I started teaching poetry in my Grade 11 class this week. To begin, I had the girls brainstorm around their views of poetry, after being in both elementary and secondary panels as they’ve come up through the system. The words and phrases started flying, so that I hardly turned my head from the whiteboard because I was writing so quickly. Here’s the list of some of the phrases: “terrifying,” “too difficult,” “confusing,” “not easy,” “like another language,” and “I hate it.” There were one or two words like “beautiful” and “artistic,” but I kind of think they did that because they know I’m a poet! 🙂
The course I’m teaching, NBE 3U, is centred around contemporary First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature, but I did the thing I always do…I threw in one of my own poems, so that I could be vulnerable about how I create poems, and how they come to be in my mind and heart, and how I have an intention as an author when I write. I gave them my heart on a piece of paper, so that they could see you can be brave, as a poet and as a reader, with every piece of literature you consider and encounter. I talked about wanting them to understand annotation of a text as ‘having a conversation with the text and its author.’ I talked about how I love writing in the margins of my books and how I see characters as living people in my head. (They were mostly appalled about how I write in my books. “Miss! How can you do that to your books? You’re ruining them!” “Nope.” I answered, “Just having a conversation with the book and its people, or its poems and lines.” They did what they always do, which is mostly to shake their head and laugh because they’re not quite sure what to make of me after only two weeks into the new semester.)
When we were brainstorming preconceived notions of poetry, one student raised her hand to say, “Poetry is complicated.” Then, another student raised her hand and said, “No, Miss. Poetry is DEFINITELY complicated.” I threw back my head and just laughed. “We’ll see. By the end of this semester, I’ll have it as my goal to have converted you to see poetry differently.” She just shook her head.
The poem, “It deepens into love,” is one I wrote on Pelee Island last spring. I love it. I used images of geese flying in formation, individually strong but also part of community; stones on long, thoughtful beaches; water lapping on shelves of shoreline; and, fossils that represent pieces of memory and love. All of this is woven into the poem. So, I read the poem out loud to the girls, and asked them to cite the poetic devices. We talked about how I tend to use internal rhyme to create music in my work, rather than end rhyme. We talked about how images are the building blocks of good poems, how they evoke visual images (like photographs) in a reader’s mind, and we talked bout how metaphor works to create a wider meaning.
“It deepens into love” sounds like a love poem. When I read it, I asked the girls what they thought it was about. One spoke up. “It’s a broken hearted poem, isn’t it, Miss? Your heart is broken.” I just smiled at that. “Well, you’d be hard pressed not to have had a bit of heartbreak when you’re my age, so yes…” They thought it was a break up poem. One girl chimed in: “Well, he wasn’t very nice, was he, if he broke your heart.” What can you say? “No, he was fine…there were a few…and they’re all fine. It happens. Your heart breaks and you move on. We’re made to move forward, and not be vindictive or wish people ill will. What would that serve us, to be mean to other people after you’ve cared enough to love them, and for them to have loved you back?” They are teenagers, though, so that’s typical, to link everything to boyfriends, and to think that everything is so simply dealt with afterwards. “So, Miss, if it wasn’t about a man, then it’s about who?” Another girl answered before I could. “It’s about someone who died, isn’t it?” I just nodded. “My dad, actually.”
Then we talked about how love is linked to loss. All types of love–platonic, romantic, familial–they are all linked to love…having experienced it, even briefly, and losing it at some point. I told them I had written the poem after driving down through southwestern Ontario to get to Pelee Island. It is the country and landscape my dad most loved, through most of his life. In the last year, I’ve been down to Southwestern Ontario about five times, to different towns and places, and for different reasons. Each time, I think I am more and more drawn to its landscape, mostly because I feel him down here when I’m driving in the car. I can almost hear him giving me advice. It’s comforting. Arriving on Pelee Island, last May, I just remember thinking “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to be around all of these writers right now” because I felt raw and vulnerable. It felt like I had lost Dad all over again leading up to getting down to Kingsville. I had to pretend to be ‘normal’ when my heart was aching.
I kept thinking of C.S. Lewis and his A Grief Observed. It’s helped me so much over the past five years, since Dad went. I love the part where Lewis says that grief feels a lot like fear, even if it isn’t actually fear. Lewis also wrote, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” He was right about that. Lewis says that death is like an amputation. Make no mistake about it; it is. There’s a phantom pain that my mum used to talk about, after her foot was partially amputated. She felt that her toes were still there, and that they hurt, even if they obviously weren’t. I know, now, that the phantom pain you feel after losing people you’ve loved is just as awful. So. Lewis played a key role in “It deepens into love,” too. Love and loss will always be intertwined, but you can have a broken heart and still feel attached to the person, whether they are living or dead. That happens to me a lot. I think it’s my Irish psychic side. I just accept it. But that’s a whole other blog post and too much for me to feel while I sit on a Victorian settee and look out a bright bay window, in a beautiful yellow room in an 1870 historic house in Mount Forest.
