Tag Archives: poetry

Paired Texts: Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War”

Robert Frost and Ilya Kaminsky
Robert Frost (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress) and Ilya Kaminsky (Slowking)

I have to admit to a love/hate relationship with Robert Frost’s poetry stemming from the fact that I wrote a research paper on symbolism in his poetry as a senior in high school. That kind of thing will put anyone off, and it didn’t help that I had what I’d consider now to be an inarguable thesis (essentially it was, yes, he uses symbolism—not much of an argument there). Still, not many people write poems about people getting their arms chopped off with a chainsaw. There was a reason I chose to write about Frost at that time, and it was that I loved his poetry. After I finished that paper and set his poetry aside for a while, I came to enjoy it again. I like the simplicity with which Frost grapples with big ideas and large problems, bringing them to the scale of the mundane. He’s the type of poet who has been a staple of the classroom for so long and become such an institution that it might be difficult to approach him in a fresh way but remember, our students are often just meeting him for the first time. He’s new to them, and he can become new to us all over again when we teach his work.

After the war in Ukraine started, I knew I wanted to bring Ilya Kaminsky’s devastating poem “We Lived Happily During the War” into my classroom, but I needed to think about how. I teach thematically, and as a result, every work I teach connects to a theme. The more I thought about “We Lived Happily During the War,” the more I wanted to put it into conversation with “Mending Wall.”

My rationale is that both poems deal in some way with complicity. The speaker in Frost’s poem doesn’t rail against all the barriers and borders we put up. He says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But what is the “something”? Not necessarily the speaker. After all, he is the one who reaches out to the neighbor to say it’s time again to repair the wall between their properties. If he doesn’t exactly agree that “good fences make good neighbors,” he also doesn’t disagree because he continues this annual ritual—a ritual he’s not sure about. Kaminsky’s poem asks us to think about what we are doing (enough?) during a time of crisis or war.

In crafting my lesson, I drew from two excellent resources. First, Poetry Foundation has a poem guide for “Mending Wall” that includes a great analysis of the poem and offers interesting insights. Second, the podcast On Being: Poetry Unbound has an episode devoted to “We Lived Happily During the War” in which the host, Pádraig Ó Tuama, talks the listener through his analysis of Kaminsky’s poem. These resources helped me craft discussion questions for a teacher-facilitated class discussion of the two works.

I started class with some biographical details about Robert Frost. I like to introduce my students to the people they’re reading. Here is a good, relatively short biography of Robert Frost.

We listened to Frost read the poem “Mending Wall” and then read the poem on our own again, annotating and jotting down our thoughts.

After we read the poem, I asked students some questions:

  • What is Frost talking about literally in this poem?
  • What is he talking about metaphorically? (Students will probably identify this poem can be read about geopolitical borders, but if not, you might gently nudge them.) Are we driven toward connection and cooperation or are we more mistrustful?
  • Who gets the last word in the poem? How does that choice impact the poem’s message?
  • Who is the one who suggests the two go out and rebuild the wall? (Notice it’s the speaker, who seems less inclined to put up walls, who suggests it’s time.)
  • Why do they rebuild the wall? What purpose does it serve?
  • How do the speaker and the neighbor interact? Does the speaker confide his thoughts to the neighbor? Who does he confide in?
  • If fences do NOT make good neighbors, what does? Who is our “neighbor”?
  • In his old age, Frost said this poem had been “spoiled” by being “applied.” This comment seems to imply Frost wishes he could control how people interpreted or applied his work. Do we have to respect his opinion, or is it okay to interpret or apply his work in ways he might not have intended?

I told students Frost published this poem while living in England in 1914. We turned a historical lens on the poem and discussed how the times in which it was written may have informed the poem’s message. I shared how this poem became a Cold War poem after the Berlin Wall was built and that George H. W. Bush quoted from this poem when it came down in 1989. I referred to Ronald Reagan’s famous speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I explained that even if Frost wrote this poem at another time, he can’t control how people read and apply it later on. He might not even have been thinking about geopolitical borders when he wrote it, but even if he wasn’t, it doesn’t matter, especially if so many people see that message in his poem. Poems take on a life that no one can foresee, much less control.

