"Rage, rage," or "gladly die"?
Using Poetry to Discuss Death in Lent
by Gerry Hendershot
On the first three Sundays of Lent 2017, about 20 members of Western Presbyterian Church (WPC) gathered before worship to discuss poems related to death, dying, and bereavement. I was invited by Nancy Arbuthnot, an Elder at WPC, to curate the poems and moderate the discussions. Having previously moderated such discussions at the Church of the Pilgrims, I gladly accepted.
Paul Fiddick, who coordinates the "Free Inquiry" adult class that hosted the poetry series, asked for a description to send to members. This is what went out:
Poetry, it has been said, "is the deification of reality." And nothing is more real than death--which is perhaps why poets write about it so much. In this series we will read, listen to, and discuss modern and contemporary poems about death—deaths of the beloved, our own deaths, death as fact of life, rituals of death, and more. We will consider what a poem is "about," but will focus on the emotions and memories it calls up, and their relationships to scripture. Poems will be available online, but reading before class meetings will not be assumed.
I was told several times after the first Sunday, that this was "something different" for the Free Inquirers, who usually focus on social justice issues in public policy, such as health care and immigration. With abundant expert leadership available for study of such issues (many members are DC policy wonks!), that focus is natural for WPC. Poetry was "different."
My plan was to discuss two sets of two poems on each of the three Sundays, as follows:
Ubiquity and Mystery
Death Gets Into the Suburbs, Michelle Boisseau
Bats Perish, No One Knows Why, Reeves Keyworth
Dread and Terror
Aubade, Philip Larkin
Ooo Baby Baby, T. R. Hummer
Childbirth and Children
Last Days, Elise Partridge
Upon Hearing a Two-Year-Old's First Attempts at an Elvis Impression,
I Recall the Difficulties of Her Birth, John Hodgen
Funerals and Rituals
As from a Quiver of Arrows, Carl Phillips
Funeral, Rosanna Warren
Mothers and Fathers
His Stillness, Sharon Olds
Still Life, Sharon Olds
Descending Theology: Resurrection, Mary Karr
Bright Copper Kettles, Vijay Seshadri
The procedure I envisioned was to play an audio recording of each poem read by the poet (downloaded from the internet and played with a small portable player and amplified speaker), followed by a second reading by a participant, after which I would guide a dialogic "close reading" of the poem, emphasizing feelings and memories of participants.
As the wit said, "If you want to hear God laugh, make a plan." There were equipment failures, schedule changes, and more. But mostly, plans were delightfully diverted by the Western Inquirers' insightful comments on the poems and by their willingness to share related personal experiences. I thanked them after each meeting for enriching my understanding of the poems--and my life.
Near the end of our time together, I referred to poems by Dylan Thomas ("Do Not Go Gentle into that Dark Night") and Robert Louis Stevenson ("Requiem"), lines from which are in the title to this post, pointing out the contrast between their attitudes toward death. A member of the class followed with a practical plea to all class members to complete an "Advance Directive." Does poetry matter?