Formally Speaking

Last year I led a poetry workshop with a group of about 20 older and mostly retired people, nearly all women. At our first meeting we agreed to continue with more or less the same format they’d followed in previous years, where each participant read something and then others commented.

At first I wondered why I enjoyed leading the group so much. After all, none of the participants had any literary ambitions. Maybe I enjoyed it because these seniors had lived longer than high school or university students, and therefore had more life experience. Maybe it was that they’d had more time for reflection.

But there was something else too. These older people grew up hearing and reading traditional verse: poems with predictable patterns of meter, rhyme, and repetition. For the most part they were not comfortable with the language of much contemporary poetry—i.e., almost anything written after World War I. When they brought their own poems to the workshop, the room carried distinct echoes of A.E. Housman and Tennyson.

Unfortunately this brought out the oppositional pedagogue in me. I read them examples of experimental writing and got them to try their hands at found poems and Canadian-style ghazals. I wanted them to make it new, to at least discover the excitement of Modernism—even if it was older than they were by now. Trying to motivate them, I told a story about Irving Layton teaching creative writing at Concordia University, assigning his graduate students the memorization of a poem. Could they come to the workshop next week with a contemporary poem memorized? Some little snippet of William Carlos Williams or even Leonard Cohen would do. But please, nothing from before the age of the Flapper or the mature Eliot. The next week, almost nobody was prepared to recite a contemporary poem. No doubt they could have recited Wilfred Owen or John Masefield, had I asked. After class one of them told me that modern poems were too random to memorize.