If the goal of poetry is to ponder mysteries and raise questions, then death is one of the most obvious subjects for the poet's consideration: it is the one experience common to all humans that no one can definitively describe. Throughout history, poets have used death as a touchstone to help them define what life is and what it should be. In some cases, poets use death to give reasons for living a full and boisterous live; some poets refer to it with sorrow about the loss of innocence it creates; some see death as a nullifier of great accomplishments; some celebrate death as a release from life's discontents. The different concepts of death presented in Exploring Poetry are as broad and varied as the number of poets included here. For example, even the smallest details in the poems of Emily Dickinson are charged with urgency because of the awareness that death is at hand.
Students should realize that poetry about death is actually about life, that the two are inseparable. A casual dismissal of the topic will result in pat associations with the trappings of mourning: black garments, tombstones, etc. This activity is meant to take students beyond the immediate shock that most of us experience death as, and into a more contemplative frame of mind.
Summary: Students will form groups and study another culture's beliefs and practices regarding death, presenting their findings to the class.
Suggested Teaching Strategy: collaborative, researching, exploring cultures, presenting
Learning Outcome Skills: analyzing, organizing, comparing
Related Curricula: anthropology, sociology
Required Time: three 50-minute class periods (two to research and write, one to present)
In groups, students will research the customs of a specific culture regarding death and do a presentation to the class that explains their findings. Of course, they should relate this culture's practices to one of the poems in Exploring Poetry. The poem does not necessarily have to be from the culture that was studied, but the students must be able to show a relationship between it and the customs they are presenting. The very act of thinking about how different cultures respond to death will make students more aware of, and hopefully more receptive to, the different ways poems approach their subjects.