Example One-liners and Dive ins
- The poem is as much about location and wanting to be somewhere as it is about the person who wants to go that place. What is one place you have always wanted to go and why? How do you think it would change you?
- How is the sea both a beautiful and a dangerous place? How does this play out in the poem? What can be gained from visiting the sea? What can be lost?
- In the poem, seven trumpets and prophecy are mentioned. What do you think they mean and how do they foreshadow what is to come?
- How do surprise endings make us feel? Did the poem’s ending go in a direction you were not expecting and if so, why?
- Try reading the poem backwards. How does it change the poem’s meaning? How does it give you a new understanding of the work? Then try reciting this poem backwards. Does it give the poem new meaning? Does it change the way you might read it for a recitation?
- The poet uses figurative language to create imagery, for instance: “walk glass surface”, “writing prophecy all over the sky”, “tears that become sea”. All of these phrases speak to nature. Where else is nature alluded to in the poem? How does nature speak to the supernatural and to a sense of safety and homecoming?
- How would you describe the sea to someone who has never seen it? Write about a place you have never been but would like to go to. Do as much research and image searching as you can to get a good sense of what place is like and how best to describe it.
Follow the link below to read an interview with the author that also included selected audio to get a better Zhang Er as an impressive multi-disciplinary artist. Her works extends outside of poetry into fields as diverse and science and opera.
1. Read the poem out loud. How do the blank spaces and line breaks influence your reading?
2. The subject of language is important in this poem. The radio “babbles”, the mother’s voice “angles into accent.” Do you or does anyone in your own family speak languages other than English or French? If so, what is your own relationship to that language?
3. The poem describes family history as “a narration contrived / to read like non fiction.” How does fiction enter into our tellings of true stories? Is it there from the start?
4. The poem’s title already suggests that return may not be possible. How else does the poem trouble the idea of coming home after family migrations?
5. What you read as this poem is an excerpt from a longer work that starts with:
this piece is / is not about the past, and it is / is not about the future, but it is /
is not about a stasis all waves syncopate. this piece awash in ways
In light of this, and the poem itself, what do you think of the supposed error of writing river instead of driver?
6. The poem describes moving from atlas pages onto an actual road. Find a map of a place that means something to you. Perhaps it’s your current neighbourhood or region, or your birthplace, or even a map of a fictional world. Write a poem inspired by its contours, images, and place names.
- The speaker tries to imagine a poem “without her in it” by using similes (comparing one thing to another using a word such as “like”). Identify these similes. Which is the most surprising to you? Do you have a favourite?
- This poem comes from a collection titled Arias. In opera, an aria is an opportunity for a character to express their emotions. What emotions are expressed in this poem? Can you identify any shifts in emotion?
- Sharon Olds is famous for her raw, confessional poems that directly address difficult topics, including childhood trauma. What images are used to depict the relationship between the poet and the poet’s mother?
- The poet uses her own experience to reflect on the silencing of female writers. Where does the poem shift from the personal to the explicitly political?
- The title “My poem without me in it” is repeated as a refrain, with variations, throughout the poem. When reciting this poem, how might you vary the volume, speed, and tone of these lines to give the poem what Olds describes as “a certain sense of momentum”?
- The word ‘stanza’ comes from the Italian for room. This poem, one stanza, contains numerous images of enclosed spaces, both literal and metaphorical (room, house, hive, purse, head, body politic, etc.). Which of these spaces are freeing for the poet and which are constricting? Why might it be significant that the poem ends by comparing the poem to a ‘vale’, a term for valley, which is typically a low-lying place, partially bounded by hills or mountains but open to the sky?
- Write a poem about two places: one where you feel free and one where you feel silenced or restricted. These ‘places’ can be physical (bedroom, airport, grocery store, etc.) or they can be more abstract (Instagram, a word, etc.).
Read an interview with Sharon Olds in which she discusses writing honestly about family relationships and finding confidence as a writer: https://www.divedapper.com/interview/sharon-olds/
Who are the people in the poem?
There is a caesura, a white space, in the middle of the poem. How does that space surprise or distort the reading of the poem? Why do you think that space exists?
What is the effect of the forward slash in the poem?
What could the word “people” be substituted with in the poem?
At the 2018 Australian Poetry Slam, Kaie collaborated with electronic percussionist Alon Ilsar to give a remarkable performance of people arrive: (start 2:19) https://youtu.be/4tFJcJRZOOI?t=139 After reviewing, how does this experience reframe your reading of the poem? What have you learned about the orality of the text?
- make a list of 20 new titles of this poem. Choose your favourite title to use as a prompt to write an abecedarian poem.
- Choose three lines from the poem that stand out to you the most. Using this voice changer found here or using one of your own if you have access to such equipment, record your chosen lines from the poem and experiment with the different sound qualities. When you find something you like, practice reciting those lines while mimicking the vocal inflection. Once you feel comfortable with the sound quality, set a timer for 10 minutes and audio record yourself improvising new work from those three lines in that new voice.
- Also a well-regarded lecturer, Kaie often incorporates electronic sound by performing live with a modular synthesizer. Experiment with the theme of “identity” and write a prose poem while listening to this soundscape called accordéon launch produced and performed live by Kaie Kellough.
In 2020, Kaie Kellough won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for his book Magnetic Equator. Watch his post-award ceremony interview with the Montreal Gazette here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSp3bJMXr4U
Get a closer look at Kaie’s journey to becoming a professional storyteller, writer of poetry and fiction. This article interview’s Kaie https://quillandquire.com/authors/kaie-kellough-talks-award-culture-the-lure-of-performance-and-his-desire-to-multiply-voices-at-the-margins/
This is a block-shaped or prose poem, with long lines running to the left margin of the page. How does the shape of the poem reflect and reinforce what the poet is saying?
What are three ways the poet describes heat? How are heat and emotion related?
Describe the narrator of the poem. What descriptive language is used to show who the narrator is, what the narrator does, and how the narrator feels?
Can poetry both a contain and release emotions? In this poem, how do emotions connect to expressions of identity? And what does this have to do with “spirit”?
Dissolution means to break apart. What is an example of a description in the poem that shows how the narrator might feel like they are breaking apart?
What do you think the narrator means when they write: ‘I don't know where the empowerment ends and the dissolution begins anymore.’?
niya is Cree and can be translated as “me,” “mine,” or even “I am.” How does the title of the poem connect to the rest of the poem, to the events and actions we see?
The shape of the poem is a tight block. Try reading the poem without stopping at each period. Try reading the poem with a 1 second pause after each period. Which reading feels most connected to the essence of the poem? How and why?
- Choose an emotion you have felt strongly. Name it and write three descriptions of how this emotion feels physically, how it feels in your body.
What is the effect of the repeated lines “somewhere a little girl is reading aloud in the middle of a dirt road. she smiles at the sound of her own voice escaping the spine of a book.”?
Why is the girl standing in the middle of a dirt road? Is she alone?
What is the overall tone of the poem? Joyful? Sadness?
Does the tone change? If so, where does it shift?
Who is the speaker of the poem? To whom is the poem addressed?
Poet aja monet values education through a political and social justice lens. If this poem is serving a political statement, what would that be?
What relationship do the ghosts of women have to the little girl?
- If you were to choose a musical instrument to accompany the background/ambience of this poem, what instrument would best support the poem’s lead voice? What tempo, melody and volume would it play? Find some instrumentation (on YouTube, Spotify, etc) that matches your imagination and free write a poem for 15 minutes.
- See if you can dig up an old photograph from 2 or more generations before you, from a family album. Who is in the photo? What books would they have read when they were younger? Write a poem based on these discoveries in 30 lines or less.
“aja monet on Black Power live” -- watch, listen and experience aja’s poetry through her own voice, and with musical instrumentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it_QK2YiTZM
Watch this stunning recitation of aja’s poem by Poetry In Voice participant, Natalia Alvarez: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LRNyrLFx_Q
- Read the poem again. How does it differ from the first time you read it?
- The poem goes from discussing things and ideas to the speaker’s own desire. Why do you think the poet’s voice shifts this way?
- The poet uses powerful imagery and metaphors to convey meaning. Which metaphor or image stands out most for you?
- Where do you see examples of alliteration and assonance (see what I did there)?
- If you could replace the word “famous” with another word that had a similar meaning, what would it be?
- Where do you see examples of opposites in the poem? Where do you see examples of objects that are related to each other?
- If you were to recite this poem, where would you pause for effect? How would you demonstrate, in your body language, the relationship between the famous thing and the thing it is famous to?
- Write a short poem about what/who are you famous to, and who/what is famous to you.
1. The poet uses his own name several times, addressing his younger self. What effect does this repetition have on your reading of the poem? How do you think the poem would be different if it were written in the first person “I” voice?
2. What do you think it means for a poem to be “embodied?” What about a memory? Pause for a moment and close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Inhale deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth. If you had to draw a map of emotions over your body, where in your body would you locate loneliness, envy, joy, sadness, anger? Write a line for each of those feelings without naming them. Instead, focusing on the sensations and place in your body where you feel them. See if your partner or other classmates can identify which feeling you were trying to convey. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer!
3. Which images in the poem do you find most stimulating, surprising, evocative, memorable, touching, meaningful? What are your personal associations with those images?
4. Find three examples in the poem of short lines in the imperative voice (i.e., telling someone what to do: “Stand up. Sit down.”). How does the mix of short and long lines affect your reading of the poem when you read it out loud? Which lines cause you to speed up and which ones force you to slow down? Why do you think the poet chose this effect?
5. Who are the other people in the poem? What does the poem suggest about the speaker’s relationships to them, and possibly about different aspects of his own identity (race, class, gender, sexuality)?
6. What does the poem suggest about the younger Ocean’s community and home environment? What sensory images (colours, smells, sounds, textures, tastes) bring them to life without actually telling us?
7. Imagine yourself at a younger age. Make some notes about your life at that time. What fears did you have? What personal challenges did you face, external (at home, at school) or internal (emotionally, personally)? What brought you joy and excitement? What did you struggle with? What do you think you were learning? Now, write a love poem to your younger self, offering them kindness, compassion and reassurance. Put your own name in the poem, and repeat it a few times in your poem, as you would if you were addressing a younger child. Make sure to include varying sentence lengths, including short imperatives (e.g. “Don’t worry,” or “Take your time.”). Title the poem, “Someday I’ll Love ________ (your name)”
Listen to Ocean Vuong reading: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/someday-ill-love-ocean-vuong/
- This poem is a pantoum: The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The repeating lines seem to recreate while simultaneously deconstructing the scene. How do you think the repetition adds to the poem?
- Who is the speaker in this poem? What is the purpose of having the speaker in a nonparticipatory role? What is the speaker revealing in this witnessing?
- Note how in the third stanza the word choice in the repeating lines begin to vary. How does this modification to the pantoum form add, or detract, from the poem?
- How does the form mirror such an emotional scene in the dead of night with the sleepy confusion of the characters?
- The repeating lines spiral a calmness around the frantic energy of the brother. Try reciting the poem once calmly, and then in an agitated fashion. Which recitation suits your reading of the poem?
- How do you read the shift in the poem when the mother sees the devil and it is her son?
- Try writing your own pantoum. Consider how your repeating lines might change meaning throughout the poem. Make sure the lines are worth repeating. What do you want to explore in the echoing lines?
An interview with Natalie Diaz:
1) What do you think about grass? Have you ever been forced to mow the lawn? Do you ever catch yourself admiring a long stretch of ultra-green grass in someone else’s yard or a park?
2) The tone of “grass” is playful. But is this a funny poem? Why or why not?
3) Throughout the poem, the speaker describes the history of grass and what it’s capable of, before switching tactics in the last line. The speaker instructs the reader to step on the grass because “it deserves it”. What effect does that shift have on the mood and rhythm of the poem?
4) This poem asserts that grass “was invented by the Romans”? But grass is a part of the natural world. What do you think the speaker means by invented?
5) On his Peterborough Poets website, Maxwell has published “grass” in a longer abecedarian sequence. Each poem focuses on a single object, for instance “grass” comes after “fish hook” and before “light bulb”. How does the shift from a short, stand-alone poem to one of a series of poems change how you think of “grass”?
6) There is one capital letter and one piece of punctuation in the ten lines of this poem. How does that change how you read the poem on paper, how you perform it?
7) Write about the last time you were barefoot in the grass. What did it feel like? What were you doing - sunbathing on a blanket? Playing badminton? (Alternate: write about why you’d NEVER go barefoot in the grass.)
Epistolary poems are poetic letters, usually addressed to a specific named or unnamed recipient. Which clues indicate that this poem takes the shape of a letter?
The speaker has been made to go along Ms. Rogers’ made-up cultural myth. What role do racism and peer pressure play in his perspective on the situation?
In Anne Carson’s poem On Walking Backwards, she writes ‘My mother forbade us to walk backwards. That is how the dead walk, she would say.’ How would you describe and contrast Anne Carson’s mother and the speaker of But I’m No One’s feelings towards death?
How would you answer the poet’s question ‘Where do ideas like that come from?’
- To recite the poem out loud, identify the transitions in verb tense to break the poem into phrases. Think about how you will adjust your tone and rhythm to distinguish current thoughts and affirmations from memories, and where you might pause to honour these shifts between past and present.
Write an epistolary poem dedicated to a poet you admire, directly referencing a line or image from their work and its significance for you.
The title of the poem “For My Best Friend” lets the reader know right away that the poem is a tribute. If you were to write a poem in tribute to a family member or friends, who would it be?
In the poem, loss is a recurring theme. Which lines in the poem speak to this directly?
