Arguably the two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century were Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, yet two more disparate poets would be difficult to find. For instance, Whitman wrote in free verse, while Dickinson preferred such rigid meter that most of her poetry can be sung to the following tunes: “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the theme song for Gilligan’s Island, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Try it. By the way, the reason for this is that Dickinson wrote in hymn meter. That means hymns like “Amazing Grace” will work, too.
Many years ago, I traveled to Atlanta with Gerald Boyd, who was then not the Language Arts Coordinator for the whole state of Georgia, but just for our own Houston County (pronouced not like the city Houston, but like the word house + ton — no, I don’t know why). He took English teachers from two of the other high schools — I represented Warner Robins High, while the two others came from Perry High and Northside High. We were being introduced to a program called Pacesetter English, potentially to determine whether Houston County should adopt it.
I can no longer remember the names of these teachers, but I adapted an offhand comment that the teacher from Perry made about teaching Whitman and Dickinson into a project that has been successful for years.
What would happen if Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson went on a blind date? For this creative writing assignment, students are asked to put themselves in the role of a matchmaker who is arranging a blind date between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The student’s composition should record the results of the date. Where did they go? What did they do? What did they say to each other? Did they make a “love connection“? Students had to integrate five lines of poetry from each poet seamlessly as part of the conversation between the poets. For example, many students who choose to depict Whitman as egomaniacal like to use the line “I celebrate myself…” when Dickinson asks him what he likes to do for fun.
Most students tend to determine that the poets are too different to make a lasting connection. It is up to your discretion as to whether you as a teacher want to get into Whitman’s homosexuality or speculation about Dickinson’s possible homosexuality. It depends upon your students. I also ask students to bold or otherwise draw attention to the lines of poetry so I can catch them more easily. This activity asks students to reach into poetry and think about what it means, to learn about two writers based upon their poetry, and to create a piece of polished creative writing about the two poets.
Update: Confidential to the angry student in Chapel Hill, Tennessee who is not happy that I shared this idea because now he/she has to write a two-page paper about it: I direct you my policies and offer hope that you can get past your attitude problem and have fun with the assignment (and make a good grade).
Second Update: O, student who likes pie, You have got to be kidding me. You are asking me for help after the comment you tried to leave me yesterday?
Nevertheless, my advice is that if your teacher wants you to do the same thing I asked my students to do, you just need to write a story. Think of where you would like to see them go. What restaurant? What would they talk about? Read their biographies, which should be in your textbook and online. You could have them go mini-golfing. Maybe they would go to a poetry slam and poke fun at the mediocre poets there. Maybe they could go to Burger King and Emily could down five whoppers. The sky is the limit. When you revise, put in some lines of their poetry in their dialogue. For instance, Walt might tell Emily that she’s weird for always wearing white. Emily could counter with, “Much madness is divinest sense.” Something like that. You can actually have a lot of fun with this assignment.
In the future, you might want to remember you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.