I am huge admirer of the poet Rodney Jones, and last night I had the very good fortune to see him give a reading as part of the Griffin Prize readings. He was tremendous, and the crowd seemed to love him. Paul Farley, a young British poet, also knocked my socks off. I will be reading him for years to come. Together Jones and Farley would have made an utterly memorable reading (which, it should be noted, is a very rare thing), but the stage was stocked overfull with some the greatest literary talent the poetry world has to offer.
Charles Simic, one of the judges of this year's Griffin Prize and a winner in 2005, was there. I have been reading his work with delight since I was twenty. Don McKay, one of my Canadian heroes, gave an excellent reading. This is his third time being nominated in the seven year history of the Prize. Charles Wright was beyond charming. John Burnside, a large man with a large voice, was a presence at once imposing and disarming. Watching him unfold several scraps of crumpled notes in order to introduce Ken Babstock was nothing short of cute.
The usually reclusive Frederick Seidel remained reclusive, it seemed, and a young actress (who's name I didn't recognize or retain) was hired to read poems from his book Ooga Booga. Though it was no fault of hers, I think it was a bad choice. As actors are want to do when reading poetry, she over did it. And Seidel's poems require subtlety. She had warned the audience that she was going to try to "inhabit" Seidel's words. And she did so, but I fear she may have had to first evict the consciousness that wrote them. She rendered Seidel's black, deadpan humour with too much of a smile, in my opinion. It seemed wrong. It felt uncomfortably sunny. Still, her effort was sincere, and I applaud her for that, and the poems are excellent regardless.
You'd think a more impressive line-up would be difficult to assemble. But add to all this Karen Solie, another judge and herself a past Griffin nominee not to mention one of the finest Canadian poets of her generation, and nominee Priscila Uppal. What could you possibly want to add to such an already wonderful mixed bag of talents?
Enter Scott Griffin, the illustrious founder of the feast. The time had come to award a senior poet with the Griffin Lifetime Achievement Award. This award, begun last year when Robin Blaser received the inaugural honour, is an initiative of the trustees of the Griffin Prize and completely separate from the judges and the nominees. Scott introduced Robert Hass to present the award. When Hass got behind the microphone, he said, "Tomas Tranströmer. . . " and for several moments the rest of his words were the aural equivalent of a blur. An audible gasp rose the audience. Excited whispers flew. In the wings, I could see the shape of a man sitting a wheelchair. He was actually there.
Tranströmer (pictured) was brought on stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation that last several minutes. He is a true legend, someone who's name will live on through the ages when all our athletes and politicians are long forgotten. He lays more claim to literary posterity than perhaps any writer of poetry alive today. After he was presented with his prize, his wife Monica read a poem of his, "Couples," in Swedish. Such beauty, it made me want to learn the language on the spot. Griffin trustee Robin Robertson followed with an English version of the same. I was moved, to say the least, and still somewhat stunned to be in the same room with a man who's talent I consider to be larger than life.
In the lobby after the reading, when the crowd was milling aimlessly, I noticed Tranströmer sitting near me, and he was not yet surrounded by a throng of admirers. I offered my hand and spoke to him. What I said is not important. It was nothing special or original. His response was a simple smile, genuine, pleased, reassuring. I will never forget it.