In many ways a bond with a best friend is different from other friendships. The poet says, “She saved my life before, you know, all of them ... those lives, mine.” How might a best friend save your life (of lives ‘all of them’)? How does the phrase “saved my life before” foreshadow what is to come?
How has your relationship to death changed over the course of your life?
There is a line in the poem “one way or the other, every story is told backwards or twice.” How does the retelling of a story, a moment of one’s life help to ease the pain of loss?” How can re-reading or hearing a poem multiple times heighten our understanding?
Multiple times in the poem the author repeats words or alters nouns in the same line.
- We are/we were
- 8th adjoined room/ 8th adjoined chair
- Last five minutes/first
- Hands behind teeth/ teeth behind us
- Life before you know/... Those lives mine
- Waking up rough/ going roughly into a dream
What effect does these types of repetitions and alteration have on the poem? How else could these lines be altered over the course of several readings or recitations?
Write about a moment in life where you had hope in life and then lost it.
Tongo Eisen-Martin, currently the Poet Laureate of San Francisco is not just a accomplished writer but a very interesting and intriguing performer with great presence. Observer these two videos of him performing the poem “Course of a Meal” to see how he approaches each reading differently.
This poem takes the form of a list and, at first glance, that seems rather simple. How do you think a list can be like a poem?
A list poem often involves repetition. How does the repetition of the word “if” affect the tone of the poem? Do you think the repetition of the word “if” helps to build momentum in the poem? If so, how?
Poetry has its foundations in oral traditions and, upon reading this poem, it is easy to imagine it spoken aloud. Why is the spoken element important to this poem and whom do you think the speaker is addressing in this poem?
When you follow the link in the poet’s biography to her own website you will learn that in 2019 Aisha Sasha John won an “Overkill Award” for her “willingness to redefine, to expand and to provoke.” How does this poem provoke?
This poem is written in short lines with no punctuation. If you were going to recite this poem how would you choose to pace your reading? Would you read some lines slowly and other more quickly? Would you choose to emphasize some lines more than others? And where would you pause?
- Exercise: Write a list poem. Think of how your inventory of items, people, places, or ideas can be used to provoke or to create understanding, or a mood, or another connection with readers. Think about the importance of repetition in a list poem and what word/words might you structure your list around. To get more ideas on how your own list poem could work you might want to look at these other examples of list poems:
1. How do the verbs and line-breaks work to create a feeling of breathlessness? How might you read it aloud?
2. What is the relationship between physical violence and freedom in this poem?
3. Why does the poet talk about her kitchen table, her plate?
4. Does the poet anthropomorphize the sturgeon? Is she attributing human emotions to its experience?
5. How would you characterize the emotional effect of this poem? Does it affect what you think about fishing?
6. Write a poem where you imagine yourself in the body of an animal. What resonances and empathy can you find in relation to its life and/or death?
Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm founded Kegedonce Press in 1993, to publish and promote Indigenous writers. The motto of the Press is w’daub awae or ‘speaking true’ in Ojibwe. Find out more about their work here: https://kegedonce.com/
Read an interview with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm about the marginalization of Indigenous voices here: https://indiancountrynews.com/index.php/283-culture/reviews/6113-kateri-akiwenzie-damm-our-voices-are-marginalized
Sturgeon can grow really large! See this video for a 9 year old boy catching (and then releasing) a 600lb Great White Sturgeon in BC in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZucRXyo1jCw
- How would an application like this make you feel about your own identity?
- The rhythm in the poem starts out conversational, becoming more emphatic and staccato. When reading this poem aloud, how does the rhythm make you feel about the motivations behind the application itself?
- How does the “list” form affect the feeling of the poem? We do not normally think of lists as something emotional. Can you find any emotions expressed in this poem? How does the author use the list to express her emotions?
- The poem repeatedly instructs the applicant to use more space or more paper. How does the repetition build in the poem? How does the repetition affect the way you feel about the instructions to use more space or more paper”?
- What is the tone of this poem? Without being dramatic, what kind of voice would you recite this poem in to enhance the poem’s tone? What inflections might you use?
- Phoebe Wang said in her interview with Poetry in Voice, “A poet’s job is to use language to lead the reader into emotional experiences that may change how they perceive their own world and historical moment.” What emotional experience has this poem caused in you? Can you identify how this poem has changed your perspective of the world? Has it changed your perspective on your own identity?
Write a “list poem” about a passion of yours. See if you can blend the listed items into images to take the reader beyond the immediate things or tasks in the list that will help the reader feel your passion.
Follow the link below for some interesting characteristics of list poems and one author’s writing process of how she developed a list poem.
- This poem unfolds like a dream. At what point do you know that it is not set in the real world?
- The poem’s tone is funny, unnerving, and even sad. What images make you feel sympathy for the speaker? What images make you laugh? What images make you feel uncomfortable?
- The speaker uses the second person (you) to directly address readers. How does this point of view affect your relationship to the speaker? What about the speaker’s use of conversational language instead of overtly ‘poetic’ language?
- In the closing line, the speaker asks, “have I told you about my hands,” something that he has obviously already done. How does Stuart Ross use repetition to create the voice of the speaker? What have we learned about who the speaker is as a person?
- The poem is written in free verse, structured as one long stanza without any punctuation (except for apostrophes). How might this affect the way that you recite the poem? Where might you speed up or slow down? Would you pause at any point?
- Stuart Ross says that he came up with this poem’s first line, and then “my unconscious probably took over, and I followed the poem where it took me.” What do you think are the benefits of trusting your instincts or unconscious when writing creatively (poetry or fiction), particularly in the first draft?
- Write a poem that begins by describing your typical journey to school in the morning (or any mundane daily ritual that you have). Gradually introduce fantastical or surreal elements to your description, but keep the tone of your speaker casual and conversational, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Use clear, sensory description for even the most sensational elements. Feel free to let your unconscious mind guide your poem!
Poet Gary Barwin interviews Stuart Ross about his process, techniques, interests, and influences: https://jacket2.org/interviews/stuart-ross-exists-details-follow
Many of Stuart Ross’s poems have surreal imagery or narratives. Watch this video to learn about the history of Surrealism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtPBOwE0Qn0
Watch Stuart Ross read his poems in the streets of Toronto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXAwJoqP8SI
1. Why do you think the poet chose a train journey to structure this poem?
2. The poem is written in free verse (no rhyme or meter), with no punctuation, and no enjambment of lines. How do these choices fit the poem?
3. As the poet reruns the film of his life, he gives half an hour for childhood, and half an hour for prison. How might they be equivalent? In what way is childhood like prison?
4. Time is important in this poem. If you look closely, you will notice that the minutes and years fail to add up. Is the poet bad at math? Or is it a poetic strategy? What clue might phrases such as “on average,” “about”, “or so” provide about the poet’s intention? What meaning do you take from the slippage of time?
5. When you learn that Abdellatif Laâbi was jailed, tortured, and exiled, does it change your reading of the poem? How do you understand the narrator’s experience of time now?
6. Exercise: Write a version of Two Hours on the Train, about your life.
a. Choose a conveyance (i.e., unicycle, bus, sailboat) as a metaphor for your own life’s journey.
b. Choose a time scheme (i.e., three minutes, five days, six months) and portion out time for various life episodes, altering time’s linearity.
c. Follow Laâbi’s structure loosely, along these lines:
During [three minutes] on a [unicycle]
I [replay] the [race] of my life
[five seconds] for [skinned knees]
- What does the speaker say happens to the letters he throws away?
- Whose letters do you imagine the speaker is referring to?
- How does the poem play on the double meaning of the word “letters”?
- What is it you imagine the poet would “want back again?” What did he see?
- “Letters” strikes an intriguing blend of matter-of-fact statement and metaphysical fantasy. How do these two modes influence the tone of poem? How could that be represented in a recitation?
- Write a poem about throwing away something that was given to you. Address it to the person who gave it to you. Explain to that person why you had to part with the gift.
Read an interview with Russell Thornton: http://prismmagazine.ca/2014/11/29/an-interview-with-russell-thornton/
1. Why is the girl in an empty classroom early in the morning? Literally, what is she doing?
2. What similes and metaphors are used in the poem? How do they help you understand what sort of person the girl is?
3. The poem uses a fair amount of enjambment, most notably in stanzas one and two. How does this poetic device affect the rhythm of lines? How might it support the poem’s theme?
4. What do we know about the girl’s peers/classmates? How might the repeated images of “practise” and “playing” reflect the struggles of self-discovery, self-esteem, growing up, and/or fitting in?
5. This poem is mostly written in the third person (“she” and “her”), but then shifts to the first person (“I” and “me”) in the middle of stanza five. Does this shift in perspective change your impression of the girl? What emotional effect does it create?
6. Adam Sol wrote his poem as a sestina, saying that he liked using this complex poetic structure because “the repeated words force us to examine and re-examine a subject […] like turning a crystal geode around and around.” If you were to recite this poem, how might you emphasize the repeated words in different ways to draw out different aspects of theme, character, and voice?
7. Write a poem describing any important aspect of your own identity — are you an athlete? An artist? A writer? A musician/singer? A book lover? A pet owner? A video game player? To create tension in your poem, try structuring it in a way that compares 1) how you see yourself, and 2) how another person (e.g. a parent, sibling, teacher, friend) sees you or expects you to be. Try writing your poem as a sestina!
A glockenspiel is both a percussive and a melodic instrument. Listen to the glockenspiel solo from Mozart’s The Magic Flute here:
An interview with Adam Sol:
- It's helpful to know that this poem is about Reena Virk. She was a teen of South Asian descent who was murdered by her peers in Saanich, British Columbia, in 1997. What part of her story is being told in this poem?
- How does the title inform the story? What does the word "Tide" make you think of in this context?
- What details from the environment are highlighted? What effect do those details have on the mood of the poem?
- Though a reader should never assume that a poem in the first person is written from the poet's own point of view — poets often write in character, or "persona" — Soraya Peerbaye has confirmed in an interview that she is the “I” in this poem. What is the effect of her insertion into the poem? How would your reading of the poem change if the first line read, “Would you have seen her?”
- If you were going to recite this poem, what tone would you use? Would it change at any point in this short poem? Use our tone list to help you make your choices.
- Think about a person whose story has moved you in some way. This could be someone you know or someone you've heard about in the news. Write a poem about that person with yourself as the speaker (using "I") that strikes a balance between objective observations (like factual details from a news report) and your own emotional understanding of their experience.
Watch this interview with Soraya Peerbaye as she talks about the book that “Tide” was taken from, Tell: poems for a girlhood.
Soraya Peerbaye’s book Tell was shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. Listen to the judge’s citation of her work and watch Peerbaye read from that book.
- The lack of punctuation in the poem suggests that it recounts a single memory or a single scene. Can you tell whether or not the speaker of the poem is in involved in, in witness of, or in control of what’s happening? How can you tell?
- What does the poem’s title suggest to you?
- What effect does the speaker’s use of verbs create?
- What clues point to the age of the speaker?
- How would you treat each line break in a recitation of this poem — would you communicate any of them to your audience with a pause?
- Think of a vivid scene from your childhood that has stuck with you and create your own narrative poem from it.
Listen to Liz Howard read her poem “Boreal Swing”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhU5h4Ct8Zg
And to her read a poem called “Thinktent” at the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUssJLoqzgY
- This poem captures memories of a friendship evoked by a photograph. Which memory stood out to you the most? Why is that one so remarkable to you? Can you relate to it?
- “Gayatri” is written in the second person (“you”) instead of third person (“she”). What effect does that create for you? Try reading the poem replacing each instance of “you” with “she.”
- Souvankham Thammavongsa says in her micro-interview with Poetry In Voice that she found this photograph in a shoebox, then wrote the poem to show how “this photograph with no one in it actually had everything in it, and it described my best friend and me more accurately than a photograph that would have captured us in it.” In your opinion, what are some similarities and differences between photography and poetry? Consider how each is made, how each captures its subject, and how a viewer or reader interacts with it.
- In stanzas 6 and 7, the speaker says, “It was taken before a time when you could / see a picture on a screen, see how it turned out / and decide whether it was worth keeping.” How do you think photography has changed the way we see the world and ourselves throughout time? (consider film photography, digital photography, and social media like Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat)? How many photos do you take before deciding which ones to keep or post online? How do you decide what to share and what to keep to yourself?
- If you were going to recite “Gayatri,” which tones would you use? (nostalgic, whimsical, sentimental, sad?) Is there a change in tones in the poem? Try experimenting with reading the poem in different tones, and see which ones suits it best.
- Write a poem inspired by an old selfie with your best friend or someone you’re close with. Mention concrete details that are in the photo (i.e. What were you and your friend wearing? Where were you? What were you doing?) but also mention sensory details that may not appear in the photo (i.e. What happened before and after you took the photo? What music or sounds did you hear around you? What were you eating?). Finally, reflect on then versus now (i.e. What has changed since then? Do you wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, eat the same peanut butter and apple sandwiches?).
Here is a brief but fascinating interview with the poet from Asian American Press, where she talks about her background, inspirations, and challenges as a poet: https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/166388/AAP%20Intervie...
Here is a conversation between Adam Dickinson and Souvankham Thammavongsa, the two nominees of the 2014 Trillium Book Award for Poetry: https://nationalpost.com/entertainment/books/the-trillium-conversations-...
Here is an interview with the author from Jacket 2, talking about her experiments with poetry and prose, and how knowing other languages affects her poetry: http://jacket2.org/commentary/short-interview-souvankham-thammavongsa
- If you are a bit confused about whether it’s the mother or the daughter or both who “ran naked out the door,” don’t be embarrassed! Rogers has blurred those lines deliberately. But we obviously have a very different reaction to the two different scenarios: a little girl who escapes her mother’s grasp after a bath and runs naked down the street would probably seem cute and funny; an adult mother with dementia who does the same thing might make us feel sad and uncomfortable. How does this suspended confusion or tension contribute to the way we encounter the poem?
