The Big Read 2013-14 Blog extends the conversation for the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Big Read, focusing on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. We hope you will enjoy learning about how Dickinson’s poetry came alive for readers in classrooms and communities throughout Western New York. Many of the authors of this blog are SUNY Fredonia English majors who have engaged Dickinson’s life, works and historical contexts through library exhibits and literary discussions throughout the region. We invite you to join the conversation by writing about Dickinson’s poetry and the many Big Read events planned for spring 2014.

The Big Read is sponsored by the Daniel A. Reed Library, with the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Monday, October 28, 2013

If Emily Dickinson had a Twitter Account

In considering Emily Dickinson for The Big Read, I believe that we should not only review why we believe she is relevant, but also how her words are still relevant in today’s society and, particularly, to the young adults who will be subsequently studying her work in a classroom setting. Dickson’s poetry is powerful and related to inspiring people to reflect upon what they are capable of completing in this existence. In our own classroom discussions, we worried that perhaps poetry is less accessible to students or people whom are not as interested in poetry. To help transcend this barrier, I created a Twitter account for Emily Dickson and brief snips of her poetry in 140 characters or less.

            This approach to Dickinson not only adds to her relevance in today’s society, but also makes her work more accessible and less intimidating to young adults. Young adults today are born into a technological era, making them increasingly more savvy with various forms of technology, but also becoming accustomed to briefer forms of writing as well as instant communication. By shortening Dickson’s poetry, but including powerful pieces of her words, I believe that students can find a connection to her words better. The shortness of the text and informal, but comfortable, mode of communication could be just what we need to entice young adults to research and read Dickinson’s work on their own.
            How then is a Twitter site relevant to Dickinson herself? Dickinson may have only published a brief amount of her work while she was alive, but I think that a Twitter account may have appealed to her. While the instant publication of her words could be scary at first, many of her poems were simply brief lines scribbled on random pieces of paper, such as grocery lists or napkins, etc. Twitter would have provided her with a digitalized archive of these smaller forms of writing, and an outlet to share her words with the world, while still being able to remain physically removed from people.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Teaching Emily Dickinson to Fourth Graders?

Teaching Emily Dickinson to Fourth Graders?

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is often taught to students in high school and college because of its taboo themes and adult subjects, but Dickinson’s poetry is accessible to all ages, as long as it’s taught in the right way. The first step in teaching Emily Dickinson's poetry to elementary students is to choose poems that are age appropriate. Choosing some of her nature poems are the easiest examples to use, especially “Nature, the gentlest mother.”

NATURE, the gentlest mother,

Impatient of no child,

The feeblest or the waywardest,—

Her admonition mild

In forest and the hill
By traveller is heard,

Restraining rampant squirrel

Or too impetuous bird.

How fair her conversation,

A summer afternoon,—
Her household, her assembly;

And when the sun goes down

Her voice among the aisles

Incites the timid prayer

Of the minutest cricket,
The most unworthy flower.

When all the children sleep

She turns as long away

As will suffice to light her lamps;

Then, bending from the sky,
With infinite affection

And infiniter care,

Her golden finger on her lip,

Wills silence everywhere.

            Some of the words in this poem may seem a bit advanced for fourth graders, but if the teacher uses this opportunity to teach his/her students what these words mean or gives them synonyms for the words Dickinson uses this poem could be understood. Some of the words may not even be necessary to teach or understand in order for the lesson to flow smoothly (you want to make sure not to confuse your students before you dive in to the lesson). Before introducing Dickinson’s poetry, she should be introduced. Learning about her life and where she came from and the time period she grew up in could help the students understanding of her poetry. Teachers can talk about the clothing that was worn during the time that Dickinson lived as well as any other interesting things that were going on (age appropriate) during the 1800's. After a brief biography, the students can then be introduced to a poem. I would limit it to one poem to begin with but gradually introduce others throughout the year in order to keep the students minds working.