One might argue this recently happened with Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War.” I put this poem in conversation with “Mending Wall,” even though I have no idea if Kaminsky considers his poem in conversation with Frost’s poem or not. I showed my students this excellent feature on Kaminsky.

As we did with Frost, we listened to the poet read his work. I love Kaminsky’s dramatic reading.

It may be important to share that Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” opens his collection Deaf Republic. Deaf Republic is about a town, Vasenka, in which soldiers shoot and kill a young deaf boy at a puppet show performance taking place in the town square. As a means of protest, the townspeople refuse to hear and create a subversive sign language to coordinate their fight against the soldiers’ oppression. It reads in some ways like a verse play, with a cast of characters.

As we did with Frost’s poem, we took a few minutes to reread Kaminsky’s poem. You might have students read and discuss in small groups. You know your students and their preferences for working.

After we took that time to unpack the poem, I facilitated a discussion, asking the following questions:

  • What repetition do you notice in the poem? What is the effect? (Be sure to unpack the implications of the repetition of “house” and “money” and “not enough”).
  • What is the “house”? Who is in your household? (Encourage students to think more broadly, as Kaminsky does when he starts with the street of money, the city of money, the country of money; could our “house” be our country?)
  • If everyone in our “house” is okay, is that enough? Should we be doing more for people outside our “house”?
  • What about the repetition of “money”? What does that make you think of? (The podcast mentions how crises and wars can be opportunities for people to make money.)
  • Who is the “we” in the poem and how do you know?
  • Later the speaker asks forgiveness—”(forgive us).” Why is that in parentheses? What is the speaker asking forgiveness for? Would you forgive the speaker? Would you want to be forgiven if you were the speaker? Do you think you could be forgiven? Who needs to be forgiven?
  • What does the speaker mean by “happily”? What is living happily, especially in the context of living happily during the war?

The podcast discusses the “politics of disability,” which may be interesting to share with students as well. There is also a connection to Martin Niemöller’s piece, “First they came for the Socialists…” I would definitely bring that piece for discussion. Pádraig Ó Tuama mentions in the podcast that in so many places in the world, people are dying or just trying to survive the day, while others are picking out a color to paint their kitchens. He says, “There’s a brutality about that. This poem isn’t, I think, trying to make us feel guilty about those things, but it is trying to say, ‘Are you doing enough?’ Because the poem has the invitation to say, ‘we protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.'” Pádraig Ó Tuama invites us to wonder “What is the ‘enough’ going to be?”

One of my students said he felt like Kaminsky’s poem reminded him of the United States’ isolationist policies during World War II until Pearl Harbor. He explained the connection to his peers, who really appreciated it. Reading these poems gave us an opportunity to use a historical lens (or new historical) to examine how poetry can speak to the time in which it was written and the times in which it might be read.

Finally, I asked students how these two poems could be in conversation with each other. How are their messages related? I placed them in a unit on the theme of Tradition and Progress. I might argue they explore the tension between the two ideas. Like Frost’s poem before it, “We Lived Happily During the War” has taken on a new life in the wake of Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, especially as Kaminsky is a Ukrainian-American poet. Both poems might have been addressing the times in which they are composed, but they also speak to our time.

Book Recommendation: Teach Living Poets by Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith

If you teach English, get this book!

If you follow me on Twitter or have read through some of my previous blog posts, you probably know I’m a huge fan of #TeachLivingPoets. In fact, I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say the #TeachLivingPoets community has revolutionized the way I teach poetry. I cannot recommend Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith’s book Teach Living Poets highly enough. Lindsay and Melissa share a wealth of teaching ideas that will help you get started.

The book begins with recommendations for discovering and reading contemporary poetry. I love the protocol for reading poetry in chapter 3 (see how I used it with a lesson on “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron and “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” by Rudy Francisco). Next, Lindsay and Melissa explain how to approach teaching poems and single-author collections. They discuss how to invite poets into the classrom—this section of the book made me so envious, and it really made me want to figure out how to bring poets to my school. Lindsay and Melissa offer ways to teach poetry writing and poetry projects (including poetry blogs and podcasts). They end the book with discussion about how to connect with other educators.

