Margaret Avison had to be helped up the steps to the microphone. But when the 85year-old poet spoke, her voice rang with authority—much like the poems in Concrete and Wild Carrot, which had just beat out two other collections for the Canadian portion of the $80,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, the world’s richest for a single volume of verse. “This is ridiculous,” she blurted out to the Toronto audience at the June 12 event. “I don’t see how anyone could pick a single winner. What makes you write a poem is so remote from this kind of occasion.” Later, she told Maclean’s she was chagrined at her outburst of candour. But the crowd, which
included Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson and such notable authors as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, clearly fell in love with the poet. The audience laughed warmly as she spoke, and cheered as philanthropist and prize founder Scott Griffin tucked the cheque in her purse for safekeeping. Another $40,000 went to Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who won in the international category for Moy sand and gravel.
Born in 1918 in Southern Ontario, Avison has worked as a clerk, typist, librarian, indexer
and nursemaid. “Anything,” she says, “that left my evenings free to write. You can’t have a professional career and also be a poet.” A committed Christian, she currently lives in a retirement home in downtown Toronto. Her precise, highly visual, quietly passionate poetry is charged with a love of nature and a sense of spiritual quest. In the climactic poem of her collection, she urges her readers to: Risk / survival! into / some indestructible / transmuted loss. There will begin, /perhaps, a slow / secret, gradual, germinating / in the darkness. In order to write such lines, Avison says, “I shift gears into a persona that is not personal, where I feel one of many. You’ve got to feel it’s a shared experience you’re expressing.” JOHN BEMROSE
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