The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2014 Edited by Robert Bringhurst
For those who go to poetry for the communication and community of Truth & Beauty, find your way to The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2014. Editor Robert Bringhurst and the two other judges (C.D. Wright and Jo Shapcott) who read “539 books submitted to this year’s jury” are reliable guides. Talk about serendipity: at the same time, the New York Times Sunday Book Review’s hard copy cover was titled Contemporary Poetry and featured a two page centerfold essay by David Lehman adapted from his foreword to The Best American Poetry 2014, which will be published in September.
Lehman wrote, “At seemingly regular intervals an article will appear in a wide-circulation periodical declaring…that poetry is finished, kaput, dead, and what are they doing with the corpse?…The discussion is fraught with anxiety, and perhaps that implies a love of poetry, and a longing for it, and a fear that we may be in danger of losing it if we do not take care to promote it, teach it well and help it reach the reader whose life depends on it. Will magazine editors continue to fall for a pitch lamenting that poetry has become a “small-time game,” that it is “too hermetic,” or “programmatically obscure”?…we continue to need from literature…an experience of mind — mediated by memorable speech — that feeds and sustains the imagination and helps us make sense of our lives.”
This Anthology’s celebration of poetry is an antidote to fraught anxiety. Seven poets from the Griffin Prize Short List appear in the paperback collection. The Griffin Poetry Prize is Canada’s most generous poetry award. It was founded in 2000 by businessman and philanthropist Scott Griffin. The awards go to one Canadian and one international poet writing in English. Anne Carson and Californian Brenda Hillman, also a professor, won the top prizes (C$75,000; the others each received C$10,000). Editor Bringhurst “allotted each author precisely twelve pages and chose complete poems (or complete sections of the book-length poems) that seemed…readable in relative isolation.”[xi]
Canadian poet Anne Carson might be the current (secular) Alpha and Omega of the Griffin Poetry Prize since she won when it was first presented in 2001 and now again in 2014. Excerpts of her winning collection Red Doc> appear in the Anthology. The poems work as a sequel to her 1998 verse-novel, Autobiography of Red, which reimagined the tenth labor of Herakles (Hercules) who killed the red-winged monster Geryon and stole his herd of red cattle as suggested by fragments from the ancient Greek poet Stesichorus. It’s apt to call Carson by the Greek letters Α or Ω because she is a professor of Classics (she currently teaches at the University of Michigan), and her erudition is as profound as her poetic gifts.
All the poems in Red Doc> appear on the page in columns with the characteristic layout gaps of now-becoming-archaic newsprint. My favorite of the dozen chosen is the hypnotically accurate repetitions of “Time Passes Time”. (73-74)
At first, my reading of the poems in the Anthology reminded me of Hart Crane and/or a psychiatrist whose unnamed patient handed her a poem titled “Blowtorch Soup”. But something happens in the mind that overcomes rational defensiveness when you read real poetry. Rhythms and metaphors lull and stun. It feels like being on a train that takes you onto a switch track into a foreign country where, if you don’t blink, you can understand the language.
Consider this description of a Christ icon by the Russian painter Rublev in prizewinner Brenda Hillman’s “Very Far Back in This Life” from Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire:
Christ looks sickly & helpful,
raising two fingers. His eyes have apostrophes,
cloves of garlic. (24)
From Hillman’s “To the Writing Students at Orientation” comes this marvel of epistolary intimacy laid out as prose, reading poetically:
…Which brings us to your writing…
…you came to this room because it is
difficult to have consciousness in the twenty-first century, & you
need a community, & here they possibly are, sitting beside you.
Your writing has a social dimension in a culture often numb to art.
…Out in the dark, the diamond planet orbits the companion
star as art circles the unnamable. Why? It is the great task.
The five other poets in the Anthology offer similar moments. From Carl Phillips’ “Just the Wind for a Sound, Softly” in Silverchest, reflections on a gay male love affair gone bad, “It’s hard to see anyone who has become/like your own body to you. And now I can’t forget.” (33) The word “still” or “stillness’ repeats in Phillips’ poems:
…Is it days, really, or only moments ago
that I almost told you everything,
before remembering what that leads
or has led to? How still they are – the bees, I mean,
not the flowers bending and unbending beneath
a rain that’s come suddenly and, just as suddenly,
has stopped falling … Stillness, not of death,
but intoxication… (37)
When you read an anthology subtitled “A Selection of the Shortlist”, how can you resist making your own choice for a winner? Mine goes to Sue Goyette’s Ocean in which she makes poetry an archeological dig, unearthing a language that you learn to understand as it emerges from solid and liquid depths. She numbers each poem, and here is an excerpt from:
We first invented running do we could be in two places
at one time but then understood how, with empty pockets,
we could also harvest the wind. We invented hospitality
to lure our successes home, and to get love a much-needed
drink. We invented chairs so we could rest after the chase.
We invented the chase after we invented running, and inadvertently,
robbery. We invented the suburbs after accidentally colliding
into the feud and its conniving stepsisters the argument
and the snit. Some of us needed more space.
We discovered death under the bridge
and someone insisted we take it home, that it needed
our help. That day alone we invented the handkerchief
and the whisper. When it sat up, when it looked at us
with the teeth of its appetite puddinged in its eyes, we discovered
the flapping of words trying to escape from our ears
and something hammering in the silver-shaft of our hearts.
We unearthed fear that day, our first act of real
Hermetic and obscure as some of the poems in The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2014 may be, none are small-time game. I’m not crazy about the predator/prey metaphor anyway. There’s no crying in baseball, and there are no guns in poetry. Here, there are guides to oracles and experiences usually beyond quotidian stumbling. Think Dante and Virgil and thank Canadian businessman Scott Griffin for putting this prize in your hands.