Poetry is more than the words

You only get half the message when you read poetry. You need to listen to it. Or you need to see it.

This isn’t about my method per se (though I will share that soon). This about giving as much attention to the blank spaces in poetry, as well as the things you can’t see.

In reading, giving attention to the the unwritten things is a natural act. Your mind builds the world you’re reading about, and then fills it with the characters you’re reading about. Not every detail is written, and you supply the shape to things that aren’t clear: It’s like sharing a dream.

And there’s no better place to kill dreams than the school classroom; At a time where children should be more unique and expressive than ever, we ask them to behave. We expect 25+ brilliant minds to learn the same thing, the same way, from the same person.

There are some exceptions of course, and we celebrate those. But for many students, an appreciation of the printed word was impressed through reading – and discussion. Very few of us were lucky enough to hear poetry.

The worst example is the study of Shakespeare in Canada. The least effective thing you can ever do is simply read it. It is not meant to be read. It is meant to be spoken – out loud, played out, teased out like ketchup from a glass bottle – trying as many ways as possible.

For all the years I’ve suffered poor curriculum expectations, teaching it properly (through Shakespeare in Action) made me see the fun in old, old words again – (though the children loved Shakespearean Insults and I’m sure we taught them things we’re thankful their parents didn’t really understand).

Another thing about poetry that is vitally important is sound, and silence – every iteration of it. If you put a double hyphen at the end of a line —

followed by two spaces

and two more, the words

slow

down.

And when you really study these things, you’re forced to imagine their voice, and its uniqueness, all the more. You start to understand how the writer intended to fill the space with their voice.

If you can witness a poet speak or perform their words – you are gifted the rarest opportunity to understand their mind. You can hear their breath, a tremble if it’s there, or even a hint of sly happiness where you might’ve imagined anger. (I’m certain I get an unmistakeable look on my face whenever I do this).

So if you get a chance to hear poetry – take it. It’s beautiful.

About the video:

The first time I heard “Simple Tings,” a poem by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, it was during a conversation on Indigenous experience in the French and English colonial projects – and what unknowns there were for both of us. Veronique Kanor opened a .mp3 file of it for me on her laptop. (This was while we were in Winnipeg, as part of a joint French and Canadian Indigenous writing residence. )

I fell in love – with the voice, the timber, the silences, the echo, and the sonorous … timeless description of every day things. (And the poems I heard didn’t even have the music!) Yes, there’s another story to her poetry for me, as all things breed hundreds of stories —

Sound is essential to spoken poems. I try to represent that in my poetry.

And I think of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze whenever I pore over my own words to perfect them.

Dream with me. Listen to these poems:

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