I was really excited by the activities and ideas that I could bring right into my classroom. I am trying the tone bottles activity described on pp. 49-52 the week after next. I’d originally planned it for January 4, but we had to be remote because of an increase in COVID cases, and the activity is hands-on. 

A few years ago when I decided I wanted to do more with contemporary poetry in my classroom, I reached out to Melissa on Twitter, and she graciously offered me a list of poets to start with. She’s an evangelist for poetry, eager to share her expertise. Every book she recommended was an absolute winner, and I gradually learned more about the contemporary poetry scene on my own and was able to identify collections to purchase for my classroom. I’m lucky in that I have the ability to purchase poetry books out of my department budget. Since that’s not true for many teachers, I would recommend trying outlets such as Amazon Wish Lists, DonorsChoose, or grants for educators so you can build your collection. You will not be sorry. However, it’s also possible to access the work of many of these great poets online at sites like Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets (poets.org) as well as some of the poetry presses.

Before COVID, I went to a poetry reading given by Eve L. Ewing for the benefit of MassLEAP, a poetry organization serving Massachusetts youth. I wore my #TeachLivingPoets t-shirt, and when Ewing saw it, she asked me, “Oh, are you one of the #TeachLivingPoets people? I love you guys.” She went on to tell me how I could access free audio versions of her collections and ideas for teaching her work. Ewing also taught me how to use the burst feature on my phone to get good photos!

If not for #TeachLivingPoets, I’m not sure if I’d have discovered Eve L. Ewing—or Kaveh Akbar or José Olivarez, or Jericho Brown, or… the list goes on! And what a world these poets have opened up for me.

Anecdotally, I know I’m a better poetry teacher and that my students enjoy poetry more (and their course surveys often attest to this fact) since I have incorporated the voices of contemporary poets in my curriculum. Lindsay and Melissa’s book gives English teachers a great place to start to #TeachLivingPoets. Thank you, Melissa and Lindsay, for sharing your knowledge with us all!

Buy Teach Living Poets from NCTE or Amazon (unfortunately, I couldn’t find it for sale at Bookshop.org).

Paired Texts: Lord Byron and Rudy Francisco

Reading Teach Living Poets (affiliate link) by Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith inspired a lesson plan pairing “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron with “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks, Down the Street from My House on Del Mar Heights Road, I Swear to God I’m Not a Stalker” by Rudy Francisco, available in print in his book Helium (affiliate link).

Performance of “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…”

These two poems both feature speakers who are taken immediately by seeing an attractive person and reflect on their beauty. To prepare students for the topic, I gave them the following journal prompt:

Write about a time you saw someone across the room and your heart just stopped. What was it about the person that caught your attention?

I shared a personal story of a time when I was in college and heard this guy pick up the payphone next to me and tell the operator he was looking for a number in “Athens.” That one word was all he said, but his voice was just incredible. It was deep, gorgeous. I couldn’t even turn around because I thought if his face matched his voice, I’d be in real trouble. Some teachers might not feel comfortable sharing stories like this, but I’ve established a rapport, and of course, it’s wise to consider what you feel is appropriate or not. I definitely did not and would not ask students to share. However, I invited them to share, if they felt comfortable doing so, but this topic, while a great hook for the lesson, is also very personal in nature.

Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith describe a protocol for reading poetry on pp. 20-21 for reading a poem. In a first reading, ask students to identify whether the poem is an “up” or “down” poem. This metaphor can help students tease out tone and mood. Some of my students felt “She Walks in Beauty” was an “up” poem based on the diction, but others found it kind of creepy and decided it was a “down” poem. We had an interesting discussion about how we viewed the speaker and the impact of that perception on our reading. Most students viewed Rudy Francisco’s poem as an “up” poem. Next, students look for “hotspots” in the poem. What are the moments of tension, strong imagery, and juxtaposition? Students identified the interplay of light and dark in Byron’s poem and the unexpected comparison of the woman to darkness rather than to light. This observation also gave me an opportunity to discuss the art term “chiaroscuro” with students.

