Comparing two poems side by side fosters deep thinking and rich discussion—even in classes beyond English.

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.

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.

Because I could not stop for Death (479) Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 1886

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me –  
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility – 

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –  
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  
We passed the Setting Sun – 

Or rather – He passed us – 
The Dews drew quivering and chill – 
For only Gossamer, my Gown – 
My Tippet – only Tulle – 

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground – 
The Roof was scarcely visible – 
The Cornice – in the Ground – 

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads 
Were toward Eternity –

Reaper (lyrics) by Sia from the album This Is Acting

Broke down, thought that I would drown
Hope that I've been found, 'fore I hit the ground
Some days out the corner of my eye, hey
Saw you weeping, saw you creeping
Saw you sneaking in the shadow's long
The fear so strong
Saw you out the corner of my eye

Don't come for me today
I'm feeling good
I'mma savor it
Don't come for me today
I'm feeling good
I remember when

You came to take me away
So close I was to heaven's gates
But no baby, no baby, not today
Oh, you tried to track me down
You followed me like the darkest cloud
But no baby, no baby, not today
(Reaper) Oh reaper
(Reaper) Oh no baby, no baby, not today
(Reaper) Oh reaper
(Reaper) Oh no baby, no baby, not today

So come back when I'm good and old
I got drinks to drink, and men to hold
I got good things to do with my life, yeah
Oh, I wanna dance in the open breeze
Feel the wind in my hair, hear the ocean sing
I got good things to feel in my life, yeah

Don't come for me today
I'm feeling good
I'mma savor it
Don't come for me today
I'm feeling good
I remember when

You came to take me away
So close I was to heaven's gates
But no baby, no baby, not today
Oh, you tried to track me down
You followed me like the darkest cloud
But no baby, no baby, not today
(Reaper) Oh reaper
(Reaper) Oh no baby, no baby, not today
(Reaper) Oh reaper
(Reaper) Oh no baby, no baby, not today

The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski

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.

The Human Family” by Maya Angelou

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.


(Tamir Rice,  2002 – 2014)

                          the boy’s face 
climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel 

of its becoming,  a charcoal sunflower 
swallowing itself. Who has eyes to see, 

or ears to hear? If you could see 
what happens fastest, unmaking

the human irreplaceable, a star 
falling into complete gravitational 

darkness from all points of itself, all this:

the held loved body into which entered 
milk and music,  honeying the cells of him:

who sang to him, stroked the nap 
of the scalp, kissed the flesh-knot

after the cord completed its work 
of fueling into him the long history 

of those whose suffering
was made more bearable 

by the as-yet-unknown of him,

playing alone in some unthinkable 
future city, a Cleveland, 

whatever that might be. 
Two seconds. To elapse:

the arc of joy in the conception bed,
the labor of hands repeated until 

the hands no longer required attention,
so that as the woman folded 

her hopes for him sank into the fabric 
of his shirts and underpants. Down 

they go, swirling down into the maw 
of a greater dark. Treasure box,

comic books, pocket knife, bell from a lost cat’s collar,
why even begin to enumerate them

when behind every tributary 
poured into him comes rushing backward 

all he hasn’t been yet. Everything 
that boy could have thought or made, 

sung or theorized, built on the quavering 
but continuous structure

that had preceded him sank into 
an absence in the shape of a boy

playing with a plastic gun in a city park 
in Ohio, in the middle of the afternoon. 

When I say two seconds, I don’t mean the time 
it took him to die. I mean the lapse between

the instant the cruiser braked to a halt 
on the grass, between that moment

and the one in which the officer fired his weapon.
The two seconds taken to assess the situation. 

I believe it is part of the work 
of poetry to try on at least
the moment and skin of another, 

for this hour I respectfully decline.

I refuse it. May that officer 
be visited every night of his life
by an enormity collapsing in front of him

into an incomprehensible bloom,
and the voice that howls out of it.

If this is no poem then…

But that voice –- erased boy, 
beloved of time, who did nothing 
to no one and became 

nothing because of it –- I know that voice 
is one of the things we call poetry.
It isn’t only to his killer he’s speaking.

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.