- In what ways do the speakers of this poem “hardly see” their loved ones now? (For example, How much physical description is included? What does it mean to “see” someone who is losing her memory and personality? What does it mean for that person to “see” someone whose name she can no longer remember?)
- Why might this poem be about a “good day,” as the title claims? How does a memory that is painful or embarrassing feel “good” as we look back on it?
- The repeating lines in a villanelle often encourage a kind of obsessive turning over of a problem or concern. So the story of the naked girl gets repeated, both in the retelling and as an action. How does our response to the story evolve and change as we read through the poem?
- In some ways the actions described in the poem are very funny, and the title seems to suggest that we are allowed to laugh a bit. Recite the first few stanzas as if you are a stand-up comedian. Consider the line (or phrase? or single word?) when the joke turns serious, and concentrate the tension on that moment.
- Imagine another scenario in which a child saying or doing something might seem sweet or funny while an adult doing the same thing would evoke a very different response. Write a poem about that difference.
- A short interview with Rogers in which she discusses the simultaneous changes in her life that inform her book Dear Leader, and mentions this villanelle in particular: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbyBseBZShc
- An informative resource about Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease: https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers/younger-early-onset
- This poem is an anagram: it uses the same exact letters for each line, re-arranging them to make different words and phrases. It’s amazing how many different combinations she came up with! Which are the most surprising to you? Are there other words you can see in the letters?
- Some of Holbrook’s discoveries seem to make fun of poetry itself. Others are downright silly. What do you think about a poem that seems to joke about what poetry can (and should) do? Is it disrespectful?
- Each line of this poem must be a very specific length, using all the letters (and ONLY the letters) from the phrase “What is poetry.” In some ways, then, the poem reads like a list of possible anagrams. But it’s not just a random list. Holbrook makes creative decisions with her stanzas. There’s a one-line stanza in the middle, and a two-lined stanza at the end. And the order of the lines was determined by Holbrook as well. How does her arrangement of the lines – the order, the different stanza breaks, how it ends and begins – shape the way we encounter the poem? How would a different arrangement (alphabetical?) change our reading?
- Humour is often best conveyed by timing. When reciting this poem, try varying your speed and tone, to see which elicits the liveliest response. Try it very fast, then very slowly, then some combination.
- Writing Activity: Pick a simple phrase or question and see what other combinations of words you can mine from them. Do the lines you make up correspond to each other in some way? See how many you can come up with.
A video of Susan Holbrook discussing her anagram poems at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeZxBGzhdHw
A video of Susan Holbrook doing other hilarious things at the 2017 Trillium Award Finalists Readings https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUuE7OGFTB4
Here’s a link to one of many anagram makers on the web: http://ingesanagram.appspot.com. Type in “What is poetry” and see many of the possibilities Holbrook had to choose from. Then type in your name…
1. Sunlight is the central image of the poem. What do you think sunlight symbolizes to the speaker?
2. Why does the speaker call attention to the ‘long, long corridor’ at the outset of the poem?
3. How does the speaker respond initially to the sunlight?
4. As the poem unfolds, does the speaker develop any illusion and/or hallucination of the sunlight? If yes, what is it, and what does it signify to the poet?
5. How does the poet describe the sunlight?
6. Why do you think the poet repeats the phrase “ten seconds” in the fourth stanza? In other words, what is particularly significant about these “ten seconds”?
7. Given the way the whole poem is full of sunlight, is there any ‘shadow’ or darkness suggested by the poet as opposed to the light?
8. Both the first and last line end with ellipses. How are these two lines connected, and what do those ellipses imply?
9. Use the poetic devices personification and/or apostrophe to write a ‘parallel’ or similar poem about candlelight, moonlight or any other kind of light.
- What kind of “magic” is happening in this poem?
- This poem has many vivid similes (a comparison using "like" or "as") and metaphors (a comparison that doesn't use "like" or "as"). Is there one that stands out to you? Why that one?
- The poet chose to use the second person in this poem. What effect does that have on your reading of the poem? How would your experience of the poem change if it were written in the third person?
- Who is the speaker in this poem? What do we know about them? Do you think they're relaxed, amazed, crabby about what they're seeing unfold?
- If you were going to recite this poem, would you keep an even pace throughout or would you speed up and slow down at certain points?
- Think of two words, like “common” and “magic,” that contradict one another (an oxymoron). Start with that as your poem title and write about that contradiction. As a nod to “Common Magic,” try to include some interesting similes or metaphors.
Read this story about Bronwen Wallace as told by her friend and fellow poet Carolyn Smart.
Read about the recent winner and finalists for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.
- How does the structure of a mixed tape work to tell this poem’s story?
- How does “side a” differ in tone from “side b”?
- What images does the poet use to capture the cold atmosphere following the brother’s disappearance?
- How are the relationships among the family members described?
- If you were going to recite this poem, how would you voice its short lines? Where and for how long would you pause?
- Write a poem using song titles to tell a story.
Check out Katherena Vermette’s website: http://www.katherenavermette.com/
Watch Katherena Vermette talk about her poetry after her first book won the Governor General’s Award: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyNJSfpkkBQ
- Read the poem once and concentrate on the sensory details that the speaker is describing – colours, temperature, what they can see. Don't try to unpick the meaning just yet. Can you explain the ways in which the speaker evokes a particular mood?
- “the slumped driver silhouetted by my lights —/only the two of us on the road.” Do you believe the speaker is talking about a living person here? If yes – or no – what evidence can you find for this in the poem?
- Sonoma is a place in northern California and – according to the poem – a make of motor vehicle. The word also has echoes of “sonambulation” or sleep-walking. What are the details in the poem that might suggest a dream?
- In her micro-interview with Poetry In Voice, Jane suggests that the poem was inspired in part by her relationship with her husband. What details in the poem might make you think that the speaker has an intimate relationship with the driver of the Sonoma?
- The poem uses a lot of short phrases – sometimes just two words – at the start of the poem to layer details and create suspense. Practice reading the poem aloud and play with the length of the pauses to see how you can use silence to create tension in your recitation.
- Write a poem about an uncanny encounter that you've had. Think about how to use small but focussed details to create the scene and atmosphere. Leave it on a cliffhanger.
You can find out more about Jane Munro – and how she recites poetry while upside down in yoga poses – at http://www.janemunro.com/
Listen to Jane Munro reading from Blue Sonoma, the book that “Sonoma” is taken from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qew94T7M330
- This poem features a riotous sensory landscape. Which sights, sounds, and smells evoke strong memories for you?
- What does the house made of doors tell us about the man’s class? How does that shape your reading of the poem?
- There are several clues in the poem that point to where this town might be located, but the town is never named. What makes this town a “World Town”? How would your understanding of the poem change if you knew the town’s name?
- This poem jumps across time, from memory to memory. When the speaker encounters the a “man crouched under a black shroud,” the reader gets a sense that a cognitive or logical leap has occurred. What does this tell us about how the speaker experiences the passing of time?
- The playful repetitions and lists of nouns makes this poem particularly suitable for memorizing and reciting. What words and phrases would you stress during your recitation to make sure the town comes alive?
- Write a short poem about your school using only its sights and smells to reveal particular things about your relationship with the school. Remember, like Shane Book does in his poem, do not name your school but aim to accurately capture what it looks and sounds like.
Watch Shane Book read “World Town” at the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0eFBvkrRyI
- For a poem that’s about not being able to find a word, Partridge certainly uses a rich vocabulary! Collect all the ways she describes the sensation of being unable to find a word. Think about which senses each comparison evokes – some are more visual, others more tactile, etc. Which description most fully evokes how you feel when you can’t find the word you’re looking for?
- Note how the form varies from short, one-word lines to more sprawling, prosey language. How might that reflect the speaker’s own stop-and-start efforts to locate her word? Can you think of another activity that makes you act in this way?
- This poem is chock full of fabulous verbs. Make a list of all the verbs in the poem. Then replace them with “boring” synonyms and see how the poem’s tone would change.
- Around halfway through the poem, the speaker turns to address the very word she’s looking for. If you were to recite this poem, how might you change your tone of voice, or body language, in order to reflect this switch?
- All of us sometimes forget a word we’re looking for. But the title of this poem puts Partridge’s experience in a larger, scarier context. Writing exercise: think of another common annoyance – a paper cut, stubbing your toe, dropping some papers – and write a poem about that in the voice of someone who has bigger worries on his/her mind. How might her feelings about the small problem change in the context of the bigger worry?
The Canadian Cancer Society’s information page on side effects from chemotherapy: http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/diagnosis-and-treatment/chemo...
An article about lethologica, the phenomenon of forgetting a word that’s on the tip of your tongue: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160202-lethologica-when-a-words-on-the...
A short video of Elise Partridge reading her work in Ottawa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDSymj6sW4s
- What do you think the opening lines “If this brain’s over-tempered / consider that the fire was want / and the hammers were fists.” suggest about the experiences lived by the speaker?
- When the speaker says “I’ve tasted my blood too much / to abide what I was born to,” what do you think the speaker can’t abide?
- Why do you think the speaker's mother is mentioned? How does that stanza relate to the rest of the poem?
- Where is repetition used? What effect does that have on the mood of the poem?
- If you were going to recite this poem, how and when would you change your pacing and the volume of your voice?
- Think of an issue of injustice — racism, animal rights, or environmental devastation, for example — that you feel strongly about. Was there ever a time when you were unaware of this injustice? How does this injustice affect you now? What hope do you have for positive change? Write a poem that unites your thoughts and feelings about this issue.
Listen to Milton Acorn read "I've Tasted My Blood."
- In our Q&A with Leanne Simpson, she explains that she wrote this poem because, “I was watching the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I felt angry, not reconciled” How do you feel the poem transforms that anger?
- How is the image of graffiti used in this poem?
- How does the poem suggest resilience and survival in the face of attempted erasure?
- How does the poet use repetition to suggest a continual re-emergence of the self?
- Do you feel that the mood of the poem is the same throughout, or does it change? Do you feel that the voice is using dark humour or sarcasm at any point? Where?
- If you were reciting this poem, what tone would you use? Would you vary the speed of your repetition? Where would you pause?
- Write a poem in response to something in the news that makes you angry. Think about how to vary the tone and use imagery and sound patterns so that your poem has more texture than a straightforward rant.
Check out Leanne Simpson’s personal website here.
Watch Leanne Simpson give a lecture on Restoring Nationhood at Simon Fraser University:
Watch the music video for her poem-song “Leaks,” which is a response to the first time her young daughter experienced racism:
See this video introducing Leanne Simpson as the first winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer award:
A profile page on Leanne Simpson at cbc.ca
Naomi Klein speaks to Leanne Simpson:
- The title of Crosbie’s poem refers to a donkey named Modestine. This is a literary allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.” Do you understand the poem, as it is, without having to research the literary allusion? If you think the title isn’t effective, can you suggest another one?
- In her micro-interview, the poet says that “Modestine” is a “poem about a poem.” How does Lynn Crosbie use metaphor to show how the loss of the donkey is parallel to what has been lost in her father’s life? Give specific examples of how she makes that connection.
- Consider the way in which a poem’s stanzas work on their own, and then again together. Read the poem out loud. Can you pinpoint the places where the tone or perspective shifts or changes? In what ways does Crosbie move from a daughter’s point of view to including her father’s perspective? How does he become a more active participant in the life of the poem? Give specific examples.
- What sensory imagery does Crosbie use to root the poem in the concrete, everyday details of a person’s life? Make a quick list of images that appeal to your senses. How does using sensory imagery make the poem more effective in conveying its main idea?
- This poem begins by retelling a personal story, but “Modestine” also includes some recollected conversation and dialogue. How would you change your tone of voice so that the father’s voice is distinct within the poem as it nears the end?
- Write a poem that captures the relationship between two people, perhaps of differing ages or genders. See if you can incorporate bits of dialogue, or even suggestions of conversation, as Crosbie does in her poem.
Check out this article for background on Lynn Crosbie’s personal life and her take on how poetry can be used to effectively write about both dementia and grief. https://www.cbc.ca/books/how-writing-helped-lynn-crosbie-deal-with-her-f...
Read this article to find out more about the poet’s close relationship with her father, giving a more personal context to “Modestine”: https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2017/04/01/lynn-crosbie-unde...
See why Lynn Crosbie believes writing poetry is a very different process from writing prose. https://brickmag.com/on-writing-lynn-crosbie/
- This poem traces the speaker’s fascination with the British Museum’s coin collection. What is it about the coins that initially prompts the speaker into further contemplation?
- While the poem’s speaker embodies the conversational tone of a museum tour guide, there’s a delightful musicality to the poem that helps us to us to appreciate another element of these ancient coins. Can you find a beautiful passage that resonates with you?
- In the last stanza, the speaker says that the quality of a coin can be “checked by a chisel cut,” but that the quality of metaphors and symbols can’t be inspected this way. How do you know when a poem feels “genuine”?
- The poem’s title, “Money” feels almost flippant after the speaker’s wide-ranging and exuberant discussions of poverty, debt, and even truth. What is the effect of initially highlighting the transactional utility of coins instead of, say, their aesthetic worth?
- With an eye to the poem’s long lines and tongue-twisting alliteration, where might it make sense for you to pause for a breath when reciting the poem?
- Write a poem about an object you think deserves to be displayed in a museum that your friends or family might not fully appreciate. What is it you see in this object that no one else does?
