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Learning Through Poetry: Students and Ecopoetry

Students taking English classes at McGill discover the joys of nature and poetry.
Image by Professor Eli Maclaren .

Discussions of endangered species, climate change and humanity’s impact on our environment aren’t just topics you’ll find McGill students discussing in environment or biology courses. Within McGill’s Department of English, students are encouraged to question, discover, and understand ecocriticism and the politics of climate change through the medium of poetry.

From an undergraduate honours thesis on contemporary Scottish Ecopoetry, to exploring the contemporary development of the nature lyric and ecopoetry in ENGL 409 with Eli MacLaren, the Department of English is a hot-bed of analytical discussion and poetic creation that connects students to the natural world beyond McGill’s famed Roddick Gates.

A Defense of Poetry

Romantic poet Percy Shelley once said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of our world; imagination and reason are the most important faculties a poet possesses and through poetry, they mirror the world around us.

For Molly Pearce, a U3 English Honours student, the importance of poetry in reflecting the world around us was made explicit at the 2021 COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow. Her undergrad honours thesis entitled, “Nature-Culture in 20th and Early 21st Century Poetry of the Scottish Islands”, supervised by Professor Miranda Hickman, was inspired by the three Scottish poets who were selected to speak for the Climate Conference session entitled “Weathering the Storm: Scottish Poets Discuss Climate Change Resilience and Adaptation.”

Ilse of Lewis native and Scottish poet Donald. S. Murray is one of the poets Molly is writing about in her honours thesis and one of the speakers at the 2021 Climate Conference. “Murray’s response to the changes [in] the environment of the Scottish islands represents the most recent of the region’s ecopoetic imaginings,” says Molly. Her thesis will also examine the works of poets such as Edwin Muir, George MacKay Brown, and Yvonne Gray.

“I plan to investigate ecopoetry in the Scottish islands as the genre evolves throughout the 20th century in response to environmental changes caused by global conflicts and a shifting climate,” she says. “My hypothesis is that the Scottish poetic imagination accepts and embraces the changes to their environment in the 20th century to create a new understanding of their landscape as including both natural and cultural features, thereby creating an ideal “nursery” for subsequent environmental literature.”

Molly developed her interest in poetry after taking a creative writing course offered by the McGill Writing Centre. In Introduction to Creative Writing (WCOM 203), taught by poet and writer Sarah Wolfson, Molly had the opportunity to reflect on what type of conversations she wanted to explore as a writer. “Soundscape, tactile imagery, and coastal spaces are what I try to articulate through writing,” she says.

Molly’s work has had considerable influence on how she relates to nature and the environment.

“I think the Scottish poetry I have studied has been a reminder for me to be more mindful of the environments I find myself in,” Molly says. “My reasons for reading, studying, and writing poetry stem from a desire to be present in my daily life.”

New Perspectives Through Poetry

ENGL 409: Studies in a Canadian Author, taught by Professor Eli MacLaren, gives students a survey in contemporary Canadian ecopoetry, examining the words of Don McKay and three other important contemporary poets, Di Brandt, George Elliott Clarke and Louise B. Halfe/Sky Dancer. Students in MacLaren’s course learn about concepts such as bioregionalism, topographical poems, phenomenology, ecofeminism and indigeneity.

“Poetry offers us the occasion to reflect on who we are and what we do,” says MacLaren. “It offers a time and a space in which to reckon with our being – with what is a given, with what matters most, and with what ideally should be. Poetry is a way to apprehend the world and imagine a better one.”

Understanding environmentalism through poetry is a focus of his course, and students discover a new way of understanding the world around them.

“Ecopoetry does the job of reconnecting readers to the experience of nature in a world that has become urbanized,” says Ella Rowland, a U3 Molecular Biology and Religious Studies student. “A lot of people have never experienced true wilderness in their lives, so they have no firsthand understanding of what it is environmentalists are trying to protect. When you read a good poem about a caribou, it’s almost as if you’re seeing it. You’re considering its life, its struggles and its innate value to our world. People are more likely to act in the defense of something they have an emotional connection to, and poetry can create that connection.”

The art of learning through feeling is an important and powerful tool that helps students connect to a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Mid-way through the semester, Professor MacLaren took his students on a hike up the Mont Royal, an ‘exercise in regionalism’, encouraging students in his class to ponder questions such as, “How can we know a place through the humanities?”

“We walked up to chemin Olmsted [from the top of Peel Street], through the woods, [to] a sculpture with a nature poem engraved in it,” says MacLaren. “The poem, “Un Vertige d’étérnité,” by Denise Desautels, is one that inspires humility before the natural world, including the forest, water, and sky all around us as one reads this poem embedded in the land.”

“I think about nature a lot more [now],” says Ella. “When I’m in nature, I have more of a desire to know what species are around me and how they’re cooperating to survive. It's funny, because I’ve studied ecosystems a lot in my degree, and it is this class that has gotten me to be passionate about the finer workings of natural world in my own life.”

For Mackenzie Pereira, a U3 Physics major doing a minor in English Literature, taking ENGL 409 has complemented her studies in surprising ways.

“In my major courses, we’ll learn about quantum phenomena, behaviour so small we can’t completely observe it, and we’ll analyze these systems in a way that’s mathematically rigorous,” says Mackenzie. “In ENGL 409, we’ll discuss how ecopoetry emphasizes that the environment is made up of multitudes of complex interactions that we can’t necessarily comprehend. It’s neat to see how a poet’s intuition can be supported by theories in physics.”

And for students from across Canada studying at McGill, this course has meant rediscovering sights that they once took for granted.

“I am from Alberta and I never thought much of the nature in the prairies when the Rockies are just to the West,” says Miranda Pate, U3 student in English Cultural Studies and Psychology. “However, we read a poem by Don McKay called “Big Alberta Clouds” that was literally just about the clouds in the prairies. Reading this made me realise that the natural phenomena where I am from are still astounding, despite my refusal to notice. The beauty is there even if I choose not to see it!”

Building Community Through Poetry

A unique component of MacLaren’s course was the poetry workshops where students wrote poems as part of their course assignments.

“The goal of our poetry workshops was to experience the environmental potential of poetry from the inside – as the writer, rather than the reader of a poem,” says MacLaren.

As part of the assignment, students were given prompts such as photographs of birds or animals of Quebec or a piece of instrumental music, on which they drafted a poem based on the various issues they discussed in class. Students then shared their work with their fellow classmates.

“In the last 15 minutes of class, students chose a partner, shared their drafts, and provided feedback,” says Maclaren. “They then took their poem home and revised it, asking some questions such as, ‘Who is speaking in your poem’ and ‘What is the form of the poem, to the ear or on the page?’”

Reading and discussing ecological and environmental crises through the lens of poetry also allows students to consider their own roles and responsibilities in society.

“Sometimes, it can be hard to stomach all the information in the news about the environmental crisis,” says Allison Oakes, a U2 English major. “Individuals feel helpless and, at the same time, feel little blame, as they don’t think their footprint could have such an adverse effect. Ecopoetry, however, situates the reader right at the heart of the crisis. It does not blame the individual but shows them how intrinsically human interaction affects

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