Last week, the first episode of Heart of a Poet aired on BookTV. If all I’d had to go on was the title, I wouldn’t have bothered to tune in. “Heart of a Poet” suggests syrupy Hallmark verse to me rather than poetry worth reading. However, I know some of the poets to be profiled in the series and I attended a few of the readings that were filmed for it, so I was sure that there would be more to it than the title suggests. I was not disappointed.
The series synopsis indicates that each episode will profile “the life, inspiration and performances of a working Canadian poet.” The first episode focussed on Christian Bök. This is a logical start given his catapult to prominence in 2002 when he won that year’s Griffin Poetry Prize. For those not familiar with the Canadian poetry scene, the Griffin Prize is one of the richest poetry prizes in the world. There is a Canadian component and an international component, and each year $80,000 (raised to $100,000 in 2005) in prize money is split between the two. In 2002, Bök won the Canadian prize for Eunoia, a book containing five chapters each of which employs only one vowel. The book has since gone into several print runs, at last count totalling an astonishing 16,000 copies. (The usual print run for a small press poetry title in Canada is 500 copies, and few require even a second printing.)
I was surprised by Bök’s Griffin win. I heard him read from Eunoia a couple of times while it was in progress and I understood the buzz surrounding it, but it never once occurred to me to think of it as poetry. Confining each chapter to words containing only one of the vowels certainly produces dramatic sonic effects but everything else about the book says prose to me. Are there any poets out there familiar with the work who can help me to understand why it’s categorized as poetry rather than prose? (I know, I know. I'm obsessed with genre boundaries.)
The Bök episode of Heart of a Poet included an interview conducted by series host Angela Rawlings, as well as interviews with his editor and with other writers about his work, and several clips of live performances. I suspect that Rawlings is going to be one of the best things about the series. She’s an accomplished poet herself and her knowledge of, interest in, and enthusiasm for good poetry was evident in her interaction with Bök.
I’m not sure that the episode actually got to the heart of Bök’s work. It did shed some light on the influence that various experimental writers have had on him and on the “technical virtuosity” for which he aims. But I came away feeling that I still hadn’t got past the surface. As ever, I'm fascinated by the ideas behind Bök’s work but I'm not particularly engaged by the final product. However, listening to the clips of what various interviewees had to say about Eunoia did make me wonder again what it is that I’m missing. I’ve resolved to give it another look. So chalk one up for Heart of a Poet as I’m sure that leading viewers to the work of the subjects is chief among the goals of the series.
Tune in to BookTV on Wednesday evening for the next episode of Heart of a Poet, this one devoted to the fabulous Sandra Alland.