Teaching poetry to teenagers can be tough. I don’t remember where I got the idea from, but I used to focus on one poet a month and start each class by reading one poem. I actually read each one two times so the students had time to think about and write down their favourite line. This practice made poetry so accessible – everyone can choose one thing that they liked!
Once we spent an entire class on Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘It is dangerous to read newspapers’. Something in that poem struck a chord that morning, and I had to make the call as to whether to push on to whatever we were supposed to do that day, or to let the conversation flow. I chose the latter, and now as I think back to best moments in the classroom, I wish I had done that more often.
I tried to focus on Canadians, but I had to share one of my favourites, Billy Collins, who was the Poet Laureate of the United States at the time. His poem ‘On turning ten” became a very popular assignment where students wrote about what they used to think as a child, and what they think now that they are getting older. I thought we were so high tech back then, since the students included photos of themselves as children with their poems. The glimpse into their childhood and their exploration of lessons learned made for incredible projects.
But my favourite moment was thanks to Leonard Cohen. Because he was also a Montrealer, we felt a certain loyalty and connection, and when one of my students brought in his parents’ CD, we had fun listening to our daily poems. My favourite Cohen line is from ‘Anthem”: there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. But it wasn’t that poem, or ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Bird on the Wire’ or even the now popular ‘Hallelujah’ that became legendary in my class, it was one of his poems that never made it to song.
On the day we first read ‘For Anne,’ we talked about Cohen’s ability to conjure a powerful feeling in very few words. Truth be told, I think the class was mostly impressed that it was short and yet still considered a poem. So we memorized it.
Another day, months later, we were interrupted by a visitor, a very important person. I was honoured that my class made the tour, and knew that the pressure was on… we had to perform. I explained that we start each class with a poem, and on a whim, I asked if someone would like to recite one. It was already an inside joke, since we all knew there was only one poem that anyone could recite. But it became a funnier moment when one boy, in particular, raised his hand.
Every class has this student, the unpredictable one who is more likely to crack a joke than recite a poem. So I smiled and paused, trying to decide if I should take the risk. Would I find myself hours later, in the Headmaster’s office, listening to him express disappointment, as I had embarrassed the school in front of our distinguished guest? All eyes turned in the direction of my gaze. No one moved, and yet the room was bursting with the hope – and anxiety! – that he would be the chosen one. What would he do?
I nodded, and he stood, as the students were trained to do, and buttoned his jacket. He looked like the portrait of academic excellence. And then he recited:
With Annie gone,
whose eyes to compare
with the morning sun?
Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone.
All eyes remained on him as he delivered it perfectly and sat down to rapturous applause.
As a teacher, there are moments of pure joy in the classroom, and that was one of them.
Thank you, Leonard Cohen.
p.s. Watch the NFB’s film, Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, here.
p.p.s. I just found my old work with the National Film Board called Canadian Poet a Day.