Last week, Canada’s unofficial patron of poetry, Scott Griffin, unveiled a new effort to bring more poetry into the minds and everyday lives of Canadians. The founder of the $200,000 Griffin Poetry Prize launched a high school poetry recitation competition that is beginning as a pilot project in 12 Ontario high schools. It is intended to extend to Quebec schools next year and across the country after that.

At the competition’s launch in Toronto on November 23, Griffin said he wanted to reintroduce poetry in schools, but in a way that goes beyond the occasional English teacher who loves poetry. “We need to have some kind of program that excites and sparks the imagination of the students themselves,” he said. The response from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry was to sponsor a poetry recitation contest, Poetry In Voice/Les voix de la poésie, which will offer $10,000 in awards and school stipends in 2011.

Students select three poems from the Poetry in Voice online anthology, which has poems in both English and French, and extra points encourage students to choose poems in both languages. Competition will begin within each school and then finalists will compete against one another at an event on April 12 at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. The winning student will take home $5,000 and his or her school will receive $2,500 for its library, $500 of which is earmarked for the poetry collection. Second prize is $1,000 for the student and $500 for the school; third prize is $500 for the student and $500 for the school.

Asked why the competition focused on recitation, Griffin recommended it for building students’ confidence for public speaking. Memorizing a poem also helps students discover more layers of meaning than they do when merely reading a poem for the first time, he said, adding that when memorized, the poem will remain with a student as a friend for life.

“Memorizing poetry took on a negative context in the past because students were just made to memorize, it was hammered in,” he said. “We hope with this program that the element of competition and prizes will excite students to want to memorize and then they will discover the value of the poem.”