            After showing the students the poem and reading it to them and letting them get used to the flow of it, you can discuss as a group what they think some of the lines suggest or what this poem can mean. This part of the lesson can be open to interpretation and can go any way you want. As the teacher, you can help the students come up with ideas, and focus on words they knows, and you can let their imaginations drift and see what they come up with in a group discussion. After this you can start asking the students to look at the poem and find words that evoke their senses (see, hear, smell, taste, touch) and words that can make them feel an emotion. An example of this would be “In forest and the hill/By traveller is heard.” After they explore the language Dickinson uses, they can draw pictures of any stanza they want, using the vivid imagery she uses in her poems. They can draw a few scenes showing what is going on in the scene or they can draw one picture that depicts the overall mood of the stanza. An example of drawing what the students feel when they read Dickinson's poem is:
This lesson plan should be spread out over several days and should be taught to fourth graders or above.
Tons more lesson plan ideas:

Emily Dickinson's Diaries to a Friend

Emily Dickinson’s Diaries to a Friend 

Did you ever read something that immediately rushed you with emotions, and you couldn’t stop reading it because of the way it made you feel? Reading Emily Dickinson’s letters sent to family and friends throughout her lifetime evoke these exact emotions and personal feelings that run straight to the heart.  Each letter served a purpose and directed an emotional response that was special to each person.  The letters could be read as diary entries, because of her passion and vulnerability that was expressed to certain individuals.  Emily Dickinson was very aware of her emotions and was extremely successful in expressing exactly how she was feeling and why she was feeling in that way.  This explains why Emily Dickinson is an amazing poet that is set aside from all of the rest; her poetry was meant to help release some of the emotions she was feeling and was cathartic for her.

One of the most important interactions Emily formed was with Thomas Higginson Wentworth.  The letters Emily wrote to him asked whether her work had potential to be published and if he could help her in that process.  Thomas Wentworth was a very honest friend to Emily and encouraged her to continue writing her poetry, but her poetry would never be published during her time because it did not fit with the style of the 19th Century.  Emily accepted everything Thomas wrote back to her and at that point had decided to just stay within her own home.  Unfortunately, she made little contact with the world other than a few letters here and there.   At one point, Emily was offered to go to Boston, where she would meet with Higginson to talk in person about some of her works of poetry.  Emily refused and said that if he wanted to talk to her, he should travel to Amherst to visit with her.  This may be because she was unwilling to publish her poetry after she realized that she would never see fame during her lifetime.  In this sense, Emily was very unconventional because she didn’t want to publish or give away her poetry because it was very special to her.  

Publication – is the Auction (788)
Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
It's Corporeal illustration – sell
The Royal Air –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –

Videos of the two photos of Emily Dickinson and a reading of two letters to T.W. Higginson
Resources with letters from Dickinson and discuss her relationship with T.W. Higginson

Since Wednesday, Emily is Everyone's Friend.

Despite having lived over a century ago, many still consider Emily Dickinson to be a very significant figure in their lives, and it's due in large part to her poetry. One could say there is a sort of friendship between readers and her Poetry (and, by extension, the author herself). Mabel Todd, another avid reader of Dickinson, said it pretty well:
“The poems were having a wonderful effect on me, mentally and spiritually. They seemed to open the door into a wider universe than the little sphere surrounding me which so often hurt and compressed me… they helped me nobly through a very trying time.”

She's right: whenever I'm feeling down, I take a trip to Houghton Library over at Harvard College, where I can freely peruse through hundreds of poems and letters that Emily wrote by hand, at first marveling at how her handwriting influences the visual style of her poetry ("Wow! The dashes!), and then smiling as I come across an occasional dried, flattened flower amongst the pages.

Eventually, reading grows tiresome, and I go upstairs to the Dickinson Room to -- you know -- hang out.

And as I stroll past various furniture and paintings of the Dickinson family, I'm eventually confronted by a writing table: the writing table Emily used. Suddenly, I'm in the mood for something else. I want to see Emily's radical letters.

At Amherst College, one finds a whole other collection of Dickinson-related material. I, myself, am most interested in the various "scraps" held at these exhibits: poems written on envelopes, shopping lists, and grocery bags; and rough drafts of her poetry, with markings and notes of her creative process that serve as a snapshot of her efforts to push the boundaries of her work. (She definitely wanted these things to be readily available for public scrutiny).

