Shifting Poetic Paradigms by Marlaina Riggio for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, Language

Shifting Poetic Paradigms by Marlaina Riggio for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, Language

I’m definitely not a poetry person. In fact, just the thought of having to read through something as short as a haiku, makes me cringe. It’s like Robbie Burns, Edward Fitzgerald and Robert Frost, all had something against keeping things plain and simple. What do red roses, a loaf of bread and a window flower, have to do with love anyways? Yet, the main reason I don’t find any sort of pleasure in listening for metrical foot, or the rhyme in two words, is that I simply cannot relate to any of it. All that complicated prose, and old world slang (like, “o’er”), makes me want to pull my hair out. And it would seem that I am not alone in holding this belief. The style of writing in poetry is an apparent nightmare for students and teachers in the academic world, who like me, appreciates the straightforwardness of diction and modern day jargon, more than a beautifully turned phrase. No matter how much a poet may have contributed to mainstream society.

Although elementary and high school curriculum introduces us to the notion of poetry, most teachers perceive it as an “esthetic object [that] stands outside of the functional world” (Huebner, 1974/1999, p. 109). Certainly, poetry highlights the beauty of intellectual activity, but it rarely takes precedence over widely recognized “applicable” subjects, such as mathematics, science, and English. For most teachers, poetry only holds a technical value in that they must evaluate a student’s competency with respect to certain language arts’ objectives laid out by their curriculum, and are not likely to traverse outside of those perimeters. This means to an end attitude appears to mirror society’s belief toward writing poetry; it is considered more of a hobby than a profession.

After reading the poetic stylings of Carl Leggo and Fred Wah, I realize that the term poetry has been severely misunderstood. In elementary and high school, teachers typically ask students to complete mini esthetic educational activities involving haikus, alliteration, and Shakespearean plays, to demonstrate their understanding of poetry. But those are just some of the many facets in which this literary art can be employed. Poetry can tell us stories – and not in the convoluted old English way that involve reading other books, such as Coles Notes, in order to be understood. It can be used to tell our (hi)stories; a method to express our currere. Best of all, at least from my perspective, it can be understandable and grammatically correct!

The bio/poetic writings of Carl Leggo and Fred Wah illustrate the endless possibilities and richness that poetry offers to the autobiographical realm. By engaging our five senses, we embark on a linguistic journey that weaves us in and out of various lived experiences. As Leggo (2009) explains:

Poetry slows the reader down. Poetry invites us to listen. Poetry is a site for dwelling, for holding up, for stopping. The poet’s way to attend to the specific moment, the particular texture, the singular sound, the tantalizing taste, the captivating scents that inscribe the local geography of our daily living. (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, p.164)

In Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, readers are invited to explore the personal complexities of his Chinese-Canadian identity. The way he conveys his journey, using descriptive analogies and figurative literal devices, enhances the power of his underlying messages of racism, identity, and cultural preservation. Subsequently, when reading his, Mixed Grill is an Entrée at the Diamond, Wah alludes to an important symbol, the mixed grill, which “is part of their colonial cook’s training, learning to serve the superior race in Hong Kong” (p. 2). Due to its apparition on café menus in western Canada, Wah explains the devastating metamorphosis of this high class meal in a new society. It is through his poetic account of this brief moment that we are able to reflect on the deeper meaning behind an immigrant’s identity struggle in another country.

In Better Watch out for the Craw, Better Watch and I Hardly ever go to King’s Family Restaurant, Wah revels the impact of language on identity formation, stating that he feels as though he is “living in the hyphen” of his Chinese-Canadian identity based upon his physical features (p.53). On the one hand, he is constantly being told “what [he’s] not, what [he] can’t join, [and] what [he] can’t feel or understand” by members of his assumed racial origin (p. 54). These superficial classifications become nothing more than a means to control his and others’ actions. They put pressure on these individuals to succumb to particular racial assumptions, and consequently infringe upon their curriculum as-live(d). On the other hand, Wah is also embarrassed by his Chinese heritage, and often clings to his whiteness to avoid interacting with them. Through these lyrical accounts of these passing moments, we can contemplate the damaging impacts that this controlling language/language of affiliation has on immigrant individual biographies.

Admittedly, Leggo (2009) states that in his poetry, “I provide glimpses, snippets, and angles. I cannot provide an exhaustive history. I do not long for the past. I know there are gaps in my stories, places of silence, and room for other versions” (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt et al., p. 61). This candid confession reveals the limitations of bio/poetic writing in that it is not meant to capture a comprehensive account of what has transpired, but rather provide windows into the poet’s mind. This honest revelation may also help us, as educators, to understand why bio/poetic writing is of little value in our schools; blending fictional and nonfictional elements certainly doesn’t have the same creditability that mathematics and science appear to offer. Knowledge of these restrictions enables educators and students to push passed these obstacles, and create more meaningful academic experiences.

While reading through Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, I couldn’t help but continually ask, why aren’t students encouraged to engage in this type of writing? Shouldn’t we, as educators, want to present more artistic methods of expression given that we are, to some extent, performers ourselves? Why isn’t bio/poetic writing considered a conventional school subject? In retrospect, I, as Leggo (2009), “only wish when I was young I had been encouraged to write poems out of the stories of my daily lived experiences with all their extraordinary ordinariness” (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt et al., p.165). As educators, incorporating this literary art into our curriculum challenges and encourages us to help our students appreciate poetry and invite them to engage in the poetic practice of currere; they can learn how to look at a single moment from a variety of perspectives. Increasing student exposure to the value of bio/poetic writing will not only enhance the teaching and learning process, but may also help enlighten the current societal perceptions of poetry.

Chambers (2009) reminds us that “part of the power of words – of telling and listening to stories – is that lives can be changed by what is told and heard, what is written and read” (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt et al., p.78). My brief introduction to the lyrical stylings of Carl Leggo and Fred Wah has reshaped my attitude towards poetry. Narrating our life (hi)stories through bio/poetry tantalizes our senses, as we concentrate on particular moments of our currere. By encouraging ourselves and our students to play with and in this type of literary art, we will no doubt foster more dynamic and imaginative future writers.


Hasebe-Ludt, E., Chambers, C., & Leggo, C. (2009). Life writing and literary métissage as an ethos for our times. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Huebner, D (1974/1999). The tasks of the curricular theorist. In V. Hillis (Ed.), The lure of the
. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wah, F. (1997). Diamond Grill. Edmonton, AB: NeWest Press.