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Unpacking Poetry:
Exploring the Essential Poets Series

A Guide by Ingrid Ruthig

Use the Essential Poets Series to explore poetry as a literary form, Canada’s literary history and diversity, and to help fulfill the Reading & Literature Studies components of the Grades 9–12 curriculum.

Preconceptions About Poetry

Discuss via ‘popcorn’ or ‘think-pair-share’:

  • What is a poem? When and where did poetry originate? How does it look? How does it sound?
  • What do we expect of a poem? What do we think it’s supposed to do?
  • Where do we hear a sort of poetry without realizing? (song lyrics, hymns, etc.) How do these use words differently than regular speech? What are the results?
Beowulf Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f. 132r

Language is quintessentially human, as is art. Both help us explore, communicate, and understand who we are. Poetry, a language-based art, is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Ancient epic poems, such as Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and Beowulf (first page shown here), were passed down from generation to generation, often as an oral form of history and entertainment. Today, poetry continues to distill language, thought, and human experience in a balance of sound and sense that transcends time and, very often, cultures as well. A poem provides something deeper, richer, than what it might appear to on the surface. Built on metaphor, image, a play of sound and meaning, and even now, myth, it captures with honesty, and resonates with our human-ness. Though akin to song lyrics, poetry comes with its own music built-in. A successful poem invites connection, understanding. It settles in us, and stays.

Some Additional Observations About Poetry

‘Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history.’


A poem ‘gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood. Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.’

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English poet, 1772-1834)

‘I like poems that have lasting resonance, that invite re-reading and reading aloud, that balance sound with sense, and that go beyond mere personal biography or the topicalities of the day to evoke universal human questions and emotions. I look for honesty in poetry. I look for language that is original, surprising, playful, yet also disciplined. I look for poems that rise above their own surface "aboutness" to a higher plane, whether of metaphor, myth, or sheer melody—poems that deliver truth beautifully and beauty truthfully.‘

—Robyn Sarah (Canadian poet & Governor General’s Award winner)


The Essential Poets Series, published by Porcupine’s Quill, introduces the work of selected Canadian poets. Each volume provides an introduction, a biography, and a bibliography of one poet, along with a collection of that poet’s essential works, as chosen by the book’s editor.

The following lesson provides a framework for considering individual volumes in the Essential Poets Series, with specific reference to The Essential Anne Wilkinson.


The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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