This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

June 18, 2001 — That's it. I'm moving to Canada, not simply because I dearly love that large country which is, I believe, located somewhere north of here, but because it's a country where a poet can become filthy, stinking rich.

Take the Canadian poet Anne Carson. I know she's Canadian because on her last book, "The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos," the author's bio on the back flap said, "Anne Carson lives in Canada." In fact, that's all it said. Now, some would say there was a certain pomposity to this, but for me, it worked to confirm the bio note on her previous book, "Men in the Off Hours," which stated, "Anne Carson lives in Canada." This, in turn, had cleared up my confusion over her previous bio note, on "The Autobiography of Red," which said, "Anne Carson lives in Canada."

So anyway, just last week, Carson, who lives in Canada, won a new award called the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in Poetry, which in the common parlance means $40,000. She was presented with the check at a fancy soiree where 300 of Canada's "literati glitterati," as the Griffin's promo material put it, "dined on oysters, beef tenderloin and Swiss chocolate and danced until after midnight."

As to what Carson, a renowned classics professor at McGill University, was doing there, the judges cited her "rigorous classical scholarship," her "dialectical imagination, and her quizzical, stricken moral sense," before Carson, according to the Calgary Herald, stepped up to the microphone and said, "Geez."

Later, lest anyone think her moral sense was stricken at that moment, she added that winning the award was "the kind of event that Plato would say makes your soul more just."

Of course, her soul had been made significantly more just just last year, when she won a MacArthur "Genius" Award for $500,000. Still, 40K is 40K, and for Carson, who unlike all the American poets I know can now afford a 401 K, everything is A–OK.

She wasn't the only poet to win big at this affair, either. The non–Canadian poet Paul Celan won the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in International Poetry, also worth $40,000. Accepting the award on behalf of Celan was poet Heather McHugh and her husband, Nikolai Popov, who translated Celan's work into Canadian.

They were especially happy because they get to share in the award with Celan. According to the National Post, Popov — apparently, a non-Canadian himself — made his happiness clear when he strode to the microphone to accept the award and said, "I am delightful!"

Of course, Popov and McHugh were getting an even bigger share of the prize money than the poet they translated, so no wonder they were delightful. They get 60% to Celan's 40%, the Griffin Trust apparently valuing translators even more highly than poets. But Celan has been dead for 30 years, so what's he gonna do about it?

Besides, only one critic is complaining about this: Canadian literary journalist Alex Good. On his website,, he criticized the Griffin International Award for "pitting translators against poets." The monetary split wasn't fair to translated poets, he said. "If an American or Australian poet were to win the award they would receive the full amount," he noted, "but if a Russian poet were to win they would get less than half."

He carped about Carson's winnings, too, saying professors already "make more money teaching poetry than poets make writing the stuff" and "she not only gets paid more as an academic, she gets more prize money!" He even ridiculed the judges' citation for her work — the stuff about her "scholarship" and being stricken, etc. — saying "These may be virtues in an academic, but what have they got to do with poetry? Who wants to read poetry by someone with a dialectical imagination?"

But I say Good is bad. He's missing the point entirely.

I agree, instead, with Scott Griffin, the Toronto bazillionaire responsible for this award he named after himself. When someone asked him why he was putting so much money into poetry, of all things, he said the question was "an indication of how far poetry has slipped from the mainstream of our cultural lives."

Well, if giving already wealthy poets big cash prizes and throwing them fancy balls is putting poetry back in the mainstream, I say point me toward the door for Canada, baby.

I can already feel my soul getting more just.

Last Week’s Column: THUS DOES ART MEET COMMERCE AT THE NEW YORKER The New Yorker's new publisher says put up enough cash and your story could be in the magazine.


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