It seems fitting that A.F. Moritz uses vivid off-the-cuff imagery to explain how it felt to win Canada’s biggest poetry prize. “I was like someone who had been living in the dark and was pulled out into the sunshine, blinking and not quite making things out.”
Moritz, a senior lecturer at Victoria College, received the $50,000 Griffin Poetry Prize in June for The Sentinel – his 15th collection of poems. “I’m used to just working,” says Moritz, 62. “To be pulled out from your hidey-hole is very flattering and wonderful, it’s a festival of exuberant experiences, but it’s sort of astonishing.” There have been other honours for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, but none put him in the spotlight like the Griffin. It is one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for a single volume of poetry and is awarded annually to one Canadian and one international poet.
Born in Niles, Ohio, Moritz earned a BA in journalism and MA and PhD in English at Marquette University in Milwaukee before moving to Toronto in 1974. (He relocated with his wife, Theresa, who came to study at U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies.) The following year, Moritz published his first book of poems, Here. Since then, he has not only composed his own poetry, but published several non-fiction works he wrote with Theresa, now a lecturer at Woodsworth College. Moritz has been teaching part-time at the University of Toronto since 1986; until recently, he combined this work with gigs in journalism and advertising to make a living. Moritz now has a permanent lecturer position in the humanities stream of Vic One, Victoria College’s small-group learning program.
“I’ve never considered myself anything but a poet who is doing other things to support himself,” he says. This unwavering commitment to his art took root in third grade when Moritz chanced upon some poems by Edgar Allan Poe. A precocious reader with tastes that ran from Greek mythology to the legends of King Arthur, Moritz had already decided to be a writer. But the poems were different and better than any story he had read. “I was immediately transfixed. Right from there my idea of being a writer switched from being some kind of prose romance writer to being a poet.”
Looking back now, Moritz sees that his attraction to verse actually began even earlier. “As a very young child I was intrigued by Mother Goose and parts of the Catholic liturgy. I was already interested in poetry without knowing exactly what it was.” This affinity for poetry may have been bred in the bone, but the careerist aspects of being a poet – making connections in the literary world, seeking out publishers – held no interest for him. He just wanted to write.
Fortunately, Moritz’s poems soon spoke for him. He gained an international reputation for his distinctive voice, described variously as ancient, mournful and magisterial. Widespread critical praise for The Sentinel, a collection of free verse that touches on subjects ranging from mortality and the human body to civilization and modernity, has left Moritz humbled and even self-critical. “It makes you look at your poems and say, ‘Wait a minute, how good are they? I have to work harder and listen to the universe more carefully to be worthy of this.’”