Books·Poetry Month

Griffin Poetry Prize nominee Sarah Tolmie shares the many reasons she loves John Donne

Sarah Tolmie, a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist for The Art of Dying, shares why John Donne is "still the greatest poet in English, to my mind."
The Art of Dying is a poetry collection by Sarah Tolmie. (, McGill-Queen's University Press)

University of Waterloo professor Sarah Tolmie is among the Canadian finalists of the Griffin Poetry Prize, a $65,000 award for the year's best work of poetry in English. Tolmie is nominated for the collection The Art of Dyingwhich explores the ways we fear, honour and attempt to escape death. 

To celebrate National Poetry Month, CBC Books asked Tolmie to share her favourite poet:

"Who is my favourite poet, and why? Umm … Carol Ann Duffy? Jorie Graham? Teenage infatuation with Ezra Pound? No, if I am being honest, it's John Donne. Still the greatest poet in English, to my mind. The man who proves, every single time I read him, that technique exists to clarify both thought and emotion. The more you have of the one, the more you have of the other. His poems are irreducible, incredibly efficient. They get more information across in a shorter space than anyone's, and they organize it more richly and densely — which is why his lines stick in the mind. ('And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart' — is there any way to say all this in fewer words?)

"Also, I like his topics: sex, death and mental experience. I am not interested in poetry about scenery or politics. I could have said sex, death and religion. For a secular person, I spend a lot of time reading poetry about God. But I feel about Donne as I do about Hopkins, that their complex imagined relations with their God elucidate their experience of being themselves. Thus Donne is both a friend and a foreigner to me, which is what I like in a poet."