After this first read of Byron’s poem, I asked students to get in small groups of 3 or 4 and read the poem again, this time using Illich and Smith’s protocol for a second (or subsequent) reading (slightly adapted for this particular text set):

  1. Consider the scene of the poem: Who is speaking? Where and when is this happening?
  2. Locate the central image(s) of the poem. What effect(s) is created by the imagery?
  3. Look up any unfamiliar words or references. Look for sentences (subjects, verbs). Locate modifiers and antecedents, which will help with difficult or fragmented syntax.
  4. Consider the effect of structure: line breaks, rhyme, meter, stanzas.

Students worked in groups for about 15 minutes, re-reading and annotating the poem with these questions in mind. One group noticed that Byron’s poem progresses from the first moment the speaker sees the woman to a final stanza in which he attaches all sorts of values and assumptions (that she must be good and that her heart is “innocent”). They noticed the imagery and described the kind of setting they imagined for the poem. They decided the central image was the first line, the woman walking and capturing the speaker’s attention. The rest of the poem, they reasoned, hinged on that one image. In Francisco’s poem, they decided it was Starbucks. As soon as the word appeared in the title, they had a picture of the entire scene—sights, smells, tastes, sounds.

We also had a chance to discuss intertextuality and the way these two works could be considered in conversation with one another.

Illich and Smith’s protocol works very well to give students an entry point into a text, and it worked particularly well with this pairing since both poems are dependent on a strong central image and depict a particular scene. They were great for thinking about setting; the AP Lit CED emphasizes the ability to explain the function of a setting, and these poems are both excellent ways to address the setting skills:

  • Identify and describe specific details that convey or reveal a setting. 2.A
  • Explain the function of setting in a narrative. 2.B
  • Describe the relationship between a character and a setting. 2.C

I created a Google Slide deck with the major components of this lesson. My institution has disabled sharing outside of our institution, but I believe that if you click this link, you can still make a copy of my slide deck. You will also need copies of “She Walks in Beauty” and “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” If you try this text pairing and protocol, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Recommendations

Sid, who tweets @ThatTeacherSid on Twitter, posted the following tweet a few days ago:

I need to do some work on my dissertation, so I’m hoping a reply here on my blog will limber me up for writing.

Is that possibly a form of procrastination? 

Maybe, but here are my recommendations, and you might consider teaching them, or you might just enjoy them on your own.

Essays

One of my all-time favorite essays is Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s seminal work, “The Case for Reparations.”  It’s well-researched and persuasive. I particularly appreciate that Coates doesn’t become bogged down by the “how,” which is what stops many people from considering reparations for slavery. Instead, he focuses on “why,” and once the “why” is compelling enough for the majority of Americans, I think we will find the “how.” I also highly recommend Coates’s essays “My President Was Black” and “The First White President.”  “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black” were both collected in his book, We Were Eight Years In Power, which I also highly recommend. In this collection, Coates discusses the writing and his process. His critical reflection on his own work is really fascinating.

A more recent essay I read in The Atlantic was “History Will Judge the Complicit” by Anne Applebaum. What I loved about this essay was the historical study of two figures in East Germany, Wolfgang Leonhard, who defected to the United States after growing disenchanted with the East German Communist Party, and Markus Wolf, who remained loyal to the party even after gaining an intimate knowledge of its worst violence. Applebaum compares the two men to Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. I found the essay to be a fascinating discussion of party versus principles, and the comparison is a master-class in persuasive writing.

I first read James Baldwin‘s essay “A Talk to Teachers” after seeing Clint Smith mention it in a tweet. Smith mentioned that he returned to it each year while he was teaching. I’m not sure if he still re-reads it each year, but I have now read it twice, and if anything, it becomes more relevant as time passes. It’s hard to believe Baldwin didn’t pen this essay just last week. Baldwin underscores the urgency of social justice and why teachers cannot wait to make critical changes in how they teach their students of color. Baldwin opens his essay:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

The essay was originally a speech that Baldwin delivered in 1963!

Poems and Poetry Collections

I have written previously that we’re in the midst of a poetry renaissance right now (subscription to English Journal required). I still believe that is true. This list has the potential to be extremely long, so I’m going to limit it to my current favorites.

Maggie Smith‘s “Good Bones” is a poem I turn to often. These days seem so bleak, and they feel like they only become bleaker. But Smith reminds us that this old planet does have “good bones,” and we can make something beautiful with it.

