It’s the end of the semester, and we’ve finally arrived at our poetry unit. After wrapping up Chopin’s The Awakening, we spent two days on Dickinson, discussing death (in an unintentional transition from Chopin’s controversial ending), the im/materiality of Dickinson’s imagery, and, of course, the metaphorical meanings in Dickinson’s punctuation, her masterful dashes. I introduced Dickinson and Plath using John Green’s Crash Course: Literature mini-series, which minimized my lecturing and provided students both practice reading the poetry with Green as well as context about the poets to better understand their work.
Both the videos and spending two class periods on each poet helped students arrive at their own conclusions about the poems with enough background to feel comfortable writing their papers on poetry. Another nice thing about the pairing is that Green links the two poets together. One theme that also connects these two poets and the ending of The Awakening is death. By the time we reached Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” it was hard to argue against the reading that it’s simply “another suicide poem”. But that was NOT the conclusion I wanted my students to come to about Plath–neither to trivialize her poems nor clinicize her. Enter: Star Trek.
Now, I am not a “Trekkie”. I don’t know much at all about Star Trek, and neither do most of my students, but “Beam me up, Scotty” is part of our pop culture and most are familiar enough with the series to know about the transporter. Briefly, the debate about the transporter is whether or not it’s a “death machine”: is the “you” transported still “you” or have you died in transport and been reassembled elsewhere? What about when you go to sleep at night? Or undergoing electroshock therapy?
“Lady Lazarus” is filled with meaning, and it could very well be about a break in consciousness, or breaks in consciousness, something philosophers have been debating for centuries. You might disagree, but it gave students a lot to think about and an alternative to a common reading of the poem, something I’m a big fan of testing out in the classroom. If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear more in the comments section.
The transporter-as-death-machine debate provides students a space to locate themselves, find out where they navigate the line between the material and the immaterial in very clear and certain terms. After Plath and Star Trek, we returned to Dickinson to go even deeper into our analysis of her poetry. If you try it out, I’d love to hear how it goes!