How to Approach Wordsworth’s Poetry: Christian McEwen // New Perspectives

And it was a challenge to find ways to
show them that poetry could relate to them and actually be useful to them and
sort of engage them with their own souls and their own spirits. It’s interesting when you’ve got both Wordsworth, William Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth
sometimes covering the same territory. And for those who are wary of poetry I
would suggest that they begin with prose. I suggest they begin with Dorothy’s
journals and read what surprises and moves them – not a lot – read for example
it’s April the third, read Dorothy’s entry on April the third and just see
what she has to say about the landscape of the day of that kind. And often you’ll
find that there’s a link between what Dorothy wrote and what her brother wrote
so then literally to look at the dates and go to the the Wordsworth poem if
there is one adjacent to her entry and notice what you notice about it.
Sometimes it’s helpful just to read the poem aloud to yourself. Sometimes it’s
helpful just to notice are there – is there a phrase or two that stands out, that feels
true to me or accurate or surprising and not even trouble about if you don’t
understand the rest of the poem just say well that that little piece really speaks
to me, that little moment. I mean there’s an old-fashioned practice which is
called keeping a commonplace book. People used to do it in the 19th century
and and into the 20th century indeed where you keep a plain notebook and when
you find a quote or a line or a piece of a song that particularly moves you, you
just copy it in in your best handwriting or nowadays you open a file on your
computer and you just type it up. And then you essentially have a collection
of your own treasures so instead of feeling assailed by the immense length
of Wordsworth’s work you say well here are 20 quotations of his that I really love
and I’m going to hold them in my heart and return to them. And then if you – once
you know them, you find yourself sharing them with friends and that’s rather
wonderful too. Another thing I think when I’m talking to people who for whom poetry
is not immediately attractive sometimes it’s worth just looking at the
biography and Wordsworth’s biography is interesting. I mean he’s he has a he has a mistress in France, he has an illegitimate child,
he has a very passionate friendship with Coleridge. He starts out as a as a you
might call a leftist, activist type and he becomes more reactive and and
old-fashioned as he ages. He’s both very malleable and receptive to
the world and also quite stern and sort of hard-nosed, hard-headed. I I think as – I
think sometimes biography can help you enter the poems with more, more sympathy
perhaps. And then also to say that some of the reason people are put off poems
is because it’s in a language that to them is is hard to understand. So if you
want to understand it sitting with a friend and talking it through together
can be a useful thing. Another way is just to say well there are people who
are writing in Wordsworth’s tradition right now so what – who are the nature
poets of today? And I think of people like Kathleen Jamie, Mary Oliver, Gerry
Cambridge, Wendell Berry, I mean there’s there’s a nature – there’s a
tradition of nature writers that if you’re interested by it can bring you
back to us with with a different fresh with a new freshness I think. My
experience and I worked for many years teaching teachers to use poetry in the
classroom in America mostly elementary school teachers which I guess were
primary school teachers here and and 85% of them hated poetry. They really
disliked it because it made them feel stupid. They’d been taught a very, very
narrow band of what poetry was, you know, a little bit of Robert Frost and a poem or
two by Emily Dickinson, some Walt Whitman perhaps, and it was a challenge to find
ways to show them that poetry could relate to them and actually be useful to
them and sort of engage them with their own souls and their own spirits. And
usually by the end of the two – I had a weekend with them as it were in
Las Vegas, Nevada, and then a month went by and they had to take poetry into
their classrooms and teach three lessons and write some pieces and then they had
a second weekend – and usually by the end of the second weekend, they had found a way to enjoy poetry, and they always often they would say to
me: I never knew, you know, Sheila across the table until she wrote the poem about
her mother committing suicide, I never had experienced who she was and now
we’ve all grown much much closer because we’ve met each other through each
other’s poems. So it was a proof to me that poetry was… of the power of poetry
and indeed in a way the work with those teachers which I did for about ten years
all over the US was probably part of what allowed me to write the slowness
book because it it showed me how to write about what – things that were
precious to me in a language that was not academic and not sort of superior
because I’d been working so hard to try to persuade… in a way try to offer
something was precious to me: the act of looking, the act of writing poems to this
very recalcitrant group who didn’t care for it. And we’re just doing it to go through
the motions because they had to get their masters degree and they needed me
to you know they needed to tick that box of poetry in the classroom and often
that the interesting thing about that was that many times the children that
they were teaching would write more interesting poems than the teachers
themselves. The nine year olds wrote wonderful poems because they had no
sense that poetry wasn’t fun or wasn’t truthful or whatever else but
this is off the topic of Wordsworth.

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