This year I have set myself a challenge to write in whichever genre I am teaching at the time. If the class is studying the elements of narrative then I create short stories (my favourite). This term has been particularly challenging though because… well… it’s all about poetry. From experience this seems to be the hardest topic to sell, even more so than analytical expositions!
Because a tantalising hook is important, I begin this unit by sharing an anecdote about the time I signed up to a course at university titled ‘Romantic and Victorian Literature’. Arriving at the first lecture, I found to my dismay Frankenstein and Dracula were not going to be making an appearance. Instead, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were the guests of honour. Talk about hanging an albatross around my neck! Meanwhile, William Wordsworth waxed lyrical about daffodils and ambling around Tintern Abbey.
I continue to explain to my class that it did not long before my disappointment turned to intrigue because my lecturer revealed the all-important context that drove two famous English gentlemen to put ink to paper. For example, by nature Coleridge was prone to reoccurring bouts of melancholy. In today’s terms he might be diagnosed with depression and treated accordingly with some anti-depressants and talk therapy. Instead, Coleridge remedied his affliction with regular doses of addictive opium. Perhaps his low mood was due in part to a deep envy of his friend, the well-adjusted Wordsworth, who was not only happily married but also had a warm relationship with his sister, Dorothy. So warm, in fact, William took to rifling through her diary pages to find inspiration for his poems. Here is one case in point that took place back in the early 1800s:
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Earlier, Dorothy had written:
I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.
Personally, I’m torn between amusement and annoyance Wordsworth had the gall to rip off his sister’s work as his own, but then again it was the 19th century…
Teenagers, through trial or vicarious experience, know about the pitfalls of drug taking as well as the pendulous swing of deep feelings. It becomes easier to make parallels about an ancient mariner's miserable experience at sea and a poet’s tortured state of mind. Just as I did back in that university auditorium, my class start to realise perhaps there is more to this poetry business than first thought.
With the new Queensland senior syllabus implemented for the first time in 2019, I am personally enjoying bringing students’ awareness to the ‘symbolic bravery of Australian poets.’
Certain themes of life, identity, health and challenges erupt from Aboriginal poets such as Oodgeroo Noonucal, Samuel Wagan-Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann, who eloquently draw our attention to the terrible experiences inflicted and endured throughout colonial history. They also honour custodian connections to and the inherent beauty of the Australian landscape. Never before has our groaning planet been in such need of this sacred Indigenous wisdom.
Another voice also emerges, lending itself to the current social commentary surrounding Australian identity in an increasingly multi-cultural climate. Omar Musa and Ali Alizadeh are transporting the experiences of minority migrant groups to the mainstream, providing a strong voice for those who are so busy working as they assimilate into an unfamiliar environment.
Bruce Dawe and Les Murray espouse our collective experiences of suburban life and gratitude for our fallen war heroes, while David Stavanger, the self-described 'lapsed psychologist', reminds mental health issues continue to afflict many of us, just like Coleridge.
In order to encourage fledgling writers to be brave enough to share their own voice, I, too, enjoy taking time to write alongside them; imperfectly and hurriedly at times, slow and considerate at others. Together we form a collaborative platform of ideas. These young people never fail to amaze me with their unique insights and ways of constructing thoughtful imagery. As they tentatively begin to write their own poems and conduct peer reviews they become aware of the contexts, cultural assumptions and underlying issues driving their words. Realisation dawns that these may be unique and yet relatable for another reader. From this creative experience they learn it takes real skill to select the right vocabulary and structure it to make the biggest, bravest impact. Most importantly, they begin to understand that poetry can offer meaningful insights about our collective experience of this world and, just maybe, it is worth studying after all.