Watch a feature on Carmine Starnino:
Read an interview with Carmine Starnino in CV2:
Watch Carmine Starnino recite his work:
- What do we know about the two people having a conversation in this poem?
- What do we know about the person they are describing?
- How would you characterize the relationship of the two people talking? Close? Strained? Loving? Guarded?
- What tone do you feel in the poem? Does it change?
- If you were going to recite this poem, how would you indicate the shifts back and forth between two voices?
- Write a poem that is a dialogue between two people that runs together so that the reader experiences two personalities connecting and contrasting against each other.
A profile of Anne Carson in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/magazine/the-inscrutable-brilliance-of-anne-carson.html
A collaboration by Anne Carson and a dance company: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJSZXuGNp08
- In Roman mythology, the god Janus was often depicted as having two faces that point in opposite directions, one looking forward, the other backward. Janus was associated with doorways, passages, and transitions. What is the doorway that the speaker references in the opening line?
- The speaker states that we must “change” the “past.” We are not time-travellers (yet!) and cannot go back in time to change things that have already occurred, so how might a poem create a different “map” of the past, a way to change our perception of past events?
- In the second stanza we see a list of physical objects. What do the objects have in common? How are they different?
- What might the final item in the list — “A bit of / bone in ash” — tell us? Consider the Holocaust imagery in Sylvia Plath’s famous poem “Lady Lazarus,” specifically the following lines: “Ash, ash— / You poke and stir. / Flesh, bone, there is nothing there.” How does our understanding of Michaels’ poem change if we think about it in relation to the Holocaust?
- “From Correspondences” ends with “a word spelled out / on a palm,” and hands are referenced in the previous stanza. Try to read the poem while thinking about your hands, the way your fingers bend, the feeling of your own skin. Integrate an awareness of your own hands into your recitation of this visceral, physical poem.
- Write down a list of physical objects that hold special meaning for you. How do they make you feel? What do those physical objects tell you about what makes you happy? What do they tell you about what makes you sad? Do any of the objects make you both happy and sad? Describe the objects. Try to write a short poem from the perspective of one of the objects.
Poet Anne Michaels’ reads from her book Correspondences, which was written as an elegy for her father: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zo-mSDvX-9o
An interview with Anne Michaels on poetry: https://unbound.com/boundless/2017/12/27/this-too-shall-pass-the-poetry-...
- M. NourbeSe Philip has used salmon as the central metaphor for this poem. What do you already know about salmon and their lifecycle? How does your understanding of salmon frame your understanding of the struggles and sacrifices of the speaker? Of the speaker's parents?
- How many years does it take before the speaker relives the journey of their salmon mother? Why do you think it took this long?
- What is the salmon father proud of? What is his fate compared to the salmon mother? Compared to the speaker?
- Take a moment to review the adjectives that describe human attributes. Why do you think the author has used this language?
- In the second-to-last stanza, what obstacles could the speaker be hurling themselves toward? What odds or barriers work against you from reaching your own “spawning grounds of knotted dreams”?
- Writing exercise #1: Make a list of your birthrights. These can be a mix of both concrete and abstract images and ideas. For instance, having artistic talents such as writing or a voice for singing, the ability to work really well under pressure, having a knack for building things, etc. From your list, compose a poem that illustrates what you (or the speaker) have inherited from parents and other family members. What opportunities are possible? What birthrights are empowering? Are any disempowering? How so?
- Writing exercise #2: Often immigrant families encourage their kin to accommodate societal norms, such as only speaking English or French, as a means of building a successful life in Canada. This comes at the cost of losing the ability to speak their native language fluently and consequently losing sacred connections to their homeland. Which aspects of your own identity are at the foreground of your understanding of yourself? Which aspects are in the background? (Things to consider: race, faith, learning and physical abilities, gender, health and wellness, age, socio-economic status, etc.) Write a poem inspired by your many intricate and courageous identities. TIP: Try framing the poem by writing 10 or more couplets. Couplets are when stanzas are broken up to form two lines, often sharing the same metre or rhythmic pattern.
Listen and watch a clip in conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip as she reexamines a personal account of racial discrimination and in relation to her ancestry, what it means for her, a Black woman, to “be longing to belong somewhere.” (Watch from 5:01 to 9:19) https://youtu.be/LyPgUZ31Izc?t=301
This video captures M. NourbeSe Philip performing “Discourse on the Logic of Language" from her poetry collection, She Tries Her Tongue. This piece is especially significant in relation to the writing exercises above, as it interrogates the loss of identity through the manipulation of colonized language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=424yF9eqBsE
- What is the mood of the speaker?
- What does the word echolalia mean? How might this relate to the poem?
- Repetition with variation is an important technique in music and poetry, but it is also a powerful tool in advertising. The speaker of the poem is very persuasive — are you persuaded?
- This poem is taken from Ian Williams’ book Personals, which plays with the form of personal ads. Do you think the voice of this poem is speaking from a position of vulnerability or strength?
- If you were reciting this poem, where would you pause to help communicate the sense of word play?
- Write a poem with a spare vocabulary that feels light but has a darker meaning. Use the language and phrasing of advertising to say something uncomfortable.
Ian Williams has his own website, blog, Twitter account — check it out:
Listen to Ian Williams read another poem from his book Personals:
- This poem is chock full of similes and metaphors. Read the poem and circle every metaphor or simile you see. Which is the most remarkable to you? What makes it stand out?
- How do these metaphors and similes shape your sense of the soldiers’ experience of war? Does it contrast to other famous poems you’ve read about war – “In Flanders Fields,” for instance?
- How might your reading of the poem change if the poet had included some contextual details about World War I – about the enemy or “freedom” or “protecting the motherland,” for example?
- The rhyme scheme of this poem is surprisingly traditional, and the form is a double-sonnet. The rhythm, though, is often off-balance. Split the poem into 4-line groups and underline every syllable that you think should be emphasized. See what patterns – or lack of patterns – appear. How might those patterns help you recite the poem?
- Recitation experiment: try reciting the poem at very different volumes and/or registers. Try a calm recitation through gritted teeth, then a full-blast screamer, then one that emphasizes heartbreak. Your different versions may find different lines or phrases that are central to your interpretation. Which recitation style conveys your sense of the poem most clearly?
- Notice how the poem starts with a general description of the soldiers before zeroing in on the one unfortunate victim of the gas attack. Try a similar writing exercise: describe a group of people in vivid detail, then zoom in on one individual whose situation is even more extreme. (For example: a description of grumpy, tired students coming to school, then focus on one student who hasn’t eaten since yesterday lunch.)
- Ode 3.2 by the Roman poet Horace, who lived in the first century BCE. The 13th line, translated here as “What joy, for fatherland to die!” provides Owen with his title. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0025%3Abook%3D3%3Apoem%3D2
- A painful history of the use of chemical weapons in war: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/a-brief-history-of-chemical-war
- Some further reading about the use of chemical weapons in World War I, including information about Owen himself: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31042472
- This poem begins with an epigraph from John Updike’s memoirs. What is Updike dreading?
- Re-read the second line. What happened the previous year?
- In her micro-interview, Lau states that, in her own work, she tries “to capture a fleeting moment/experience, or plumb the depths of a difficult emotion.” What moment/experience or emotion does she explore in this poem? What images does she use to evoke that emotion?
- Lau uses the pronouns “you”, “I” and “we” in the poem. What is the effect of this? Try removing them. Does this change the overall feeling of the poem?
- There is a shift in the middle of the poem at the line, “Sometimes I open my eyes at the morning.” How will you recite this part of the poem? What will you do to suggest self-reflection?
- This poem is a beautiful elegy. Choose someone you admire or whose work has inspired you but is no longer with us and write a poem describing how the world has been without them. Is it a future they would recognize?
Find out more about John Updike and his writing by watching this “Farewell to John Updike” video by CBS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QUqhuinOYI
Get to know more of Evelyn Lau’s latest work by watching this reading, where she shares poetry from her twelfth collection, Tumour. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoUdXpFitM4
- Most of this poem is about what the speaker hasn’t done. What connects these activities? Can you link them to what he mentions that he does do at the end of the poem? Do any of them intrigue you?
- Why would the speaker present himself in this way? Does he strike you as self-satisfied or frustrated? Ambitious or obnoxious? Young or old? Does he want us to agree with his decisions or challenge them?
- You might know that Cohen was well-known as a musician as well as a poet. How does the structure of this poem resemble a song? Are there verses? Is there a chorus? If you were to write music to accompany this poem, would it be fast or slow? Upbeat or dark? Electronica or cellos?
- Cohen was Jewish, but explored numerous spiritual practices throughout his life, especially Buddhism. How does this poem consider spiritual matters? What might the speaker be seeking? Inner peace? Holiness? God? Truth? In what other ways might he try to elevate his existence?
- This poem is in free verse (no rhyme or meter), but there is a structure to it defined by the repetition of “I have not…” Recitation tip: try out a different tone for each sentence. Be dismissive in one, wistful for another, curious about another, joking about another. Which tone suits each pursuit that the speaker hasn’t done?
- Write a poem listing a number of things you haven’t done but might like to do. What connects them? What does that connection tell you about yourself?
- Leonard Cohen briefly defines poetry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSaMGHB4Vok
- A longer, snarkier interview from 1966, with former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yta36Ry8UFc
- A documentary about Cohen’s spiritual explorations at the Mount Baldy Zen Center outside of Los Angeles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=HJuJQI0RMiw
- A 90-minute memorial concert for Leonard Cohen in 2017, with everyone in it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSmvvUNTtTc
- How does the speaker feel about the city?
- How are similes — “innocent as thresholds / and smashed night birds, lovesick, / as empty elevators” — used throughout to set the atmosphere of the poem?
- How does the poem portray the non-human life in the city — animals, even inanimate objects?
- The speaker wonders “would I have had a different life” if she hadn’t identified so closely with “broken things.” What do you think?
- If you were reciting this poem, what tone would you use? What does it mean to feel, as the speaker describes, at once intimately bound to and held by “brittle, gnawed life” while also only finding human connection in “careless intervals”?
- Where do you live? Think of all the life and activity around you that most people tune out as they move through their days. Try to tune in as sensitively as possible to the layers in your environment. Write from a place of deep observation.
Hear Dionne Brand read this excerpt from her book-length long poem thirsty:
As well as being a poet, Dionne Brand is also a novelist, essayist, and documentarian. You can watch an excellent documentary she made in 1991 for the NFB here:
- This poem is made up of wild comparisons, but let’s imagine the poem’s speaker is being direct: What would be one word or one straightforward sentence the speaker would use to describe “your voice”?
- What’s your favourite “zinger” in this poem? Which comparison is most ridiculous to you? Which one conjures up a sound you can hear perfectly? Which one can you not hear at all?
- The writer uses similes to describe the child’s singing voice. Why do you think the writer uses similes instead of metaphors? What if the writer wrote, “Your voice is a scorpion being pushed/through a glass tube” rather than “Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed/through a glass tube”?
- There’s a bit of “preamble” before this poem starts: a dedication followed by an epigraph. What does that epigraph from Paul Bowles do to set the tone for the poem? How do you understand Ondaatje’s use of it, especially after that dedication?
- A lot of people laugh when they hear or read this poem. Why? What is the writer doing to make readers laugh? How would you recite this poem to bring out the comedy of it?
- Writing Activity: Write your own “backhanded ode” using a list of similes. Think of something that annoys you or a pet peeve you have. Address your poem to that annoying thing or pet peeve. Write a list of outlandish similes that tell us what you think of that annoying thing only by comparing it to other things.
Here’s a video of Michael Ondaatje talking about how music has influenced him as a writer (and perhaps why he felt compelled to write this “ode” to “your voice”!).
The poetic term for the type of repeated phrase structure this poem uses is called anaphora. Here’s a brief description of what that means, and the intense effects anaphora can have in a poem.
Here’s a video of a frog “singing” (maybe outside of Carnegie Hall?). And here you can listen to the beautiful, sonorous melody of the peacock (and imagine what it might sound like getting “trod” upon).
- “One Art” is written in a traditional poetic form called a villanelle. Among other features, a villanelle uses two lines that repeat in a particular pattern. What are the two repeated lines in “One Art”?
- At the end of each line of a villanelle, the poet uses one of only two rhyme sounds. Make two lists, one for each rhyme sound in “One Art.” What tones, qualities, and meanings do you notice about these lists?
- Villanelles often work with the tension between the poet’s and reader’s desire for narrative and the way the repetition thwarts that narrative. What story do you think Bishop is trying to tell in “One Art”?
- In the last line, Bishop includes a command “(Write it!)”. Given the formal inevitability of the final line, why do you think she included this command and how might it relate to the title?
- The suspense of “One Art” is not where the poem will end (we know that by line three), but how Bishop navigates the demands of the form, how she makes each repetition and rhyme both surprising and inevitable. How could you convey that suspense in your recitation?
- Try writing your own villanelle (see the link below for further details). To begin, generate two lists of rhyme words. Pick a rhyming sound with lots of possibilities, but also look for opportunities to be inventive as Bishop, especially in line 10 (“last, or”). Consider your lists of rhyme words for what they suggest about a possible theme. Poems with formal constraints such as repetition are opportunities to exercise your creativity: how can you re-imagine each repetition in the context of its stanza?
How a villanelle works https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/villanelle-poetic-form
Read a range of interpretations of “One Art”: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bishop/oneart.htm
- In the opening lines, the words “these poems” are repeated three times. What does the repetition tell us about the feeling and emotion of being in an argument?
- The intermingled use of “he,” “she,” and “I” in the poem might lead to confusion over who is saying what and to whom specific feelings or responses can be attributed. Might this ambiguity be intentional? Reflect on and play with Bringhurst’s use of pronouns. With different pens or highlighters, mark the sentences or feelings that you think belong to each of the two interlocutors.
