Ideas

To escape 2020, read these poems. By the fireplace… or electric heater

A childhood full of Christmasses in Wales has left IDEAS producer Tom Howell pining for a certain kind of nostalgic poem this winter. So he turns to poets to put into words a strange feeling of homesickness, nostalgia, and yearning in his documentary, Fireside and Icicles.

'You can look for as many things in poems as you can look for from life,' says poet Stephanie Burt

Facing a colder-than-usual winter (at least socially, if not in temperature), IDEAS producer Tom Howell turns to poetry to express a subtle yet profound yearning. (Africa Studio / Shutterstock)

*This episode originally aired on December 17, 2020.

Escaping through movies and video games has certainly helped many Canadians cope with the pandemic.

As have packages delivered from the outside world to your door. There are days when those things 'hit the spot'. Then there are days when they don't.

The truth is a person cannot escape through consumption alone. 

Finding himself struck with a vague but profound yearning, a hole in his Christmas spirit, IDEAS producer Tom Howell turned to the work of poets both ancient and modern to find consolation, inspiration, and wonderment to get through this winter.

Stephanie Burt's book, Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, offers some guidance on how to understand and appreciate poetry. (Jessica Bennett/Basic Books)

Poet and Harvard English professor Stephanie Burt recommends the works of Ross Gay, Canada's Sonnet L'Abbé — and the following poem by Thomas Hardy:

Snow in the Suburbs

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.

A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eyes,
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

IDEAS listeners recommended their favourite Canadian winter poems on the program's social feeds.

The more popular choices were The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service and Hockey Players by Al Purdy.

As Stephanie Burt argues, poetry should not be approached as a single, unified subject like geometry, as "something you learn" — a misconception that many people carry with them from their high school days.

"You can't really be the 'wrong kind of poetry reader,'" Burt told IDEAS.

"What you can be is either delighted and surprised and expanded or empowered by finding the kind of poem that's right for you, or frustrated by finding the wrong one."

Guests in this episode:

Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard University. She's the author of Don't Read Poetry — a book about how to read poems. Her latest poetry collection is After Callimachus.

Twm Morys is a poet and musician. He's also the editor of Barddas, the Welsh-language poetry journal.

Sonnet L'Abbé is a professor of Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University on the traditional and unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw People. Her latest book is Sonnet's Shakespeare. An earlier work also mentioned on this episode is Killarnoe


This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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