amongst books

amongst books

Thursday, November 25, 2010

my rocky relationship with poetry

the recent announcement of Scott Griffin’s new Poetry In Voice initiative, a national bilingual poetry recitation contest for students has made me think about my relationship to poetry from childhood to now.

“Who has seen the wind” by Christina Rossetti was probably one of the first poems i ever heard. my father used to recite it to me, drawing out the words to make me laugh. he recited others too, mostly Victorian morality poems or little adaptations from Alice in Wonderland:

I speak severely to my child
I beat her when she sneezes
She only does it to annoy
Because she knows it teases


Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore
No doubt you have heard his name before
Would never remember to shut the door

At every moment there were poems and bits of Shakespeare:

When icicles hang by the wall…and greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

At the time i thought my father made all these up. And in the case of the poem above, it was clearly my father’s invention because my mother’s name is Joan.

i spent a lot of time by myself at the age of 4 reading from books like A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and other nursery rhymes. i would take the poems and turn them into little songs with my own melodies.

i think it was in grade 1 that i wrote my first poem, a limerick:
There once was a martian with six toes.
How he got them, nobody knows.

poetry was so integral to my upbringing, along with music, that i never gave it a second thought. it was second nature to me. i didn’t even use the word poetry. i don’t remember my father ever saying, “today we’re going to read poetry.” he just did it and it was part of everything else, the stories, the songs, my childhood.

i don’t remember much about grade school. if we read poetry, i don’t remember it. then in junior high, in Grade 6, i had this wonderful teacher named Mr. Vogel. he told us stories about the adventures of blue jellybeans and had us sing songs by the Carpenters in the afternoons. it was a fun and creative time.

all that changed in Grade 7. my teacher was Mrs. F. she seemed very mean and rigid. the meanest teacher i’d had up to that point and i think the meanest one i ever had. i don’t remember much about her classes except one time when she decided we would study Wordsworth’s The Daffodils. i remember being mesmerized by the accompanying beautiful picture of a field of yellow flowers. i don’t remember much about the poem except her attitude. she asked students questions and when they stammered and didn’t understand, she was harsh, ridiculing and unyielding in her point of view about what the poem meant, what we should be feeling, etc. it went on and on. i remember thinking that if this was poetry, i wanted no part of it.

in grade 8, the teacher, whose name escapes me, had us read some wonderful book about the Roman empire and Haidrian’s Wall. i was rapt. i had always loved English class, except for that nightmare with Mrs. F in Grade 7. i was a devoted reader, usually in the advanced class, and also reading a lot at home.

and then in Grade 8 we started Shakespeare, the first of what would be one or two plays a year for the rest of my education until university. the play was the Merchant of Venice. the teacher asked the students to read out loud. they were poor, poor readers many of them. it was awkward and awful. and then came the task of memorizing. he gave me Portia’s speech, “the quality of mercy is not strained…” i was full of dread, went home and told my mother. i don’t know why my father didn’t help me memorize it, but for some reason it was my mother i turned to. i failed at every turn. each word, each line was meaningless to me. i was lousy at math and all of a sudden i was lousy at English too, a subject i had excelled at up to that point. in class everyone was the same. none of us could memorize and classes became fraught with tension.

if we studied poetry in English other than the poetry within Shakespeare’s plays after that, i don’t remember it at all. i had shut myself down to poetry in English. i also took French, Italian and German however and i did enjoy les Fables de Lafontaine, la Divina Commedia and some of the German music my teacher played. i didn’t seem to mind learning to memorize in other languages. it seemed easier somehow. i think i just loved the sounds my mouth could make in other languages that i was able to repeat over and over and memorize as a matter of course.

at university unfortunately i thought at the time, i had to take a French poetry course. i was studying to become a translator, but that meant i had to do a Bachelor of Arts in Language, Literature and Translation. i was ok with language and translation, but dreading the literature part. i was 18 years old, a long time hater of poetry who was introduced at that point to Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

another bit of relevance is that i have synaesthesia, a blending of senses, in my case colour and the letters of the alphabet, known as grapheme synaesthesia. when i first heard Baudelaire’s Correspondances in which he blends nature with various senses, i was rapt. and then Rimbaud’s Voyelles in which he assigns colours to the alphabet. i was happily surprised. this was the first time i’d heard of anyone else with this abilty.
unfortunately i still wasn’t big on poetry and i was 18, distracted life as a young woman at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, so i didn’t really get into it that much.

oddly from the time of that first limerick i was always writing. i just wrote. i didn’t call it poetry. much of it had line breaks, played with sound and rhyme. i filled journals with my writing, but never shared it with anyone.

then in my mid 30s when i was going through a major life change, i began to look around for solace. i found some poetry on line that eased some of my pain, particularly Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, some poems by Sylvia Plath, Lorna Crozier and Gwendolyn MacEwen. one of the things that made me not realize my work was poetry before was that i didn’t recognize me in the poets we’d studied: Wordsworth, Shakespeare…they just felt far removed from where i was. but then with Plath et al, i could relate to the feelings they expressed and to the passion in their poems, particularly as expressed through intense colour imagery as i’d briefly flirted with with Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

i ended up gathering together some of my poetry and sending it off for consideration to a university workshop. i was accepted and have been studying and learning about poetry ever since, from Dylan Thomas to ee cummings to T.S. Eliot to Canadians like Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen and eventually through workshop discoveries in rob mclennan’s workshops to contemporary poets such as Nathalie Stephens, Lisa Robertson, Phil Hall, Leslie Scalapino, Cole Swensen and others.

i am not one of those people who can say i love poetry. i don’t. a lot of it i still loathe. i don’t like the sweet sentimentality of much of it, the placement of man above nature of much of it, the egotism of some of the voices. i am not one of those people who can say i am a poet. all i can say is that i write. but most of all i read. i am excited by word play, by risk. by humour and various ways of looking at external and internal landscapes. all i want to do is play and explore in both my writing and my reading. and i take pleasure in the discovery.

i have done better with poetry when it has been a natural part of my life, rather than something institutionalized and dictated from authorities. i still hate being told what is and what isn’t poetry. i rebel against it. and i worry about kids being told the same. let them discover in their own way and when they want to explore, they’ll explore. it may not be the stuff you want them to learn and that’s what we call progress, moving forward…

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