I went on to ask them questions about how the stanzas and lines of the poem were structured, and the girl who had said poetry was “DEFINITELY complicated” chimed in to offer a number of answers and comments. I looked at her and smirked a bit, “Um, so, you think poems are DEFINITELY complicated, but you are giving me more answers than anyone else right now.” She turned bright red and smiled. “So, is it really DEFINITELY complicated now, after studying just one poem?” She shook her head. “No, but this is different. It’s your poem, and you make it easier to understand how it works, how you made it.” It made me happy to hear this because I know I’ll be able to work with this group and get them into the structure and architecture of poetry, but it also made me sad and a bit angry. Something has gone wrong with our education system in Ontario if a major genre of literature is so poorly taught at both the elementary and secondary levels of study.
I started a PhD in Education about ten years ago, but gave it up because I was beginning to deal with my own struggle with depression and then Mum got sick. It was too much to do a PhD on top of teach and take care of Mum, so I left it behind. No regrets there, though, because I had more energy to give my own writing. When I was doing a couple of PhD courses that year, my focus was on how poetry is usually taught in the school system in Canada. I read the work of Carl Leggo and Kieran Egan, both of whom talk about how imagination is key in terms of how we educate our kids. That’s a philosophy I can get behind, both theoretically and practically, in the classroom. Here’s what I know: when I go into the schools to work with kids, as poet laureate, and I talk to teachers, I get a sense that they aren’t sure of how to approach teaching poetry. One teacher this past year said to me, “Wow. That session you just led helped me to realize that I can do more than I thought in my classroom. I can use art to enter into it all…” I think, to be honest, that the League of Canadian Poets’ “Poets in the Schools” program is so key to all educators. As an educator, and as a poet and writer, I know I can use my love of poetry as a doorway into students’ hearts and minds. For me, it’s a key that unlocks a door. Once I unlock it, then I can help them to build a comfort level and actually want to spend time reading and talking about poems.
What needs to happen, if we are to change the way in which teachers and kids perceive poetry as a genre? You shouldn’t, for instance, hear that an entire unit on poetry was just left out of an English course because a teacher feels a bit uncertain of the genre. (You couldn’t get away with that in Biology, say, if you decided you didn’t feel comfortable with teaching about the cell or DNA. You shouldn’t be able to do it in English, either, but it’s happening more often than not, and across all boards.) This means, I think, that Bachelor of Education programs should maybe think about the way in which they have their in-service teachers trained. Yes, veteran English teachers make for good teachers of new English teachers, most times, but not always. Maybe they should also think about integrating actual writers as teachers (poets, playwrights, novelists, short story writers, essayists) in the university classroom as they teach future teachers in Ontario how to talk about poetry and other genres to elementary and high school kids. By all means, have a veteran teacher speak to classroom management and educational theory, but then ask a poet in to teach the piece on how to weave poetry into the senior English classroom, or ask a playwright or actor in to teach the piece about how to work drama into elementary and middle school classrooms. Doesn’t that make more sense?
Why does it matter, even, some of you might be wondering as you read this piece. I’ll tell you why it matters. We need to have some appreciation of art in our education system. This means that, along with the literary arts, the fields of visual art, theatre, and music are also key–in my mind, anyway–to helping future generations grow up to be well rounded people. It’s ironic, and so tragic, that these are the very programs that are often cut first in schools when it’s time for scheduling next year’s courses. Sometimes it’s easier to justify not offering a strings class, or a certain arts class, or an optional creative writing class, or a drama section, because the “numbers just don’t warrant it.” Here’s the thing, though…and I truly believe this…or I wouldn’t write it: when you’re a kid who’s an introvert, and really cerebral, and really creative, and who might not fit in, or who might have been bullied (as I was), then these are the programs that speak most clearly to those types of little souls. They need to find places where they can be themselves and not feel ‘odd’ or ‘left out.’ Imagine what would happen if we put money and well-trained educators into our schools, where they could foster young people’s love of the arts in a way that would help them to be more self-confident and expressive. Imagine how anxiety and depression might decrease, and how children in our society might blossom as they grow up. Just imagine…
Look, I’m not saying I have the answers to everything to do with education and poetry, or education and the arts, but I am saying that–as a practicing artist–I believe that the education system can do a better job. I know. I’m idealistic. It’s likely one more reason why I’m single. 😉 I have to believe, though, that we can do better, and that poetry can somehow be taught within our schools in new and creative ways. I’m tired, to be honest, of hearing kids say that poetry is “like a foreign language” and that they feel it’s a riddle to be solved. It isn’t. Never has been. That perception has to be changed. Soon.