- 3. Bringhurst’s poem is about an assortment poems we don’t actually see or hear, though we do get the impression that the “she” is not terribly impressed by them. Why isn’t she impressed?
- Do you read this as a love poem or as an argument between lovers? Could it be both?
- The use of ellipsis near the end of the poem marks a transition where the “he” in the poem cuts off the “she.” How does she respond? What does this poem teach us about love or its absence?
- Practise reading this poem with a partner. Sit across from one another and alternate lines. Switch roles. Think of the words as a conversation between passionate, playful individuals, who continue to love one another and might even enjoy arguing.
- Write a poem that is a dialogue between you and a friend/family member, using the she/he/they method of Bringhurst’s poem. What do you and this individual agree about? Disagree about?
Robert Bringhurst talks about language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26fwWUIi_70
Watch this interview with Robert Bringhurst on poetry: http://www.themanchesterreview.co.uk/?p=8839
1. The poet moves from one scene in nature to another. Read through the poem and “frame” each scene. How are they different in their descriptions of beauty? Which one is most remarkable to you, and why?
2. Read through the poem and point out the various uses of assonance and consonance. How do the persistent use of these devices contribute to the harmony of the piece?
3. Overall, what is the tone of this poem? What choices has the poet made to create that tone?
4. Considering your own reactions to the imagery, what choices would you make to ensure that each image is distinct and resonates in your own recitation? Use the tone list to help you decide.
5. Take the last stanza of "The Lonely Land" and use it as the first stanza in a poem of your own creation. How would you explore ideas of beauty, strength and conflict from your own experiences?
A short essay on the poem, from Queen’s University: http://post.queensu.ca/~mayr/montreal/lonely.html
Smith took inspiration for his poem from the famous Group of Seven painters, whose work fits into a longstanding tradition of representing Canada’s vast and rugged landscape in art. Here is a link to examples of the group’s paintings: http://www.group-of-seven.org/
- What kind of chores does this poem describe? How are they different from chores you might do at home today?
- How do you think the poem’s title relates to the lack of punctuation (with the exception of a few apostrophes)?
- Do these seem like happy memories for the speaker? When you come to the line, “I was dying,” towards the end of the poem, what do you think the speaker means? How does this experience colour the speaker’s memories?
- What effect does the repetition of the line “the snow smelled like coal” create? How does this repetition and its placement (halfway through the poem) complicate the reader’s trust in the speaker’s memory?
- How could you convey the speaker’s difficulty breathing in your recitation? Would you let the audience hear you run out of breath? Would you speak quickly or slowly? When (if ever) would you create a silence?
- Fred Wah likens this poem to improvisational jazz. Think about a song you like, and consider its formal elements (e.g. rapid rhyme strings, repeated phrases). Now try writing a poem that uses the same formal elements as the song.
- We might imagine breathing dust as both literal and metaphorical in this poem; check out this link for the physical effects of dust on the lungs: https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/lungs_dust.html
- Watch Fred Wah read his poems “The Snowflake Age” and “Music at the Heart of Thinking 108.”
- Roads and highways are often used as a metaphor for life’s journey. If that’s the case, where on the “road of life” do you sense this speaker is? How do they feel about their situation? What do they care about? What clues does the poet leave for you to discover this information?
- This poem gets a lot of energy from its verbs. List all the verbs, and try to replace them with others to see how the poem might change.
- You might know Dennis Lee’s writing for children, including Alligator Pie and Jelly Belly. The tone here is very different, but there are also some similarities. The use of a refrain, for instance, or an attention to sound. Put one of your favourite children’s poems by Lee next to this poem (or use this version of “Alligator Pie”), and see what connections you can make.
- The poem uses the pronoun “you,” instead of “I.” What’s the effect of this? Try re-writing the poem replacing all of the “you”s with “I”s or “she”s. How does it change?
- Recitation challenge: the phrase “you are on the highway” or “you are still on the highway” appears four times in the poem. Trace an emotional journey for the speaker that’s punctuated every time this phrase appears. Try reciting the poem as if the speaker is getting more and more frustrated each time. More excited to be home. More tired. More lonely.
- Writing exercise: the next time you are on a long journey, take detailed notes of the things you see along the way. (Don’t do this if you’re the one driving!) For some of the ride, record the images as if you just got some very good news. For the next section of the drive, imagine you just got some very bad news. How does your description of the landscape change?
- Traffic cameras from the 400 north of Toronto: https://511on.ca/cctv?start=0&length=10&order%5Bi%5D=0&order%5Bdir%5D=asc
- A recent interview with Dennis Lee, including him reading “Alligator Pie” and the worst poem he’s ever written: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-october-22-2017-1.4363726/a-feature-interview-with-canadian-poet-dennis-lee-1.4363743
- Does your city or province have a poet laureate? If so, who is it? If not, start a campaign to inaugurate a new program! Dennis Lee was Toronto’s inaugural Poet Laureate, a role which rotates every two years. Here is information about that city program: https://www.toronto.ca/explore-enjoy/history-art-culture/poet-laureate/
- The near absence of punctuation and capitalization is notable in this poem. What effect does this visual absence have on how you relate to the words? How you read them?
- Consider the speaker’s tone. Where does the speaker use irony to examine “mundane acts” and what Wong refers to in this micro-interview as “the materials in our daily lives?”
- What kind of “poison” is the speaker referring to? Where does the speaker see poison?
- The concluding image of shiny teeth on a “cold crisp morning” is a stark contrast to the degradation so evident earlier in the poem. What is the speaker saying about the relationship between personal comfort and collective life on earth?
- A poem without much punctuation provides opportunity for unique recitations. Recite this poem while brushing your teeth. Mark the cadences of the brush strokes, the difficulty of speaking with a mouth full of toothpaste. Integrate these rhythms and cadences into your eventual (non-bathroom!) recitation.
- Write three or four complete sentences describing a common household object and its function in your home. Once complete, strip the description of punctuation, capitalization, and conjunctions (and, but, as). How has this stripping away affected your understanding of the object? Arrange and (re)arrange the words to reveal the poetry hidden in plain sight.
Rita Wong answers questions about writing: https://capliterature.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/rita-wong-in-dialogue/
Rita Wong reads at the Cascadia Poetry festival: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOjPZ2BspNQ
- This poem is rich with complicated emotions. How does the "fear of snakes" of the title transform into another feeling about snakes?
- What is the main metaphor in this poem? How is it used to describe the speaker’s experience?
- There are many references to duality in the poem, where experiences and descriptions can have at least two different qualities. Can you list these examples of "twinning"?
- What does the poet do to make this memory feel present?
- There are some long lines in this short poem! In reciting it, pauses, building, and breath are very important. It is a "building" poem, where images and experience pile up on each other. Where would you choose to pause in the poem to let the previous line sink in for the listener?
- Think of a moment in your childhood where your understanding of an animal or person - including yourself! — transformed due to getting to knowing them better, or to an experience. Write a poem that focuses on the flashes of that memory in the form of descriptions of the place or sounds or colours, feeling free to play with present and past tense.
Here's a beautiful short film that dramatizes the poem, and includes a reading of the poem: https://vimeo.com/19539825
Here's Lorna Crozier giving a writing prompt for writing a poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=97&v=109aMgtUVXY
A choir and orchestra perform a piece by Lorna Crozier: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=8&v=FbOjlbm5d0U
- The word “peace” is used twice in the first stanza. What other words or images throughout the poem feel restful to you?
- What does the speaker say the craftsman has come to do? Who do you think the craftsman is – a literal person or something else?
- Dr. Afua Cooper is well known for educating and evaluating the historical context of enslaved Africans in her poems. How does the theme of liberation show up in the poem? Think creatively, socially, financially, emotionally, spiritually, etc.
- What is the overall tone of the poem? Is it hopeful? Excited? Assertive? Are there any shifts in tone within the poem? If so, where are they?
- Dr. Cooper is an internationally celebrated Dub Poet. Dub Poetry is spoken word orature influenced by music, most often reggae rhythms originating in Dr. Cooper’s homeland, Jamaica. Try reciting this poem over a metronome as your guide and choose moments that feel right, melodic or groovy, to echo words or repeat lines of the poem. See if you can catch a flow!
- Peacefulness, like other feelings and emotions, is generally felt for short periods or in brief instances. It can also be attained with effort and intention. Create a list of things you can do in the span of 15 minutes to attain a peaceful, creative and nurturing state of mind for yourself. Choose 3 or 4 items that stand out to you the most and write a poem that uses the first person voice “I” and begins a new stanza for each activity described.
Read more about the dynamics of Dub Poetry: http://thebestofreggae.com/what-is-dub-poetry/
Watch Dr. Afua Cooper perform her dub poem “Africa Wailing”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1xphrakNyw&t=16s
Dr. Cooper was inspired to write about the real-life experiences of enslaved children from the African Diaspora. Her novel My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom was awarded the Beacon of Freedom Award. Listen to her read from it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1WVP1k3QXM&index=21&list=PLc3iBUyifLGyK...
- This poem seems to be about the speaker’s deepening love of stone. What does the speaker say about that love? How is she affected by it? How has she been changed?
- You might notice the poem charting a passage of time and the progression of this love. Take note of the first line of each stanza. What are those first lines doing to help move us through time and through the poem?
- After reading Pat Lowther’s biography, and especially about the way she died, does your reading of this poem change? How do you understand the speaker’s love of stone?
- You might find the first stanza of Lowther’s poem enigmatic or puzzling. The speaker seems to be speaking symbolically or withholding details. How do you understand these first four lines of the poem?
- Notice this poem’s short lines. We tend to read short lines more slowly than longer ones. How fast or how slow would you recite this poem? Where would you accelerate or decelerate your recitation speed to maximize the impact for your audience?
- Try writing a poem that borrows the first lines of each of Lowther’s stanzas. Your own stanzas will start with the same words as hers does, and out of them you’ll make your own “story”:
At the beginning I noticed...
Last week I became...
I thought of...
By the turn of the week...
Yesterday I began...
Today for the first time...
The Pat Lowther Memorial Award was first given out in 1981. Honouring books written by those who identify as women, it was created as a celebration and remembrance of Lowther’s life and work. Click here and then scroll down to see the list of winners of every Pat Lowther award, which reads like a who’s who of Canadian poetry.
“I abraded my hands / and made blood prints” is such a visceral image, and it also brings to mind some of the oldest art known on the planet. One brilliant example can be found in the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, estimated to be between 9,500 and 13,000 years old.
Have you ever seen people “stacking stones” before? Here’s a video of just that: all you need are stones in your path, gravity, and an endless supply of patience.
- This poem shows us to a table where a very unusual meal is being eaten. But this is no ordinary meal; it’s more mystical than actual. What’s going on here, really? What is that meal standing in for? What is the voice of the poem actually inviting its audience of “sweet barbarians” to do?
- If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s lots of repetition in this poem, and that a lot of clauses start the same way, with the same words. This is called anaphora. What phrases get repeated, and what is the effect of that repetition? Does it calm down the poem, or does it intensify it?
- This poem addresses “my friends, my sweet barbarians.” What’s a “barbarian”? What does this choice of words evoke or imply? And what does it mean that the poem’s speaker counts barbarians as her friends?
- The poem builds up to that last line all alone at the end: “by God that was a meal.” That line is conversational, in a way, but you could read other meanings into it as well. How do you understand that last line? What meaning(s) can you take from it?
- There are four short lines in the poem that don’t sit along the left margin like the rest of them. Would you recite those four lines any differently? Do they read or sound different than the rest of the lines in the poem?
- Try your hand at an “invitation” poem. Address those you’ll invite, and show in detail what otherworldly, fabulous things your invitees can expect if they accept your invitation. Be large and wild with your offerings. Like MacEwen, who’s inviting her guests to join in an exploration of the world’s mysteries, make myth of the party you’re throwing.
Listen to Gwendolyn MacEwen read “A Breakfast for Barbarians,” which she says is about “appetite and hunger, a sort of celebration of the world.”
Compare MacEwen’s poem to this poem by C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley), which approaches the concept of “barbarians” in a very different way.
And finally, here’s a short description of anaphora, one of our oldest known, and most useful, poetic devices.
- In this poem, what are some examples of what the wall can represent metaphorically?
- Why might the speaker of this poem search for things to “overhear”in walls?
- Notice the shift in tone and in images from the first stanza to the second. What progression is happening in the description of the possibilities contained in the wall between the two stanzas?
- “Belly of the wall” is very strange phrase that connects the wall to something human, at least animal. What if the poet wrote “mouth of the wall”? Or “heart of the wall”? How does the use of “belly” shape your understanding of the poem?
- This poem has some elements of repetition in it in both single words and phrases. How might that translate into a recitation? Would you say them in exactly the same way each time or would you vary each use slightly?
- The poet chose to write about walls, but think of another construction in a building that can also be used metaphorically (e.g., a window, a floor, a door). Write a poem exploring that metaphor in the same style as the current poem. Your can even replace the word “wall” with that element and then see where your imagination takes you. For example, write a poem entitled “Where There’s a Window” or “Where There’s a Door” or “Where There’s a Floor.”
To see how various poets have used a wall in different ways, read these poems:
- “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” by Adrienne Rich
- “The Wall” by Laura Kasischke
- These nine poems commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/08/opinion/08berlinpoems.html?8dpc
- This poem lists many of the everyday anxieties people worry about. Which of these worries usually concern you most? Did the poem help you feel better about them?
- The author writes this poem in the second person, addressing the reader directly as “you.” How does that affect your reading of it? Does it make it feel more immediate and direct?