Jericho Brown invented the form “duplex,” a combination of a ghazal, a sonnet, and the blues. This poem, titled “Duplex,” is one of my favorite examples of the form. I particularly love the line, “A poem is a gesture toward home.” For a birthday gift to myself, I attended a poetry-writing masterclass taught by Brown through the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Poetry Festival programming (it was free, but the gift was giving myself the time to do it). What an amazing teacher! I loved it! His collection The Tradition won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I highly recommend it. Also, check out Brown’s pandemic poem, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.

Speaking of collections, a few of my favorites are Eve L. Ewing‘s 1919Clint Smith‘s Counting Descent, and Fatimah Asghar‘s If They Come for Us are three of my favorite collections.  Ewing’s book focuses on Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot, and she experiments with a variety of forms and ideas, using quotes from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. I’m telling you, really need to hear Ewing read aloud her poem “Jump / Rope,” which she reads in this interview with Terry Gross.

Clint Smith’s collection has too many favorites to count. Some poems that I particularly enjoy, however, are “Counting Descent,” “Counterfactual,” “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come on in My House,” “Playground Elegy,” and “Ode to the Only Black Kid in Class.” I also really like Smith’s poem “History Reconsidered.”

His performance of “When They Tell You the Brontosaurus Never Existed” is another favorite.

Some favorites in Fatimah Asghar’s collection include “Microaggression Bingo” and “If They Come for Us.”

Speeches

Some of my favorite speeches in recent years are actually speeches by young people. I found Emma González‘s speech at a press conference following the Parkland Shooting particularly moving.

I also enjoy any time Bryan Stevenson speaks, but this TED Talk is a place to start.

 

I also really like this older speech by Sir Ken Robinson, whom we lost this year.

And finally, this speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my “why” for teaching English.

#TeachLivingPoets: Introduction to Literary Analysis and Critical Lenses

Books

I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.

I started peeking into discussions on Twitter at the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets some time ago. I asked which collections teachers using the hashtag recommended, and they offered a great list. I already had Clint Smith’s Counting Descent, which I highly recommend, and Wisława Symborska’s Poems New and Collected. I found Second Space by Czesław Miłosz, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, and Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in a classroom, presumably left behind by a teacher who departed our school.

I ordered the following:

I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.

The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a WolfElectric ArchesAmerican Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.

The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.

Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.

In between using the literary analysis tools and learning critical lenses, students discussed Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.

Some of my takeaways from the change:

Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.

Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.

Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).

Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.

Students understand the critical lenses better. Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.

I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.

My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Slice of Life: Improvisation

My AP Lit Class

This morning my Keurig decided to break. I have a single-serve Keurig that I have to fill with a cup of water each time I use. Only half a cup came out. I knew there had to be water trapped inside, but I wasn’t able to open it to see. So I turned it upside down over the trash can, and super-concentrated coffee went everywhere. Including the legs of my chinos. I knew they’d dry fast based on the kind of material they’re made out of, and my previous experiences getting them wet taught me I could try to wash the coffee out of my pants in the bathroom, and they’d probably be dry by class time.

I sat down and checked Blackboard. I started my doctoral program yesterday, and we are introducing ourselves to each other in both of my classes. I also wanted to see if my professor had answered my question. She had.

Then I thought to check my plan book to see what my AP Lit classes had on the docket for today, and I realized with horror that I’d made a big mistake. I had actually finished a project with them a day earlier than I had anticipated when I created my plans. I didn’t have anything for my students to do.

I knew I wouldn’t have time to create a meaningful lesson out of whole cloth, and I couldn’t move ahead because I had given my students until tomorrow or Thursday (depending on which class they are in) to finish Thomas C.  Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  It wouldn’t be fair to tell them they had to create seminar questions today when they might not be quite finished reading.

The project my students had just completed was to learn how to use a literary analysis tool (one was TPCASTT) and teach it to their peers in a presentation in which they also share their analysis of a literary work using the tool. In past years, I’ve been frustrated that the tools have been introduced early in the year and haven’t gained any traction. The students thought they were useful, but later on, they simply didn’t return to them when they were analyzing literature. We fall back on habits and methods that we know. We forget.

