Thursday, November 29, 2012

Can Poetry Change Lives? Part II

or Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?

Once, following a poetry class, I saw one of my college students stumbling through the hall, his eyes wide with amazement.  He told me that he had just realized that he was one of those "bland-blank faces" turning and turning around the edge of the whirlpool -- going nowhere.  We had been discussing Margaret Avison's poem, "The Swimmer's Moment," which deals with the rewards and dangers of taking risks in life.  Risk-taking is symbolized by jumping into a whirlpool.  Many people, Avison says, don't even notice the presence of the whirlpool, the possibility of growth and change:

And so their bland-blank
     faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim
     of suction
They will not recognize.

My student realized that he had not been engaging fully in his life.  He had been delaying decisions, procrastinating, and letting fear rule him.  I could see a new urgency in his face.  He was bent on action.

English teacher, Brian Whitman, told me of encountering former students who said, "T. S. Eliot changed my life."  One student in particular started his own business, sold it, spent two years on a yacht in the Caribbean, and built a home in the bush because he read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  The poem gave the student determination to make decisions which would add meaning to his life, instead of wondering, "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

I once assigned my students to choose a poem from an anthology and write a short essay about it.  One student, a man in his 40s, was studying Business Administration as part of a Worker's Compensation arrangement.  He chose the poem "Bearhug" by Michael Ondaatje in which a boy calls his father for a kiss goodnight:

  I yell ok.  Finish something I'm doing,
      Then something else, walk slowly round
  the corner to my son's room.

He gives his son a hug, and says,

  The thin tough body under the pyjamas
  locks to me like a magnet of blood.

At the end of the poem, he wonders,

      How long was he standing there
  like that, before I came?

My student wrote, "When I read this poem, I began to think about my own eight-year-old son who was sleeping upstairs.  I realized I'd been so preoccupied with schoolwork, with my injury, and with my anger and frustration over having to write this stupid essay that I had not even said goodnight to him.  I began to weep for the first time since my accident  ... you can see the drops on the page.  I went upstairs to look at him and, even though it was 10 p.m., he was still awake, and we hugged for a long time."

As I sipped coffee in the Locke Street Bagel Bakery considering this blog, a man sat at the counter beside me and said, "Doin' homework?"  I told him my topic and asked, "Has poetry ever changed your life?"

"Of course it has," he said.  He began to quote "Tintern Abbey" by Wordsworth.  In this poem, Wordsworth shows the power of nature to lift "the heavy and the weary weight of the unintelligible world."  The poem says the best portion of a good man's life are

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.

"This helped me to see that every little thing we do affects the universe in some way; and as Wordsworth says, we learn to "see into the life of things."  The stranger, who by now had introduced himself as John Unsworth, told me that he took a 19th Century poetry course years ago at University of Western Ontario.  He said, "The course awakened my spirit and changed how I see things.  It showed me that life has moral import."

What poem changed your life?


  1. Two roads diverged in the wood and I .. I took the one less traveled by.

    I memorized this poem when I was seven.

    And that has made all the difference.

  2. Haha! That line from As You Like It is fantastic.
    I also think about mortality a lot, but don't really carry it with distaste. I enjoy the weight. Most of the poets I'm really into also carry that weight. Current poet of interest: Bill Holm. He also wrote the first poem I ever memorized; something I did simply because the poem was so good, I just wanted to carry it around as long as I could. It also spoke of music, which I love to play, but am especially into when described through words. Using words to describe sounds, a tough space for language to fill...
    Here's the poem:
    Bach in Brimnes
    Stebbi brings his cello into Brimnes.
    He is a big thick fellow with ham fists,
    Who looks like a seaman or a deck hand
    More used to tubs of fish than cello bows.
    No scores here, so he plays what he knows:
    Bach! Let's have some Bach! Play a saraband!
    The cello seems too big for this small room
    But when he starts the Saraband in G,
    The whole house grows too tiny for the tune,
    As if the walls demanded to expand
    Another fifty meters toward the sea
    To make a proper space for all this sound,
    If any human space at all could house
    The planets whirling around inside this suite.

    1. a great version of Bach's Saraband in G.