On Sunday afternoon my 14-year-old sister asked me for help on her Grade 10 English assignment. She said she had to choose 5-7 Wordsworth poems, identify the literary devices in each one, and write a one-page commentary/close reading on one of the poems. My dear sister was less than enamoured with this task. I have no fond memories of Wordsworth from first year English myself, but when I pulled out Lyrical Ballads with, I admit, some trepidation in order to assist her I found that his poems are really quite lovely. How could I have despised him so much a few years ago? I wondered, but then again I despised most poetry, at least in written form, until about halfway through my degree.
I can pretty well pinpoint the moment when my attitude towards poetry changed. Throughout my university career, I often went to open mics that the creative writing society held. The majority of what people read at these events was poetry, though there was always some prose mixed in. At one such open mic, in the spring of my second year, I decided to write something, as I often do in the joint company of literature and beer (or was it tea I was drinking that night?). At any rate, what came out was a poem. It wasn’t a very good poem, and by the time I was truly happy with it the entire gist of it had changed, but it was a poem, and it was my first.
The following semester I took a module on Modern poetry, studying such greats as Thomas Hardy, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats. I uncovered a newfound joy in the delectable commentaries I was asked to write, in inspecting the poems, extracting metaphors and allusions, and detailing their meaning. I also took a Creative Writing module and churned out quite a few poems of which I am proud to this day. I had discovered a beauty in poetry that had never before been apparent to me. I’d always been an avid reader, devouring lengthy tomes in the space of 48 or 72 hours, but until a few years ago I had found poetry dull. By the time I ended my first year of university I had begun to understand why that was. Reading instruction had always been focussed on understanding, and as I got older I read faster and with higher comprehension levels, but I had never learnt to slow down and revel in the beauty of the words, and that is crucial for understanding and appreciating poetry.
My sister is now in the same place I was several years ago. She reads prose, but when faced with Wordsworth she recoils. Nevertheless, I am grateful, for her sake, that her school is teaching her poetry. When I was a student there we did very little in the way of poetry, and I’m sure that strengthened my reluctance towards it in later years. In grade 10 we read some Japanese poetry, but reading a translation of a haiku does not require the same skills as reading a long Romantic poem. I was never taught that poetry should be treated differently from prose, and it took me a long time to work this out for myself.