Educator endeavors to quell fear of poetry

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

"I wandered lonely as a cloud," the high school teacher singsongs from the front of the classroom. Students slouch at their desks, eyes rolling back into their heads.

Does teaching poetry have to be like this?

Not according to Carl Leggo, the poet and associate professor of Language Education who aims to dispel such notions with his latest book, Teaching to Wonder: Responding to Poetry in the Secondary Classroom.

In it, Leggo combines practical techniques and strategies with a theoretical framework he hopes will make poetry more accessible and exciting.

"Of all the genres in literature, teachers and students find poetry the least interesting and the most difficult to come to terms with," Leggo says.

"At least partly, this is because their notion of what poetry is about is too limited. If you open up your definition, poetry can become wonderfully inviting."

Students and teachers alike share misconceptions about what poetry must be, says Leggo, who taught high school for nine years before joining UBC.

Typically, they think it must use heightened language to talk about lofty topics that are difficult to understand. Usually, it's written by people who lived long ago and far away. And of course, it rhymes.

Leggo counters such assumptions with examples of contemporary works that encompass prose poems, concrete poems, found poems and poems that reflect the lives of all members of society, especially women, who are often under-represented in the teaching of poetry.

These poems include "A History Lesson," a powerful work by Jeannette Armstrong that looks at Canadian history from a First Nations perspective.

"Some of the poems in this book are not very polite -- some are even angry -- but I think it's important to understand that poetry is alive and vital in the world today," he says.

Instead of trying to divine the author's intent or the "meaning" of the poem, Leggo invites readers to interpret the text through the prism of their own emotions and experience.

"When people actually read poetry with passion and enthusiasm, they realize it's not some arcane text. It's all about life, heart, story, music, how we live in the world. Spend some time with it, hear the music of it, revel in the images, and something exciting and vital takes place."

Leggo's book also provides a summary of key literary theories -- reader response, semiotics, deconstruction and cultural criticism -- and links them to classroom practice.

"I believe that teachers want theory as well as practical ideas," he says. "They want a good sense of how to create learning opportunities in their classrooms. They don't just want to be handed a recipe card that says, `This is what you do Monday morning.'"

Teaching to Wonder is published by UBC's Pacific Educational Press.