 But you might be interested in another exhibit that Amherst College happens to be affiliated with: the Emily Dickinson Museum, where you can browse through her letters to friends and family, look at daguerreotypes of herself and her family, or check out strands of Emily's hair. All of the above would look great in a scrapbook.

Austin, brother of Emily Dickinson, and Mabel Todd, aforementioned reader and editor of Emily's manuscripts, on display, featuring the baggage of their now-publicly known affair.

By now, you must be thinking -- as I am -- "All these collections feel a bit scattered." And you're exactly right; in fact, Harvard and Amherst have always had a bit of a rivalry between them, regarding their respective Emily Dickinson collections.  This feud can be traced back to the labors of getting Emily's work printed. 

Emily's aversion to publication is very well known -- one need only reference 788:

Publication – is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man –

Poverty – be justifying

For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Thought belong to Him who gave it –

Then – to Him Who bear

It's Corporeal illustration – sell

The Royal Air –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant

Of the Heavenly Grace –

But reduce no Human Spirit

To Disgrace of Price –

And in many ways, her very life and soul was auctioned to Amherst and Harvard by two opposing parties: Mabel Todd and the surviving Dickinsons, respectively. The very origin of this fracture can be traced to Mabel Todd and Lavinia Dickinson (Emily's sister) in particular: the former was the main editor and transcriber of Emily's poetry, and later vanguarded an effort to collect the letters Emily wrote to friends and acquaintances; the latter discovered Emily's collection of manuscripts, several dozen hand-bound volumes of her work, as well as the subsequent "scraps." 

The two, in turn, not only felt that they each owned as much of Emily's poetry as the other, but that they were an authority on all things Emily Dickinson: her character, her personality, and her life.  When the two parties finally broke apart, the original manuscripts were scattered among a variety of sources: Yale, Smith College, Boston, Vassar College, the Library of Congress... but the majority was concentrated between Amherst and Harvard.

However, on the 23rd of October (so, like, yesterday) the Emily Dickinson Archive was finally launched: a joint effort among all the Dickinson "owners" fronted by Harvard. This electronic archive aims to provide digital scans of Emily's manuscripts to the public for free, alongside transcriptions and annotations from selected historical and scholarly editions. Cool, right? Her thought now belongs not to him who bear it, or Amherst, or Harvard, but to everyone.

But, behind the scenes, the rivalry continues. Amherst is still angry. Why? Well, Harvard has retained direct control over the site and archive, so it isn't really a joint project. Furthermore, the site was originally supposed to be a subscription service, until Amherst demanded it be open to the general public, free of charge.

And, most crucial of all, everyone visiting the archives should know that not all the manuscripts are on the site, only those relating to the poems published in Ralph Franklin's volumes of Poems of Emily Dickinson. However, the site claims that more manuscripts will be added in the future, so time will tell if all of Emily's preserved work will be available to the public.

In the midst of all this, one asks an obvious question:"How would have Emily reacted to all this?" And although this project is non-profit, one can still be shaken at how transparent the life and soul of Emily Dickinson has become. But it is clear that time and digital distribution has not given way to moral considerations. With this, a new consideration arises. I find myself less concerned with who Emily Dickinson was, and more interested in what she will become.



Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"I Tasted Life" Dickinson Beyond Weird or Normal Stigmas

“The possible's slow fuse is lit by the Imagination.” (Dickinson, Poem 1687).

‘Normal’ is both an expectation, and a trap.  If you fall into the pit that is normalcy, you become a forgotten face, one of the masses who exist only in the form of gravestone numbers. But if everyone were to lead, there would be no one to follow, and so normal is given a positive connotation by many aspects of society.

We are told by the ubiquitous ‘them’ that normal is good, and weird is bad—that we must strive to be a part of society’s expected group (but that we will not be remembered as individuals if we do not try to stand out). This odd set of expectations is often proved wrong. Strange is not synonymous with bad, and following the path set for you by others rarely leads to true happiness or success. (Success, of course, depends on your own definition of it. Mine includes a balance between being content with the impact you have on yourself, your family, and your community, while living in comfort and contentment. Others see success as being purely based in finance, or in popularity.)