I thought fast. What if my AP Lit students worked in groups to choose a poem in one of my new collection of books by (mostly) living poets, chose a literary tool they learned last week (not one they themselves presented), analyzed a poem, and shared their findings with the class?

I tossed my poetry books in a box and made my way across campus. It was just starting to rain. I was glad I had remembered my umbrella so the books would stay dry.

All went well in my first class. After you’ve taught for a while, you come up with some handy go-to techniques you can use to stretch a lesson.

As I made my way back across campus slowly and carefully in a torrential downpour that was the remains of Hurricane Florence, I tried to keep the books dry and succeeded in making my pant legs wet all over again—the puddles were unavoidable—and arrived back at my office about ten minutes late for my “office hour” ( really half-hour). Thankfully, no one was waiting for help. I dried off my shoes with a paper towel from the bathroom and prepared to do the lesson again in my second class.

What started out as a mistake turned out to be serendipity. The students dove into the poems and presented thoughtful analyses. They considered which tool to use thoughtfully, thinking about what their chosen poems included in terms of diction, literary devices, imagery, symbols, and other elements. It was brilliant. And I think it may have helped me along the path to achieving my goal of convincing students to use these tools to analyze literature.

Thank you to #TeachLivingPoets, and thank you to generous AP teachers everywhere who share their ideas. In spite of me, I had some great classes today.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 4

This post is the fourth and final in a series about my experiences at the NEH summer program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. If you haven’t read the first three, you can find them here, here and here. My experiences on the fourth day may differ slightly from those of other participants as we divided into groups. Because the fifth day was a short day, this post will include my reflections for both the fourth and fifth day of the workshop.

As was the case on the previous days, we began with Bruce Penniman’s “Writing into the Day” reflections. On Thursday, we wrote in response to “What is ‘Paradise'” (Franklin 241) and our inferences about Emily Dickinson’s Amherst as she lived it. On Friday, we wrote reflections for the week in response to our choice of two poems, Franklin 930 or 1597.

After writing, my group headed to the Jones Library, Amherst’s public library, to work with artifacts in the special collection. My curriculum mentor Wendy Kohler was one of our guides for this activity. I chose to examine artifacts connected to Amherst’s history of education, as I was intrigued the previous day by Emily Dickinson’s writing instruction. My group examined an 1822 autograph book belonging to a girl, and we were struck that her classmates wrote so frequently on weighty issues such as death and often wrote poetry. It’s a long way from “have a great summer.” There was a great deal of material connected to Mt. Pleasant Classical Institution, which no longer exists. I couldn’t find any evidence any of the Dickinsons attended the school, but Henry Ward Beecher and one of the Roosevelts, James Roosevelt, attended the school. I didn’t find a lot of answers, and I am still curious about the kind of writing instruction students were given. If you read Dickinson’s letters, you can see improvement in her expression and clarity of thought in the letters she writes during her adolescence.  Clearly, Amherst citizens valued education and took great pains to make sure good schools were available to their children. I would also have had the option to explore science and religion, the Civil War,  or gender/women. There was one other option that I have forgotten—my fault for not writing it down. I wish in some ways I had chosen to explore the artifacts connected to either the Civil War or gender, but we only had so much time. I might be able to go back and see these artifacts in more detail some other time. The library also has an exhibit on Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, including several interesting Dickinson family artifacts.

Emily Dickinson’s calling card © Dana Huff

Emily Dickinson didn’t sign her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson but slipped one of her calling cards inside. I like to think it was from the same batch of cards as the one above.

If you look closely at this notebook, you’ll see Emily Dickinson’s birth recorded on December 10 under her father’s name.

Emily Dickinson’s birth record. © Dana Huff

Next, my group joined Christanne Miller for a discussion of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poetry. Miller encouraged us to select the poems we wanted to discuss. The Civil War was Dickinson’s most prolific period, and it was also during this time that Dickinson spent almost a year in Cambridge recovering from a problem with her eyes. We discussed how the death of Amherst native Frazar Stearns at the Battle of New Bern affected Dickinson and her family. Of course, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was in command of the 1st Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment. Dickinson’s brother Austin was drafted in 1864, but he paid for a substitute to go in his stead. There is a family story my grandmother used to tell me about having an uncle (probably a great- or even great-great-uncle) who went to war as a paid substitute several times. I need to do a little research and find out if such an individual existed. She did have at least one great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War but not as a paid substitute.

