Death Poetry, Open Discussion

Three beautiful short poems are at the core of this 45 minute workshop designed to open up conversations in a small facilitated group.

I Died for Beauty, Emily Dickinson

Surprised by Joy, William Wordsworth

The Prescription, Jacob Polley

All three poems create a very strong and distinctive first-person speaking voice – we sometimes call this the “lyric I”. Whether we understand the speaker to be the poet himself or herself, or whether we hear that voice as a character in the mini-drama of the poem, the use of this strong “I” challenges us to choose a position in relation to the poem’s message or meaning. Are we the speaker or are we the hearer? If the former, then what does it feel like to inhabit the mind of the speaker – to speak as he or she speaks,  to perceive as he or she perceives.

In the case of Dickinson’s “I Died for Beauty”, our discussion asked whether the poem is more of an overhearing than something we are really invited to share in. There is certainly something intimate, anonymous and private about the “soft questioning” and ambiguous answers which pass between the two characters. That intimacy looks different in Polley’s poem, where the speaker seems to expect no reply from his interlocutor. Polley’s speaker is both demanding and pleading, gentle and firm – in some ways, there is nothing really poetic about the single syllables of the line “now look straight at me and say what you see”, but this simple and natural speech pattern gives us a glimpse of familiarity and everyday-ness which lends this scene its poignancy.

Our participants were unanimous in their recognition of the experience of shock, guilt and the inability to escape the grief of bereavement. “Surprised by Joy” begins in a whirlwind of emotion and of speech, which unravels as we – along with the speaker – move from a moment of elation to the deadening remembrance of personal loss. Somehow, the artistry of this poem only seems to enhance the authenticity of that very recognisable, perhaps even universal feeling of an old wound opening. Do we ever move on from the loss of a loved one, Wordsworth asks? What does joy feel like after bereavement? How do we square the physical, visceral feeling of happiness with the sharp recollection of mortality?

It was a pleasure to share these three lovely poems with such an engaged group. Were always amazed by the willingness of our participants – often complete strangers – to enter into our discussion and to learn from and even challenge each other. The setting of the Cambridge Public Library made for an inviting, relaxed atmosphere for discussion. If you are interested in participating in or hosting a poetry workshop, please get in touch!

Click here to find out about our two other workshops.