresponsibility. With no irony whatsoever, she complains that "ordinary lives are always embellished by the papers" ("Ordinary Lives, Embellished"); she seems to possess no awareness that she does the same thing herself, again and again. Perhaps she assumes that hanging out her shingle as a poet immunizes her from committing the sins of mass media. I'm sure she doesn't mean to be so gruesome, that her intentions are, at their root, noble, but her naive lack of intellectual sophistication and artistic vision sabotages those honourable intentions at every turn. Simpson is a highly competent writer and on personally relevant topics she can be quite good, as in the very moving "The Lilacs," but when she turns her attention to the world-historical, her work is proof that craft and ideals alone are insufficient to the writing of Excellent Poetry.

Unfortunately, this year's Griffin judges seem equally blind to the demerits of Simpson's disaster tourism. It's hard to blame them. I consider myself an avid reader of poetry, but I doubt that I read much more than one or two hundred individual collections a year. Billy Collins, Bill Manhire and Phyllis Webb, on the other hand, had precisely one year to read and evaluate 423 collections (over 100 of them Canadian), many of which were no doubt retrospective gatherings thicker than the standard slim tome of verse. Poetry is simply not a commodity to be consumed in such mass quantities and at such speeds. It would be uncharitable to expect such overtaxed folks, all three of whom must have other things to occupy their time besides jury duty, to make subtle distinctions between competent craft and artistic excellence. It seems to me that something should be done to limit the number of titles submitted to the award. I suggest a rule whereby each publisher is only allowed to submit one book or a quarter of its list, whichever is greater.

To give them their due, Collins, Manhire and Webb have at least selected one title that does no dishonour to Scott Griffin's generosity. Di Brandt's Now You Care is a book that I am glad, without reservation, to recommend to the readers of this column and to anyone else who will listen.

Like Anne Simpson, Brandt tackles some very tough topics in her fifth book, as she focuses on our society's self-destructive habits of consumption and environmental degradation. Unlike Simpson, however, she delivers her poems with force and urgency, with no cloying poeticisms or Liberal pseudo-intellectual posing. This is how her book opens:

Breathing yellow air here,
at the heart of the dream
of the new world,
the bones of old horses and dead Indians
and lush virgin land, dripping with fruit
and the promise of wheat,
overlaid with glass and steel
and the dream of speed: all these our bodies
crushed to appease the 400 & 1 gods
of the Superhighway,
NAFTA, we worship you,
hallowed be your name,
here, where we are scattered
like dust or rain in the ditches,
the ghosts of passenger pigeons
clouding the silver towered sky,
the future clogged in the arteries
of the potholed city,
Tecumseh, come back to us
from your green grave,
sing us your song of bravery
on the lit bridge over the black river,
splayed with grief over the loss
of its ancient rainbow coloured fish swollen joy.
("Zone: (le Détroit)")

 Whereas Simpson's is a poetry of muted correct gestures, Brandt's is a clarion call of articulate rage. Here craft--manifested in scattershot consonance, assonance, rhyme and an irresistibly persuasive rhythm that pulls the reader in from the first line--is not gaudily foregrounded, but works in the service of its subject. The run-on sentence is a device Brandt employs to great effect in this collection as the ideal syntactic vessel for the overflowing sense of anger and frustration from which she writes. Allusions to the Lord's Prayer and Tecumseh are not mere showpieces of learned research, but are integrated seamlessly into the verse.

Another strength of Brandt's poetry of social protest is her frank acknowledgment of her own complicity and culpability in society's sins. Whereas Simpson attempts to stand aloof, sacrosanct in her role as Poet, Brandt states plainly in a poem about animal vivisection: "like every poet I can // assure you I have prostituted myself for less, gathering fuel / in vacant lots" ("A Modest Proposal").

She demonstrates equal skill in a more spare, toned-down mode. Like Leslie Greentree, Brandt delves into personal material to complement her more strident political poems. But whereas Greentree fails to persuade us why we should care about her speaker's neurotic solipsism, Brandt, in the sequence "Songs for a divorce," for example, transmutes personal loss and pain into credible and necessary public art:
 
You sang me,
O husband of forests
and beaches,

with your eyes,
and lips,
and hands,

bright coloured
canvasses,
your unreasonable joy,

your castles of sticks
in sand,

irreverent
jester's bells,

airplane tickets,
dreamer,

into life

Now You Care, for all its desolation and rage, is nonetheless leavened by bursts of erotic joy, by a sense that it is still possible to live well "at the end of this dark century / of human destruction / and despair, / as always of joyful, delirious / magick flowered / honey love" ("Interspecies communication"). The paradoxically adamant energy of this collection presents itself as a possible antidote to our mindless career into social and ecological crisis.

To be sure, this is no perfect book; no work of Excellent Poetry is. Brandt's artistic grip occasionally slackens and she slips into transitory glitches of prosaic didacticism, but these faux pas are the result of overreaching and are far more felicitous than omissions due to excessive caution and reticence would be--and it should be noted that her missteps are remarkably few and far between.

Di Brandt is a poet I had never read until now, and perhaps would not have read were it not for her Griffin nomination. She is a poet who deserves the honour and moreover deserves to be read and heeded. It's regrettable that she isn't in more worthy company on the pedestal--there were several fine books published last year which have been unjustly passed over--but one hopes at least that she finds a wider audience as a result of this attention. And one hopes that the jury demonstrates better horse sense in picking a winner than they have in selecting their short list. Otherwise, I'm afraid I'll lose faith in the whole damn process. Again.