- The poet writes “a tree grows inside yu”. What do you think the tree represents? If you had a tree growing inside you, what would it look like?
- This poem, like most of bill bissett's work, uses unconvential syntax and spelling. Why do you think the author spells words like this? What might he be trying to say about language and convention?
- This poem often uses repetition to increase the urgency of the poem. How might you relay this urgency with your voice and body when reciting it?
- Write a poem meant to inspire people. Address it directly to the reader. Tell them what you think they should he hopeful about. What you think is beautiful about the world, or about people. Challenge yourself to be optimistic about the world.
Here is a profile on Bill Bissett in The Toronto Star, which discusses his inspirations and his literary legacy: https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2019/04/26/poet-bill-bissett...
Watch this video of bill bissett reading his own work. How does he use his body and vocal intonations to enliven his reading of the poem? Even more importantly, how does he use pauses? How does silence increase the poignancy of some moments? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwPDJgmOAmw
- Which of the vivid images in the first stanza of “Laurentian Shield” is most striking to you?
- In the final line of the poem, the speaker says that the “rock” of this land will turn into “children.” What is your understanding of this destiny? Do you think the speaker is hopeful, skeptical, or scared about that outcome? What makes you think so?
- The poem uses a number of abstract terms such as “wonder,” “productivity,” “exploitation,” and “emptiness.” What do you think the poem is saying about the value of “progress”? Which elements of industrialization and settlement are presented as negative, and which are presented as positive?
- F. R. Scott wrote this poem at a time when the collective understanding of “Canadian identity” was shaped predominantly by French and British settlers and their descendants. Whose experience is not reflected in this poem?
- You can listen to an audio recording of this poem by the author. If you were going to recite this poem, would you keep an even volume throughout (like the poet does) or would you speak more quietly and more loudly at various points?
- One line that stands out in the poem is the one set in italics: A language of flesh and of roses. Scott has explained that this phrase encapsulates the sensual, “natural” language that poetry should ideally use. One line that stands out in the poem is the one which is set in italics: A language of flesh and of roses. Try starting your own poem with this line. In response to Scott’s poem, you might want to imagine a Canadian landscape that might speak this language of flesh and roses.
Watch this hour-long 1982 NFB feature documentary titled “Rhyme or Reason” on the life of F.R. Scott: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-OLaiG5HKQ The film examines Scott’s career as a writer, as well as an expert on the Canadian constitution.
In 1967, an entire issue of the journal Canadian Literature was devoted to Scott.
- “The Blue Guitar” is filled with vivid sensory images. Which image do you find most memorable?
- There are many noteworthy structural patterns throughout this poem. For example, how many lines are in each stanza? What is the rhythm of each line? Which lines rhyme with one another? Why has the poet italicized the last line of each stanza?
- In the poem, the man who plays his blue guitar has a fairly philosophical discussion with his audience. The audience states that they “want the truth and not what you / are playing on the blue guitar.” What do you think this poem is saying about the different ways that people perceive the world? About the way that artists transform what they see in their lives? About the challenges and rewards of staying true to their artistic visions?
- As a glosa poem (see link below for more details), “The Blue Guitar” directly engages with an older poem by Wallace Stevens titled “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (1937); in turn, Wallace Stevens’s poem was at least partly influenced by Pablo Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist” (1904). How can engaging with other works of art, literature, music, or film help you write your own poetry? What artists, writers, singers, or filmmakers inspire your own creative ideas?
- “The Blue Guitar” includes a few different voices/characters in dialogue. If you were to recite this poem, what subtle nuances in your performance could help convey to your audience the switch between perspectives?
- Think about one of your favourite songs, paintings/pictures, books, or movies. Write a poem of your own that draws on that artwork for inspiration. Which personal experiences, memories, and feelings do you associate with that artwork? Write all of these associations down in your draft. If you really want to challenge yourself, pick a four-line verse from your favourite lyric or poem and try writing your own glosa!
Learn about the structural conventions of the glosa in this clearly written blog post: http://www.johnwheway.com/?p=4
Read an except from the Wallace Stevens poem that inspired P.K. Page’s “The Blue Guitar” here: https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/blueguitar.html
See Pablo Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist” here: https://www.artic.edu/artworks/28067/the-old-guitarist
In this video, learn about P.K. Page’s final book of poetry, Coal and Roses, and watch Dionne Brand read “The Blue Guitar”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzYY-UJkhJ0
- “The Bull Moose” presents a frank account of a town’s encounter with a moose. Although the speaker of the poem offers no opinion about the events that are being recounted, the poem has a definite sense of right and wrong. Does the speaker side with the moose or the townspeople? Which lines of the poem make you think this?
- What animals (other than the moose) are mentioned in the poem? What do these animals have in common? What does invoking them add to the poem?
- Contrasting the natural world with the human world is well-trodden territory for poetry (see “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth, or “Sun Bear” by Matthew Zapruder). What makes this poem different? What new images, insights, or associations does it offer?
- The poem makes several allusions to the death of Christ (the crown the girl places on the moose’s head, the reference to the “scaffolded king”). What is being hinted at here?
- Simple language and a straightforward narrative belie the strong emotions under the poem’s surface. Try reciting the poem as if you are just recounting the facts (as you would, perhaps, to a police officer). Next try reciting the poem with emotion. Are there certain parts of the poem that you believe are better served by a neutral recitation style versus an emotional delivery? Is there a balance to be had between the two recitation styles?
- Think of a time when you felt a strong emotion (happiness, sadness, outrage). As Nowlan does in “The Bull Moose,” write a poem where you present images of what occurred without explanation, opinion, or emotion. Nowlan uses the five senses to lend his images immediacy — would this technique strengthen your poem, too?
Watch this National Film Board of Canada documentary about Alden Nowlan (you can see him read “The Bull Moose” at 23:30): https://www.nfb.ca/film/alden_nowlan_an_introduction/
Two-time Governor General’s Literary Award–winner David Adams Richards on travelling to Fredericton to meet his poetry hero, Alden Nowlan, “the only poet in in the country deemed functionally illiterate by Statistics Canada”: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/i-went-to-meet-alden-nowlan/article...
- Look at the title of the poem. What do you associate with weddings? What kind of a wedding might the poet be talking about?
- The poet Barrie Phillip Nichol was obsessed with the physicality of words and the shape they took on the page. The author name he chose — bpNicho l— highlights his unconventional approach to language and the way language appears in written form. Choose one line from the poem. On a blank sheet of paper, spread the words out across the page however you choose. Do any specific words stand out to you? How does your understanding of that line shift when the form has changed?
- The Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggests that it is not possible to step into the same river twice. Life is flux, he wrote: the river is always changing, and so is the person stepping into it. What is your understanding of “the flux of life” in the poem?
- bpNichol uses the word “things” seven times in “Two Words: A Wedding.” As a noun, thing is both specific and vague. He says that certain feelings are “like things to you, picked up & placed in the pocket.” Write down a list of feelings that you have experienced over the last week. Consider each feeling and think of an object that somehow represents that feeling/emotion.
- If language is one way that we “form our realities,” as Nichol writes, what are some other, non-verbal ways we experience reality? If we were never able to speak or hear again, what would reality look like? Sit in a quiet, dark room for three minutes. What do you notice? What does silence sound like to you? Now recite the poem silently, moving your lips but not making a sound. Compare a verbal reading of the poem with a non-verbal reading. How does the meaning change?
- bpNichol writes: “we are words and our meanings change.” How have you changed over the past year? Five years? Ten years? If you were forced to pick ten words to describe yourself to a stranger, what would those words be? For each word, write one line of poetry, focussing on both the physical ways and non-physical ways you have changed.
Hear bpNichol read some of his poems. After hearing his voice, consider how bpNichol might read “Two Words: A Wedding” https://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Nichol.php
Look at some examples of bpNichol’s concrete poems — that is, poems where the physical shape of words on the page provide additional context to the meaning of the words. Look at the variation of physical forms. Do you notice anything about the form in “Two Words: A Wedding?”Consider whether you are drawn more to the visual aspects of a poem, or the sound, or the meaning of the words themselves. https://www.bpnichol.ca/tags/concrete-poetry
- What special powers does this poem attribute to the onion?
- Imagine how an onion looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds. Which of your senses does the poem awaken? Which does it leave out?
- In what ways might fog sustain the earth?
- This piece is part of a bilingual (Galician and English) series called “Homages to Water” that includes “Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage” and “Homage to the Force of the Potato,” which are all ingredients in borscht, the national soup of Ukraine. How does the picture of people sharing their country’s soup with the world add to your understanding of the onion’s powers?
- Notice how often nouns are repeated: fire-fire, fog-fog, leaves-leaves, etc. Read the poem aloud slowly, underlining which words you emphasize. When you reach the one line with nouns that appear nowhere else, how does the tone of your voice change?
- Think of a food that comes to mind when you think of “peace.” Write a poem paying homage to that food.
Watch Erin Moure read “Homage to the Mineral of the Onion (I)” at the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xaxnv4RwCQE
Read an interview with Erin Moure in which she tells a high school student how she feels about translation, travel, and potatoes: http://m.openbooktoronto.com/clelia/blog/great_canadian_writers_craft_interview_er%C3%ADn_moure
Observe the process of borscht making, keeping the poem’s roles of onion, fire, and fog in mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDT2g6nzHaM
Watch the stop-motion short film of Erin Moure’s companion poem “Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage” in Galician: http://movingpoems.com/2013/02/homenaxe-ao-mineral-do-repolo-homage-to-t...
- This poem is a conversation between a speaker (a poet) and their poem. What words does the poet use to describe their poem? How does the poet feel about their poem?
- What is the poem saying back to the speaker in italics? How do you read the tone of the poem’s replies – defiant? soothing? angry?
- What do you think of the poet’s choice to use archaic language with the use of words like “thou” and “catafalque”?
- 4) In stanza 3, the poet mentions, "snakes on your lip" and "the toad" as metaphors. These animals are often used in fables and legends. Do you know of any such stories that might add some texture to your understanding of these metaphors?
- If you were reciting this poem, how would you use your voice to differentiate between the two voices in the poem? How do you think you can use different tones of voice to differentiate the voices? Do the tones need to be extremely different? Or could you communicate this through rhythm and phrasing? Consider your volume, pacing, and breath.
- Writing activity: Think about the last piece of writing you did (a poem, essay, a text message) and consider how you feel about your style of writing. What do you think it would say back to you? Write a response to it and use italics, like A. F. Moritz did, to differentiate between your voice and the writing’s voice.
Check out some more poems about poems here!
This clip features A.F. Moritz reading ‘Thou Poem’ for an audience.
- In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker directly addresses the reader. What effect does this technique have on you? Why do you think McKay does this early on in the poem, as opposed to later on?
- As a well-known Canadian eco poet, McKay often uses nature-based metaphors in his work. Notice how he repeats the word “voice” in the first stanza. Once you’ve read the whole poem, what do you think McKay means when he writes “[a voice will] recognize itself/as…a flight path still/looking for its bird?”
- The poet uses the literary technique of enjambment in “Sometimes A Voice (1).” Enjambment occurs when one part of a line of poetry runs into the next line. How does this influence the pacing and speed with which you read the poem aloud?
- The second — and largest — part of the poem is told through flashback. How would you vary your tone of voice and pacing to emphasize the shift between the present and the past memory?
- Toward the end of the poem, we realize that Danny dies. What details are provided about his death? What tone does the speaker use to speak of his sudden, and unexpected, death?
- Write a poem that uses flashback and draws on one of your own memories. Try and use nature-based imagery and metaphors in your piece of writing, just as McKay has done in this poem.
- This article, initially published in The Walrus in 2009, speaks to the start of the ‘nature poetry’ that was beginning in Canada then. More commonly referred to as “eco poetry” these days, Don McKay was one of the first Canadian poets to work within the genre.
- Listen to Don McKay read his work, in an excerpt from a reading he gave for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
- Have you ever had trouble sleeping? What sensations or feelings come to mind when thinking about that experience? Probably none of those sensations are in this poem. What’s in there instead? What tone or mood does the poem evoke in your mind? Can you connect that feeling to insomnia?
- Each stanza begins with the refrain “If I could sleep…” What effect does the repetition have on the way you experience the poem? From the title, we know that there’s an implied “but I can’t sleep” that follows. What sort of details might emerge in a poem that begins, “If I could stay awake…”?
- The speaker’s willingness to trade her physical comfort for a good sleep is illogical. Would you sleep on an iron bed without a mattress? Why do you think the speaker might be willing to do such a thing? What does it tell you about how she is feeling?
- For a poem about discomfort, this has a lot of fun in it: brass-playing philosophers, a game of sleep dancing, a skylight on the floor. Try reciting the poem as if it’s a hilarious joke you’re telling a friend. Now try reciting it as if you are half-asleep yourself, so that these strange events are almost a part of a dream. What images or lines come forward when you read the poem in these two radically different ways?
- Think of some sort of physical discomfort that you have experienced: the itch of a mosquito bite, perhaps, or a muscle cramp in your toe. Now think of a different physical discomfort that you would gladly trade for the first one. Try to make a trade that’s counter-intuitive, one that most people wouldn’t make.
- A very informative article about insomnia: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-causes-insomnia
- Insomnia seems to be a common problem for poets. Here are a few other poems on the subject:
- By Dante Rosetti: https://www.poetryinvoice.com/poems/insomnia
- By Fran Lock: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/118578/on-insomnia
- By Alicia Ostriker: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/insomnia
- This poem has a strong voice running through it. How would you describe the speaker’s mood?
