Learning through poetry

Students connect with nature and the environment through the medium of poetry

Endangered species, climate change, and humanity’s impact on our environment aren’t topics only for environment or biology courses. Within McGill’s Department of English, students are encouraged to question, discover, and understand portrayals of nature and the politics of climate change through the medium of poetry.

Romantic poet Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of our world”; through imagination and reason, they mirror the world around us.

Reflecting the world around us

For Molly Pearce, a U3 English Honours student, the role of poetry in reflecting the world around us was underscored at the 2021 COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow. Her undergraduate honours thesis on 20th and early 21st century Poetry of the Scottish Islands, supervised by Professor Miranda Hickman, was inspired by the three poets selected to speak for the COP26 session entitled “Weathering the Storm: Scottish Poets Discuss Climate Change Resilience and Adaptation.”

Isle of Lewis native Donald. S. Murray, one of the poets Molly is writing about in her thesis, was one of those speakers.

“Murray’s response to the changes [in] the environment of the Scottish islands represents the most recent of the region’s ecopoetic imaginings,” Molly says. “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.”

Molly developed her interest in poetry after taking a creative writing course offered by the McGill Writing Centre. In WCOM 203: Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by poet and writer Sarah Wolfson, Molly had the opportunity to reflect on what 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 influenced 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.”

A deeper understanding

Understanding environmentalism through poetry is a focus of ENGL 409: Studies in a Canadian Author, taught by Professor Eli MacLaren. The course examines the works of Don McKay and three other important contemporary poets, Di Brandt, George Elliott Clarke and Louise B. Halfe – Sky Dancer.

Prof Maclaren“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.”

The art of learning through feeling is a tool that helps students connect to a deeper understanding of 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.”

Midway through the semester, Professor MacLaren took his students on a hike up Mount Royal, encouraging them 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.”

Poetry and physics

For Mackenzie Pereira, a U3 Physics major pursuing 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, 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 realize 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!”

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

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

Exploring 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 nature and vice versa.”

Back to top