Poets like Emily Dickinson are remembered for being weird—for wearing a white dress, writing pieces that are different and atypical. While this can be a distraction that prevents some people from approaching her work with an open mind, it can also help differentiate her work from that of the norm. Sometimes, such an obsession with what is different prevents us from seeing what is the same, and what is unifying in art. Like all other (non-psychopathic) humans, Dickinson had feelings, ideas, emotions, and thoughts. She tried to communicate those in a form that not everyone succeeded in or even attempted: poetry.

“I tasted life,” she wrote in a letter, making a claim on the base human emotions of joy, experience, and love. Despite the distance of time, and the seclusion she chose to live within, her words are still quite prevalent today and can easily speak to an audience willing to listen. With the vast majority of her work being published after her death, Dickinson herself could not speak to what certain pieces meant, or what she may have been trying to say—many of her words were self-reflections, not meant for the public eye. Nevertheless, they are available now, and such accessibility allows for multiple interpretations.

All the dashes in her work can be intimidating—and surely meant something different within her own mind than what translated onto the text to our eyes years later. For a writer who never intended some things to be read, she has certainly made an impact upon numerous lives. When looked at in smaller pieces (famous quotes for instance) her work is less intimidating. She speaks of hope as if it has wings, of love, life, and emotion—things that most people observe or take note of. Within her condense, careful use of words, Dickinson speaks to these overarching themes that so many relate to. In this way, she is no longer the ‘weird’ poet, but merely another person struggling to express abstract things that different combinations of words and sounds cannot always get right.

Crimes, Death and Feathers, Oh My!

To some, poetry is a thing of the past. It’s true that lately, poetry is seemingly dissolving away at an alarming rate, and even general fiction readership is at an all-time low. Emily Dickinson, however is still widely known and read by all demographics, and it’s important that we not only enjoy Dickinson’s works, but to spread her works. Nowadays, you are able to catch a bit of Emily Dickinson’s poetry in popular films, which is a modern way of keeping her poetry alive and giving her immortality. My favorite example of this is in Woody Allen’s “Crime and Misdemeanors” which you can view at the 1:17 mark:

Woody Allen is known for referring often to Emily Dickinson, as you can see from one of his famous quotes from his collection Without Feathers: “How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not ‘the thing with feathers.’ The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.” So it can be no coincidence that Allen used Dickinson specifically instead of another poet, especially when Dickinson is not known for being taught in schools without some controversy. It’s interesting that they used “Because I could not stop for Death” in this film, not only because it’s one of Dickinson’s most recognizable poems, but because of the meaning behind the poem.

Because I could not stop for Death
By Emily Dickinson

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 grew 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 but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Allen and Dickinson share some similarities in their works, seemingly because of the way Allen has been influenced by Dickinson. The use of this particular poem in the film is because of the theme of immortality. Like Dickinson, death is prevalent in much of Allen’s works. In the film, Allen’s character interjects, “he kindly stops, the word kindly, right?” What Allen is subtly hinting at here is Dickinson’s colloquialism when referring to Death. Death is portrayed as a sort of gentle figure that adheres to manners before duty in this poem, which Allen finds ironic. It is this sort of writing that makes Dickinson such an irreplaceable part of literary history.

Film obviously was not part of Dickinson’s life, but instead, Dickinson kept a great deal of correspondence with friends through her letters. In “Because I could not stop for Death” another motif is that of exclusion. Dickinson is leaving with Death in the poem and viewing life from the view-point of the dead, and this could be a symbol of the sort of exclusion that she felt during her life that she spent a great deal of isolation in.

Distribution of information these days are a bit different from Dickinson’s time where communication was executed through letters. Our generation was raised on television and film, and it is likely that many people learn about poets like Dickinson firstly through film. Crimes and Misdemeanors came out the year that I was born, and it’s most likely that when I first saw the film at the tender age of five, I didn’t give Dickinson a second thought (probably because I lacked the proper cognitive skills to do so). Regardless, film is not detrimental to literature or poetry because of the way they bring light to wonderful poets like Emily Dickinson.  

Sources Cited