Poeticising language learning for beginners (feat. Apollinaire for #ApollinR18)

7E0F4A9A-6C48-4D24-B5A9-6E32507A3128Welcome to a second post remembrancing Guillaume Apollinaire, through keeping his poetry alive by sharing it with others and opening it up to continued reading and to creative continuation. It’s never too late or too early to start: this post is about an assignment for a beginners’ French course (UBC FREN 101). The assignment itself can be adapted to put into practice a range of lexical and grammatic knowledge and can be tweaked to different learning levels, and its underlying raison d’être ideas can be translated to other languages (modern or ancient, living or dead or sleeping) and their cultures.


Well, because it’s poetry, obviously.

Flippancy aside: because poetry is life.
Because poetry brings out the humane in humanity.

Because poetry is at once both irrelevant and relevant.
And its irrelevance is part of what makes it the most relevant thing in life.
Because poetry—in its full extended sense, not just words printed on a page—is useful.

One aspect of its usefulness is seeing how “being useful” isn’t about property and appropriation, about commodification, about tools or about mechanistic application. It’s about use in the practice of everyday life, being part of your life, and you being part of poetry’s life, in a symbiotic co-evolutionary relationship.
While we’re talking usefulness:

Because while poems can be any length, shorter poems are good readings to incorporate into daily existence because you have a complete work, and its whole world, in a small space and a short time. Sure, then there’s savouring and rereading and thinking and so on; but in the example above it’s “just” four lines long.




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Because it is the anniversary of his death.

You can read Calligrammes and more Apollinaire online for free via links here.


For beginners’ French: the Bestiaire and Calligrammes.
Because most of the poems in these collections are short: usually on a single page. Besides providing respite in your day, moments of consolation and contemplation, a perfect shape for sentence and solaas: short poems are fulfilling. When you have read a poem, you have read a complete literary work: just as a short story is, or a novel, or the whole of Proust.

Because these specific poems are also visual, and visual in different ways, none of which inhibit or limit the reader’s imagination; but, rather, complement and enhance it.
Because these poems focus attention on words, and on how words feel and their multisensory associations and imaginative loading.

Because a small beautiful thing doesn’t just enhance your life in that short time when you consume it, it teaches you how to enhance your quality of life by seeing and feeling and reading and savouring everything more poetically; and to seek out rapturous delight, valuing it over mere satisfaction. Chocolate analogy: you could spend $1 on a large bar of chocolate, or $5-20 on a smaller better bar, or $2-3 on a single extraordinary hand-made single chocolate that will change your life and whose memory you will treasure forever.

We had already met Apollinaire for a first time in class on National Poetry Day (4 October), as “La chenille” happened to illustrate some of the grammar points in our class. It’s a course that’s been realigned with the CEFR / DELF. Expressing that Delphic nature, here, then, is an Apollinairian assignment: may it also echo the nature of Apollinaire’s poetry and poetics, going beyond simplistic Apollonian / Dionysian divides, and into complex plurilingual intercultural hybridities and other fantastic creations.


Required elements:

—utilisez les verbes ALLER, PRENDRE, HABITER, et VENIR au présent +
—au moins une négation “ne … pas” +
—au moins une question avec “est-ce que”

You have a choice of topics for this project:

[= a variation on an assignment in our textbook]

= projet écrit ET oral/vidéo
un kit de survie pour des visiteurs francophones qui viennent à Vancouver pour un événement
—sportif, culturel, artistique, politique, etc.
—en octobre ou novembre (par exemple, Vancouver Writers Festival (15-21 octobre)
—voir aussi :

[= Apollinaire]

= project écrit / written
Choose a poem from Guillaume Apollinaire’s Bestiaire
[In the version for students, I linked a password-protected folder containing photographs of excerpts from the 1965 Pléiade volume of Apollinaire’s complete poetic works. I’m not sharing it here, but if you would like access—for educational or scholarly purposes, with attribution, and not for any commercial purposes—please email me.]

  • ex. “la chenille” on p. 16 = 1 poem

Write a dialogue in which you ask the animal, person, or object concerned questions … and it replies.

  • ex. la chenille : où est-ce que tu habites ?

NB: you don’t need to read and understand the whole poem. This is 101! General impressionistic reading is plenty. It will actually be more fun if you relax and risk “getting it wrong” (it’s a poem, you can’t get anything wrong with it): the worst that will happen will be that you will create a new prose poem!

(around 50 words)
(you can also do a video with you speaking, but it’s optional for this topic)

[= MOA]

= project écrit
Go to the UBC Museum of Anthropology Museum of Anthropology.
[this is one of the best museums in the world, and entrance to it is free for UBC students, faculty, and staff; as well as being free for children under 6 and for Indigenous peoples.]
Choose an object.
Write a dialogue in which you ask them questions … and they reply. (I’m using the neutral “they” here as your object could represent a person, animal, or idea and “he/she/it” might not be appropriate.)
Please include an image of your object.
You may, if you wish, also include further images and video (please ensure that they are permitted, as some inhabitants of the Museum should not be photographed).

(around 50 words)
(you can also do a video with you speaking, but it’s optional for this topic)

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