- Look at some of the more unexpected things the speaker in the poem finds beautiful, like leaves in the gutter or salt stains on shoes. Why are these details more interesting than a more obvious example of beauty, like flowers, would be?
- What is the effect of the poet’s use of similes that offer more than one comparison of an image, such as “the sky, lit up like a question or / an applause meter” or “raindrops / like jewels or glass or those bright beads / girls put between the letters of the / bracelets that spell out their beautiful names”? How does this technique add to the overall feeling of the poem?
- What actually happens in this poem? What do you know about the speaker’s life?
- If you were reciting this poem, would you pause after some of the jokes to give the audience time to laugh? What tone would you use? Where would you slow down or speed up?
- The poem follows the speaker moving through space (down the street, into the grocery store, then back outside looking at the sky) and through the speaker’s associative thought patterns (jumping from thinking of the sky to thinking of the name Skye; from thinking of the name Miranda to thinking of the word verandah). Write a poem in which you try to capture the way your own mind makes connections between seemingly unrelated things and try to maintain a consistent mood throughout.
So this is Julie Delpy:
Watch Kevin Connolly read “Plenty” from his Griffin Poetry Prize–nominated collection Revolver:
Also, more curiously, the Scream Literary Festival commissioned this short film, titled “Plenty,” inspired by Kevin Connolly’s poem. Tamara and three other Toronto artists were invited to plunder from Kevin’s poem in order to create, respectively, a new film (Tamara Romanchuk), a new visual art piece (Olia Mischenko), a new play (Conor Green) and a new song (NQ Arbuckle). Skye or Miranda or Verandah: Variations on Plenty, saw the premiere of all four new works, along with a reading of the poem Plenty by Kevin Connolly.
- What season of the year is the poem set in? How does that shape the mood of the poem?
- “Blank Sonnet” is part of a novel-in-verse set in the 1930s in rural Nova Scotia. What sensual details help you imagine this setting?
- George Elliott Clarke writes in his micro-interview: “But as a black kid growing up in Halifax, NS, it was the African-American poets — available in my local library and leftist bookstores — I took to quickest.” The two central colours represented in the poem are black and white. What symbolic role do you think they play in this poem?
- “Blank verse” is iambic pentameter but no fixed rhyme scheme. “Blank Sonnet” is written in blank verse. In what ways do you feel that the play on words between the poem title and this poetic device contributes to the richness of the poem’s meaning?
- This poem has a meter but no end-rhyme. As you recite the poem, how do you plan to mark the end of each line: do you plan to pause at each line break, or to read through the line breaks to the end of each grammatical phrase to help listeners follow the meaning? Which style of delivery do you think best serves the poem? Which style feels more natural to you?
- Write your own poem in blank verse – you’ll find this form less tricky than forms where you need to use a fixed rhyme scheme. As a nod to this poem, try using colour as a symbol in your poem. How does your choice of colour reflect your own personal background?
It may help you to know that the narrator in this poem is a poet himself, and that the Shelley who is addressed as “you” in the poem is one of the characters in the novel-in-verse named after the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Clarke refers to the myth of the fall of Icarus. British poet W. H. Auden wrote a well-known poem called “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which refers to Pietre Breugel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an equally well-known painting that depicts the myth. The American poet William Carlos Williams also wrote a poem about the painting.
Watch this interview with George Elliott Clarke as he reads his poetry and discusses his experience growing up in Halifax.
- One of the first things you might notice about this poem is how it often puts lots of space between words. Does this poem contain any punctuation? How do you “read” those spaces in the poem? What are those spaces doing?
- This poem casts a very wide net: the speaker looks out at the city’s lights and thinks about the ocean’s currents connecting continents, about the planets and the stars, about being and nothingness, and about how humanity will be remembered. Where does that lead us? What is the poem’s speaker ultimately saying about humanity in this poem?
- It’s thought that Earle Birney wrote this poem around 1939, after the Second World War started. Does that affect your reading of the poem, to know when it was written? When you first read the poem, did you have a sense of its era? How do you read that line “we contrived the power the blast that snuffed us” as someone who’s living right now?
- Note all the proper names in this poem: Phoebus, Halifax, Aldebaran, Prometheus, Asia, etc. How many of these names do you not recognize? How does that affect your reading of this poem?
- Is this a quiet poem or a loud poem? What volume or level of emotional force do you hear in your mind when you read it to yourself? Do those spaces in the middle of lines calm things down or ratchet up the intensity for you? Considering how the poem is laid out on the page, how would you recite it?
- Try writing your own night poem. Stare out a window or go outside when it’s dark. Start by taking note of what’s around you, then let your mind wander. Follow it wherever it leads. Let the scope of the poem get wide.
Here’s a brief essay by Diné poet Orlando White about using space on the page in poetry to “express a silence.”
Compare the myth of Prometheus with Birney’s telling of what became of him.
Here’s a (daytime) view of the downtown Vancouver skyline in 1939, thought to be the year Birney wrote his poem. Now imagine the sun setting on this view and a poet happening by...
- The word “odales” much like “xpectation“ and “landscap” is a neologism (made-up/new word) or portmanteaux that combines “oh” and “dales” (meaning valley) but ellipses the “h” for musical effect. What other effects do the poem’s use of sound, spelling and rhythm create?
- What role does punctuation play in the poem’s use of sound and rhythm?
- The poem’s imagery repeatedly asks the reader to either look up or look down, and finally look back. Think of ways this motion might make you think differently about spaces that are important in your own life.
- How do the poem’s line breaks shape your reading of the poem? Try reading the poem again but pretend it is written using tercets (stanzas of three lines) and see whether you notice any differences in emphasis.
- If you were to recite this poem, where would you create silences?
- Think of a place that means a lot to you. This may be a favourite vacation spot or a lake or somewhere near or far. Write three couplets that reveal something you want someone else to know about the place. Create at least one portmanteaux in the poem.
Information on Guanahani: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/oct12/columbus-makes-landfall...
Watch Brathwaite read from Born to Slow Horses, the book that “Guanahani, 11” is taken from, at the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbHQAK2J7NA
- This poem appears in an anthology called Changing on the Fly: The Best Lyric Poems of George Bowering. The term "lyric" refers to a short poem in which the poet, the poet's persona, or another speaker expresses personal feelings. How would you describe the speaker's feelings toward Matt?
- This poem is about Canadian author Matt Cohen. What can you glean from the speaker's description about Matt's personality? And who he was as a writer?
- The word "Canada" appears twice in the poem. Which other clues does the speaker offer which indicate that Matt is based in Canada?
- What might be the meaning behind the poem's title, "Pale Blue Cover"?
- This poem consists of 12 long sentences. If you were to recite this poem, you would need to think about when you would breathe. In addition to pausing where there are commas, would you attempt to read the poem with only taking a breath at the end of each line? Or after a certain number of syllables?
- Writing activity: George Bowering mentions several, specific locations in this nostalgic poem written in free verse. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem in which you share your nostalgia for a person, place, or object. Make sure to refer to significant, specific places in your poem as well.
Listen to George Bowering read "Pale Blue Cover" http://www.griffinpoetryprize.com/awards-and-poets/shortlists/2005-short...
Matt Cohen wrote children's books published under the pseudonym, Teddy Jam, for more than a decade. Read The Globe and Mail article "The Sweet Second Life of Matt Cohen" to learn more about his writing for young people: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/the-sweet-second-life-of-matt-cohen...
- This poem is from Atwood’s book The Journals of Susanna Moodie, which loosely follows the life of the 19th century author of Roughing it in the Bush. But the voice of the poem is also very modern in its diction and imagery. Who is the speaker? Moodie? Some version of Atwood? Or is the speaker a stand-in for any mother who has lost a son? What are we to think of her?
- This poem uses the image of a river in a lot of different ways. In the first stanza, it’s “the dangerous river of his own birth,” and then later it’s the literal river in which the son has drowned. Find all of the references to water in the poem. What progression can you see?
- A bathysphere was an early kind of submersible that was used in the 1930s to explore the depths of the ocean. What’s it doing in a poem written in the voice of a woman who died in 1885?
- In the last lines, the speaker declares that she “planted him in this country / like a flag.” How does a flag get planted? For what purpose? How might the speaker believe that her son has been “planted” in this country? What might this “planting” entitle her to?
- How does the speaker seem to you? Is she wracked with grief? Or numb and distant? Resolved or bitter? Try reciting the poem in a highly emotional tone, and then again in a way that is very restrained. Which seems to draw out the poem more effectively?
- You live in Canada. You don’t have to lose a child to “plant your flag” here. Write a poem that shows how you can make a similar claim.
- Most students now think of Margaret Atwood as an established older writer of novels, but she was known first as a poet and critic. Here’s a charged interview with her in 1973, soon after The Journals of Susanna Moodie appeared. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1845001010
- Click here for more information about the bathysphere, and its inventors: https://sites.google.com/site/cwilliambeebe/Home/bathysphere
- An article about Susanna Moodie from Library and Archives Canada: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/moodie-traill/027013-2100-e.html
- A more thorough article about Susanna Moodie, including discussion of her importance to Atwood’s work: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/susanna-moodie
Other poems about young men dying tragically for art or country:
- Housman on an Athlete: https://www.poetryinvoice.com/poems/athlete-dying-young
- Yeats on an Irish Airman: https://www.poetryinvoice.com/poems/irish-airman-foresees-his-death
- Shelley on Keats: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45112/adonais-an-elegy-on-the-death-of-john-keats
- Leopold Senghor: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53352/in-memoriam-56d2328fbbe0e
- Gwendolyn Brooks on de Witt Williams: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43312/of-de-witt-williams-on-his-way-to-lincoln-cemetery
- What is the decision that the swimmers usually make when faced with an unexpected whirlpool? What happens to the swimmers who decide not to acknowledge the whirlpool? What are the directions their lives and self-awareness go in?
- What does the whirlpool described in “The Swimmer's Moment” represent to you? What might the silver reaches of the estuary be?
- The poem starts with "For everyone," which seems to indicate that "The Swimmer's Moment" is one that is inescapable for all people; however, Avison then writes of "they" and "we." What is she implying by the despair "we" feel about most people's decision when faced with the symbolic whirlpool?
- How do the physical details of a whirlpool and the sensations a swimmer might feel contribute to the symbolism and feeling of the poem? How do you feel when you read the descriptions of the swimmers' experiences in this poem? Which of the poet's words contribute to that feeling you're having?
- If you were reciting this poem, how would you convey its tone? Where might you pause for emphasis and space as you read?
- Have you, or someone close to you, recently experienced a personal challenge? Think of a physical barrier that appears in nature, other than a whirlpool, that might make an effective metaphor for that challenge. Make a list of all the details you can think of about that natural barrier. Now, using that list as a metaphorical diving-off point, write a poem about how you, or the person you are thinking of, dealt with their personal challenge.
"The being of what is governing the expression": Margaret Avison, in conversation with three high school students, answers their questions and reads “The Swimmer's Moment” (at the 19:51 mark!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG57m9qgBoc
- Charles Roberts has loaded this poem with vivid imagery. Which images grab you the most? What is so striking about them?
- What does Roberts mean by “day-worn harvest-folk?” What does the speaker tell us about them? What else can you guess about these people that the poem does not say?
- Make a chart of the rhyme scheme. Note where rhymes make a hard stop at the end of the line and where they run through to the next line. Can you find other rhymes that do not fall at the end of lines? Can you find “near-rhymes”?
- Can you identify archaic words in the poem? What do you think these words mean and why do you think the poet used those particular words? Knowing that Charles Roberts died in 1943, what time period do you think he was writing about? What do the archaic words and rustic images convey about time in this poem?
- How would you recite this poem in an interesting way, given that the rhymes don’t always fall where a speaker might naturally pause to breathe?
- This poem depicts a pastoral scene. Who would have thought that so much could be said about a potato harvest? Try writing a pastoral poem. Think about a field or a country road where at first glance it seems that nothing is happening. Include sights or sounds that make the scene feel virtuous or nostalgic.
Take a look at this famous painting by Vincent van Gogh titled “The Potato Eaters.” https://www.vincentvangogh.org/potato-eaters.jsp After reading the “The Potato Harvest,” and then seeing the painting, does it change the way you think of the people in the poem?
Here is an article on the pastoral poem: https://poets.org/glossary/pastoral
Here are links to other pastoral poems at Poetry In Voice: https://www.poetryinvoice.com/common-poetic-terms-and-forms/pastoral
- Drums and bugles were an important way for armies in the nineteenth century to send signals in the middle of battle. How does Whitman evoke the rhythm of these instruments in his poem?
- This poem was written at the beginning of the American Civil War, when many on both sides assumed the conflict would be over quickly. How does Whitman express that confidence and bombast?
- The poem wants all normal business to stop – no bargainers, no sleeping, no talking. But of course not everyone will be a soldier. What should the rest of the population be doing while the drums beat and bugles blow?
- Even in the midst of his excitement, the speaker of Whitman’s poem has an inkling that war would also bring suffering, as he lets us know near the poem’s ending. Can you imagine what “the old man beseeching the young man” might wish to say, or what “the mother entreaties” might be?
- In many ways the poem is constructed like a song. Try inventing a tune to the poem as you practice reciting it – with the “blow you bugles blow” line as a kind of chorus or refrain. What kind of melody seems appropriate? If you play an instrument, think about what sort of tones or techniques would match the poem. Does the “song” rise into a crescendo or become quieter or more contemplative as you work your way through the poem?
- Enter the mind of a young soldier preparing for the American Civil War who hears Whitman’s poem, the drums, the mothers, and the old men. What might he be thinking? Write a poem from his perspective. Or perhaps write a poem from the perspective of his mother, or his sister.
