Griffin Poetry Prize 2012: The Canadian finalists

Finalists for this year's Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada's richest award for poetry, were revealed earlier this month. There are two shortlists, one international and one Canadian, and the winner in each category will receive $65,000. Winners will be announced on June 7.

In the meantime, CBC Books is offering an overview of the finalists. Below, we look at the three Canadian books in the running for the lucrative prize. Next week we'll put the spotlight on the four books on the international shortlist.

You can win a complete set of the Griffin finalists by entering this month's poetry-themed CanLit Quiz. Go here for details.

Forge by Jan Zwicky


Lyric poetry is at its soulful, evocative best in Forge, where Jan Zwicky writes of loss, love and transformation with captivating immediacy. Her language is simple and exquisitely precise, her images sharply vivid and metaphorically rich: she writes of "the long field gathering shadows/the way the heart once gathered hope"; and grief "green as dew-wet moss at dawn"; joy is embodied by buttercups, "the clear eye,/gold, when being sings."

As well as being a poet, Jan Zwicky is a violinist and a professor of philosophy, and both these passions shape much of the work in the collection. "Let us think of music as a geometry of the emotions," she writes in one poem. The poems in Forge are like small songs themselves, full of both deep thought and strong feeling, and their grace notes linger.

Below, listen to Jan Zwicky, reading the poem "Sarabande" from Forge, which was inspired in part by Bach's Cello Suite No. 6, in D major.

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Killdeer by Phil Hall


Already the winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, Killdeer is a bracingly original collection of autobiographical "essay-poems" in which Phil Hall ponders his formation as a poet, looking critically (and with wry humour) at his writing process and paying tribute to writers who have formed part of his "literary family." He needed that sense of belonging: Hall writes of carrying a "home-scar," the effect of growing up in rural Ontario in a family where books were disdained.

There's something disarmingly compelling about Hall's "locally quirk private" way of expressing himself. The same goes for his thinking. In his meditation on the killdeer as his "totem bird" (it fakes injury to lure predators away from its nest, which he compares to being emotionally manipulative in poems), Hall criticizes poetic forms that "dummy-down/the complexity of impression/expression"; that charge could never be levelled at Killdeer.

In the audio player below, Phil Hall reads a passage from Killdeer, adapted from his poem "A Thin Plea." In it, he identifies a surprising kindred spirit for his tendencies as a writer.

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Methodist Hatchet by Ken Babstock

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Methodist Hatchet is a playground for a poet boldly experimenting with the ways in which language can lie about experience -- or, in effect, create a version of reality. Take the poem Bathynaut: it starts by lowering the reader into a deep-sea world of "plumb-bobbing gradations of lightlessness" and weird creatures, but ends high and dry, pulling back to reveal the bathysphere as part of a museum exhibit. (Babstock likens it to "a shelved head," and as such, it's also a metaphor for consciousness itself.)

Thoughout the collection, Babcock keeps the reader off-balance, but also entertained. One poem, Hoping Your Machine Can Handle the Big Image, looks back at a drawing contest the poet entered as a child, in which his wildly imaginative entry lost out to something pedestrian. It serves as a humorous hint that the "big image" -- fanciful, even cryptic, and certainly outside what he calls "the pitfire of the obvious" -- is what Babstock has his eye on.

In the audio player below, Ken Babstock reads the poem "Caledonia", which is about the land-claim dispute that took place in that Ontario town in 2006.

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