How do you teach poetry?

Teaching poetry was probably the toughest gig I ever had.  How do you “teach” poetry?  You can’t.  You don’t.  You can talk about words and sounds and meaning . . . and you can read poems and discuss them, but after that you have to have faith that the way you have presented the material was interesting enough that the students begin to catch on.

When I was in grade ten, I decided that I should learn about poetry.  I walked into the school library, went over to the shelf labelled “Canadian Poetry” and randomly pulled out a book and flipped it open.  I looked down and read the first poem I saw, Leonard Cohen’s For Anne.

With Annie gone,
whose eyes to compare
with the morning sun?

Not that Idid compare,
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone.

I     was     hooked.  Then and there I became a reader (and soon a writer) of poetry.

As a teacher, I loved to have my students read John Ciardi‘s How a Poem Means – an essay which, although outdated and somewhat stuffy, clearly dispelled the myth of a poem as something to be deciphered and wrought of meaning.  I would also share with my students the poem, Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish and which contains the beautiful and educational lines, “A poem should not mean/But be”.

I guess I am always impressed with anyone who can comment on the nature of art within their own art.  This is probably why I was gobsmacked the first time I heard Tanya Davis’ song Art on the CBC Radio2 show Drive.  I can say that without a doubt these are the cleverest, most beautiful words I have heard uttered about art, the urge to produce it, and the hesitation to do so.

I was lucky enough to see Tanya perform last night at the tiny Silver Bean room by the shore of the Otonabee River in Peterborough.  I have never purchased a concert ticket before that has printed on it “14/30”.  That’s right, 30 seats.  Tanya Davis is a wonderful songwriter, storyteller and – yes – poet.  Listen.

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