- An article from the Washington Post about drummer boys: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/drummer-boys-played-important-roles-in-the-civil-war-and-some-became-soldiers/2012/01/31/gIQA3cKzRR_story.html?utm_term=.d3ce2c736a14
- A recording of Whitman’s own voice reading a short excerpt from the poem “America,” at the beginning of a new technology in 1890: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsZiUKaeT08
- What time of day is it in this poem? Does the poem show you this, or tell you, or both?
- The poem doesn’t tell us exactly where this marsh is located; however, it does offer some strong clues. Which clues can you find? Do they suggest a particular area for this marsh?
- Johnson uses lots of L and M sounds here, especially in the first few lines. What kind of feeling do these sounds create? Do they make you want to read the poem slowly or quickly?
- There’s no explicit “I” or “You” in this poem; the speaker describes a scene but doesn’t appear in it. How does this affect the way you see the marshland: Do you feel like you’re close to it? Does it feel far away?
- “Marshlands” is written in rhyming couplets. If you were to recite this poem, how would you convey the difference between the first line of each couplet, which ends in a comma, and the second, which ends with a period?
- Write a poem about a place you know, using details of plant or animal life, and features of landscape, sky, and weather. As an homage to “Marshlands,” choose words with sounds that create the right mood for the place you’ve chosen.
Many of Pauline Johnson’s best-known poems speak from an Indigenous perspective. Her father was a Mohawk chief; she was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. You can visit her birthplace, Chiefswood, which is now an historic site.
A rondeau is a French poetic form composed of 15 lines, each of which contains between eight and 10 syllables. How does the poem’s rondeau structure reinforce its message?
How does the metaphor of the mask evolve between the first two lines and the last two lines of the poem?
In reading the lines ‘This debt we pay to human guile’ and ‘O great Christ, our cries / To thee from tortured souls arise’, how would you describe the speaker’s relationship to humanity, and to the god figure he calls upon?
Who do you think ‘we’ and ‘them’ refer to? What might the speaker be gaining by letting ‘them only see us’ and letting ‘the world dream otherwise’?
- Identify the verbs and adjectives that denote an emotional tone, for example ‘grins and lies’ and ‘tears and sighs’, and think about how you can imply these emotions using only your voice for an evocative recitation.
Write about a moment in your life in which you found yourself figuratively wearing a mask. What pushed you to do so? What was too ugly or painful to show?
- What does the French title mean in English?
- In keeping with the ballad tradition, Keats doesn’t directly identify the speaker of the poem. What clues does the poem offer about the speaker? Who do you imagine the speaker to be?
- “La Belle Dame sans Merci” begins with a series of questions that animate the knight’s story. What answers does the poem provide?
- This poem is full of double entendres. Underline or copy down phrases that might have more than one meaning.
- The poem opens with two stanzas of questions. Who do you think is asking those questions of the knight? How could you shape your recitation to show the audience that there are two speakers in the poem?
- A ballad is a community song, typically with a narrative that elides detail. Write a ballad about a story important to a community you belong to. As a nod to the traditional ballad, write the poem in quatrains with the second and fourth line being shorter than lines one and three.
More on “La Belle Dame sans Merci”:
1. “Journey of the Magi” is written from the point of view of one of the magi, or wise men, who travelled from their foreign kingdoms to pay homage to the infant Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews. What does this poem gain by being told in the first person, instead of in third person? What do you notice about the character as you get to know him?
2. Because this poem is in the voice of the magus, a speaker who is clearly not a surrogate for the poet himself, we can classify this poem as a dramatic monologue poem. Other examples of dramatic monologues include “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe and “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Ralegh. How is “Journey of the Magi” like or unlike other dramatic monologues you have read?
3. The speaker describes the uncomfortable realities of a long journey and explains he and his travel companions were often tired, cold, thirsty and hungry. Hardship on the physical self is often depicted as necessary or beneficial to pursuing meaning for the spiritual self, as in “Ramadan” by Kazim Ali, which speaks of fasting. How would the impact of the poem change if the poet had not included these details about the difficulty of the journey? How do these details shape the portrait of the magus who speaks in this poem? Do you believe him when he says he “would do it again”? Why?
4. An allusion is an implicit reference within a literary work to another work of literature, piece of art, person or event, which assumes common knowledge with the reader and which can, when used effectively, bring emotional associations from one work into another and, in that way, build depth. “And three trees on the low sky” is an image that alludes to the three crosses of the Crucifixion. Why does the speaker allude to the end of Jesus Christ’s life in a poem ostensibly about the beginning of his life? What other examples of allusions can you find in the poem? How do they enrich the poem? The speaker of the poem, the magus, says that he “should be glad of another death.” To whose death is he referring? Why would he be “glad”?
5. Is this a poem of faith, or one of doubt? What evidence makes you think so? Read other poems, like “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins or “Church-Going” by Philip Larkin or “On My Tongue” by Alycia Pirmohamed, that explore the role of faith or lack of it as one way to imbue a person’s life with meaning.
6. Liotodes are conscious understatements in literature—the opposite of hyperbole (exaggeration). When the magus witnesses the miracle of Jesus’s birth and calls it “satisfactory” is he using liotodes. Try reciting the poem as if the magus truly only finds the experience “satisfactory.” Next try reciting the poem in a manner which captures the magus’s understated sense of wonder and awe. Are there certain parts of the poem that you feel benefit from a more explicit expression of emotion, and other parts that demand a more repressed approach? What does the unevenness of the magus’s expressiveness tell us about the nature of his experience? How can you make that experience come alive for your audience?
7. Think of a story that you know especially well: a myth, legend, fairy tale, or a story from a religion or faith to which you belong or know intimately. As T.S. Eliot does in “Journey of the Magi,” write a dramatic monologue poem from the point of view of one of the “minor” characters of the story. How does looking at the story from a new point of view change your feelings on the story? How can it change the feelings of your readers?
“Journey of the Magi” does not give any details of the magi’s eventual arrival into Bethlehem, or the image of the newborn Jesus. Curiously, the magus withholds that famous moment from his listeners. The story of the magi, of course, is recounted in the Gospel of Mathhew, 2:1.
“We Three Kings of Orient Are” is another piece of writing—not a poem, but a song—that is written from the point of view of the magi. Written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857, who was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for a Christmas pageant in New York City. It remains a popular Christmas carol today.
T. S. Eliot recites one of his most well-known poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which also is considered a dramatic monologue because of its clear characterization of the speaker.
- Who are the speakers of the poem, the “we” who appear in line 6? What do they want us to know about themselves? What information do they withhold from us?
- The poem follows a consistent 4-beat line (with the exception of the lines with the “In Flanders fields” refrain). This is called tetrameter – (In Greek, tetra=four and meter=a measure or stride). But McCrae varies where the stresses of the lines appear. Read the poem and circle every stressed syllable. See if you can find places where McCrae deliberately speeds up, or slows down the line.
- Some readers have challenged the sentiment of the last stanza: “take up our quarrel with the foe.” Why do you suppose the dead soldiers want us to “hold [the torch] high”? You might compare this poem to Wilfrid Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” for a different approach.
- This poem uses a lot of enjambment – the grammar of the sentences runs right through the line breaks. Experiment with reading the poem with small pauses at the line breaks as well as the grammatical pauses (the commas and periods). Then try reading “straight through,” without pausing at the ends of the lines. Which method is more effective, to your ear? Are there some places where pausing adds some extra “punch” to the line, and others where it’s a distraction? (If you listen to the reading by Leonard Cohen, below, you’ll hear that he does a bit of both…)
- Write a poem in the voice of someone who is dead. It could be someone from your family or someone from history (or both!). What would this person want you to know about them? What do you think this person would want from you, in order for you to carry on their legacy?
- A website with information about how the poppy became such an important symbol of the fighting of the Western Front of the First World War: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/article/remembrance-poppy.htm
- More information about John McCrae: http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/johnmccrae-bio.html
- Leonard Cohen recitation.
- What season is this poem set in? How can you tell?
- What does the title refer to? What or who is reluctant in this poem?
- Frost wrote this poem after his future wife initially rejected his proposal of marriage. Devasted, Frost considered suicide. What images in this poem speak to the idea of depression and suicide?
- “Reluctance” is composed of four stanza-long sentences. The first two sentences end in periods, but the last two sentences end in question marks. How does this shift the mood of the poem?
- “Reluctance” is composed with a number of caesuras (rests or pauses in a line), some marked by punctuation, and others not. These pauses help to mitigate the powerful measure and rhyme scheme of the poem. Where can you hear pauses in the lines? How could these rests impact how the meaning and tone of the poem are conveyed in a recitation?
- Write a poem about something of great emotional significance to you but do not say what it is explicitly. Set the poem at the beginning or end of a season.
Hear Robert Frost read “Reluctance”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXYf8bT9apk
More on Frost’s struggles with depression: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/25/specials/fros...
- This poem is a sonnet, but it doesn’t use a typical sonnet rhyming pattern. Which lines rhyme with one another? What words are repeated? Using these techniques, you can see that the poet has created two distinct sections within the poem. What is the main message in each section?
- The central comparison of the poem takes up the last eight lines – like “gigantic shadows on the wall” that amaze children, the dead are only sensed by us in glimpses, in “phantasma.” What words does Heavysege use to describe the phantasma in the poem? Does that give you a sense of how he feels about them? How do you sense your ancestors in our living world? How do those glimpses make you feel?
- For those who have studied philosophy, there’s a comparison to be made here with Plato’s allegory of the cave. How are the shadows in this poem similar to or different from the shadows of Plato? For Plato the way to see “the full picture” is rational thought and logic. Is there any way to see “the full picture” in this poem?
- This poem has a lot of alliteration, like the repetition of fs in “fitful fancy the full form divines.” All those rich sounds make it difficult to recite the poem with much speed. As an exercise, see how fast you can read it. Have a contest or a race! Which are the particular lines that give you trouble? Now, when you recite the poem at a regular pace, put some extra emphasis to those lines. Do they have a particular power?
- Think of someone you know who has died. It could be a family member or a famous person. What traces of that person do you see in your life? It could be clips from an old movie, or a piece of jewelry they left behind. Write a poem that focuses on the object that evokes the memory, not on the person being remembered. Think about how describing an object may indirectly evoke the person: the same necklace could be described as delicate and careful or as bright and brash. Let your description of the object do the work.
- Information about Charles Heavysege from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/heavysege_charles_10E.html
- A look at how certain festivals and holidays enable us to honour our ancestors: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/festivals-dead-around-world-180953160/
- What’s the overall vibe of this poem? How does it feel to you?
- In this poem, the speaker is asking a tiger (or “Tyger!”) who created it. Who do you think created the tiger of this poem? Who do you think the speaker believes created the tiger?
- Why does the speaker describe the tiger as “burning bright”?
- The repetition of a word at the beginning of a sentence of phrase is called anaphora. Blake uses anaphora throughout “The Tyger.” What effects does this have on how you receive the poem?
- “The Tyger” is one of the most famous poems in English. It also has one of the most famous awkward rhymes: eye/symmetry. It’s not just that the sounds of these words don’t match in contemporary ears, but they are dissimilar (unsymmetrical) in number of syllables, and the meter of the poem encourages us to hear the last syllable of (“sym/me/try”) more emphatically than we normally pronounce the word. How could you navigate these tensions in your recitation?
- If you could ask questions of a nonhuman entity in your life (e.g. an animal, a plant, an appliance, a body of water), what would you choose? What important questions would you ask? Write a poem composed of these questions.
A close reading of The Tyger https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/an-introduction-to-t...
More on anaphora https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/anaphora-poetic-term
- The poem is addressed to the speaker’s husband. What does she ask of him?
- Most of Bradstreet’s poems reflect a deep faith tied to Christian notions of Providence, the belief that God has a plan for us which we can’t change. Where does that faith appear in this particular poem? How might someone with faith in Providence look at the world's dangers today: climate change, or racial injustice, economic hardship, or war?
- Despite the dark subject matter, Bradstreet’s poem follows a regular, calm rhythm and rhyme scheme. How do those formal aspects of the poem affect the way we read the speaker’s feelings about her situation?
- Try reciting the poem while smiling. How else might you convey the speaker’s confidence that, despite her worry, she trusts God’s will?
- What worries you? Write a poem in which you imagine one of your fears coming true. What requests might you make of those around you to help alleviate your worry?
This article gives a useful overview of the role women played in the American colonies. There’s also information about the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in 1692:
- This poem recalls a memory, but it is unclear who the “you” is in that memory. Based on your reading of the poem, what do you think the relationship is between the speaker and the person they are talking about?
- The image of Grand Pré as a body of water is used throughout the poem. Create a list of the words (adjectives, verbs, nouns) used to describe Grand Pré. What impression do you have of Grand Pré based on this list?
- The image of the setting sun is regularly referred to within the poem. How does this image affect the tone and mood of the poem?
- The introduction and the conclusion of this poem envelop the memory that is recalled by the speaker. How do the introduction and conclusion relate to one another?
- Bliss Carman has chosen to end every 2nd and 5th line of each stanza with the same word. While reciting this poem, how does that repetition affect the flow of the poem? Is there a way to recite the poem using the repetition of words without making the poem sound repetitive?
- Memories are not always remembered as they happened. Sometimes only bits and pieces remain. With that in mind, create an erasure poem using the text of “Low Tide on Grand Pré.” An erasure poem is a poem that erases letters and words from the main text in order to respond to it. Think of it like throwing the words back at the author. You may create new words, use many words, or use only a few.
Learn more about Grand Pré and see the landscape Bliss Carman writes of: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ns/grandpre/activ/paysage-landscape