Literacy

Poetry Across the Curriculum

Comparing two poems side by side fosters deep thinking and rich discussion—even in classes beyond English.
March 15, 2017
Illustration showing lines of writing on a computer screen and icons for a musical note, a pencil, etc.
© Shutterstock.com/Boo-Tique

April is National Poetry Month, so why not try pairing two short poems to make a mini-study of a concept, theme, structure, or perspective? In the space of a class period, it’s possible to employ multiple reading strategies your class has studied this year, just by putting two poems side by side and engaging your students’ curiosity. Consider these three pairings, which would fit well into any secondary English class and have cross-curricular possibilities as well. Or come up with your own pairings to suit your subject.

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Because I could not stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson and the lyrics to “Reaper” by Sia

Each of these short poems personifies death, but to different ends. In Dickinson’s poem, Death is not a lurking, hooded presence but a kind and welcoming coachman, while Sia’s lyrics imagine a more traditional Grim Reaper that is perhaps open to some banter and bargaining. But instead of sharing these observations first, put the pieces together and invite your students to compare and contrast. Personification will emerge naturally in the discussion, and Emily Dickinson by way of Sia is so much more approachable.

Other classes for this pairing: music.

The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski and “The Human Family” by Maya Angelou

Both of these poems have been repurposed in the video links above to promote products or brands. This opens up several intriguing questions to discuss as a class: How do these two companies use the poems to promote their brands? What does the poetry spark in the audience’s mind that the companies want you to associate with their products? How do we feel about using poetry to sell a product? Does it cheapen the poem, or does it expand the audience for the poem?

In my classroom, we conclude our discussion with a “Who wore it better?” challenge. Which company, Levi’s or Apple, repurposes its poem to the best effect?

Other classes for this pairing: business, advertising, or film.

21 Thoughts on the Stereotype That All Brown People Are Terrorists” by Anis Mojgani and “In Two Seconds” by Mark Doty

Journalists are not the only writers who examine the controversial topics of our times. These poems can be used to consider how genre changes our perception of an issue. What does a poet bring to the table when writing a piece about racism that journalists or novelists might not access quite as easily? In the book Writing With Mentors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell emphasize the importance of studying the “moves” writers make to achieve an effect in their writing, and this pair of poems is an excellent opportunity for a discussion of this topic. What specific moves do these writers make in the structure of their poems to heighten the impact of their message?

Other classes for this pairing: creative writing or civics.

I am now in my fourth year of using a poem to start class each day with my ninth-grade English students. Each year, I have a few stories that remind me why poetry matters in the lives of teenagers. There is Mark, who stopped his parents in the middle of an argument by quoting a line from Rumi. There is Nick, who recites the last two lines of “Invictus” before taking a test or quiz that rattles his nerves. There is James, who visited midway through his sophomore year to tell me that he missed our Poem of the Day so much that he subscribed to a daily poetry email so he could continue reading poetry on his own. We live in a demanding world, and nourishing ourselves with rich words helps us meet our daily challenges.

Try a new poetry pairing—and share it with a colleague.