Basically, there were three reasons why someone might not serve in the war after being drafted: 1) they had enough money not to (Austin Dickinson), 2) they were the sole financial support of an extended family, or 3) they offered crucial community support (one could argue this also applied to Austin Dickinson). We can’t say for sure why Austin didn’t go, but we did discuss there was less support in general as the war dragged on. Miller pointed out the Civil War was the first war with a quick communication of the events of the war and with a highly literate, informed population. She remarked that one can find Civil War letters all over the country because so many people were writing during the war.

Near the end of our discussion, I shared the following passage from The Catcher in the Rye with my group. It’s a passage I often like to discuss when I teach the novel.

I remember Allie once asked [D. B.] wasn’t it sort of good that he was in the war because he was a writer and it gave him a lot to write about and all. He made Allie go get his baseball mitt [with Allie’s favorite poems written in green ink] and then he asked him who was the best war poet, Rupert Brooke or Emily Dickinson. Allie said Emily Dickinson.

That passage always struck me, but the experience I had this week has convinced me that Salinger was thinking on a very deep level about personal experience and writing. We don’t think of Emily Dickinson as a war poet, but she really was, and she wrote quite a number of poems that are definitely about the war and more that might be about the war, depending on interpretation. It was such a pleasure to be able to discuss poems with Miller, and if you don’t own a copy of her edition of Dickinson’s poems, definitely get it.

After lunch, we spent some time working in our curriculum groups, as our lessons or units were due by 6:00 PM. Our group was in favor of working quietly. I had about an hour before the next agenda item on our schedule, so I headed to the Frost Library on Amherst College campus to work on my lesson. I needed to consult a copy of the Variorum Edition, as my lesson deals with word choice, tone, and mood, and I wanted to compile a list of poems with variant word choices. I didn’t finish the work. In fact, I only made it through the first volume (there are three volumes in the Variorum Edition). None of my nearby Worcester libraries, including the college ones, seems to have the Variorum Edition, and I was ready to consider a pretty hefty purchase (the Variorium costs over $130), when I checked to see if I could get it through our library system, which offers free inter-library loan among all the system libraries. I was lucky. Some of the other libraries in my public library’s system have the Variorum, so I have placed a hold on it, and last I checked, it was in transit to my public library. I always forget about this great service offered by my library system. If I were a Dickinson scholar and likely to consult the Variorum regularly, I would definitely purchase it, but it’s a bit steep for creating a single unit.

The Emily Dickinson Museum typically does not allow photography as it’s too hard to control people making a profit from the photographs they take. We were offered the opportunity as NEH scholars to take photographs in the museum as long as we didn’t intend to profit from them. We were given permission to post the pictures on social media or blogs. I was really looking forward to taking photos as Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, in particular, is a really magical place, especially since the recent restoration. I have been sharing a few of the photographs from the museum in previous posts, but here a few of my favorites that I haven’t shared yet.

The writing table in the corner is a replica of Dickinson’s actual table, which is at Houghton Library at Harvard. The dress is also a replica. © Dana Huff

Emily Dickinson’s actual bed. The shawl belonged either to Emily Dickinson or her mother. © Dana Huff

Emily Dickinson kept a few favorite books in her room. I can’t tell what the titles are, but I’m going to do some research and find out. These are probably not her actual books but rather the same editions. The Dickinsons’ library is at the Houghton Library at Harvard. © Dana Huff

A close-up portrait view of the replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress © Dana Huff

A view of Mains St. from one of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom windows. © Dana Huff

I spent some time reflecting on the incredible week over a cup of coffee downtown. One worry I expressed in my reflection is that the future of the NEH is precarious, and it’s possible that other educators will not experience the wonderful close study of Emily Dickinson in Amherst like I was able to do. Do what you can to make your feelings about programs like this clear to your representatives in Congress, especially if this series of posts has made you want to go, but even if it hasn’t because we should be helping teachers have these experiences. Trust me my NEH stipend didn’t cover all my expenses, but it made it possible for me to go, for sure.

Thursday evening, some of us attended an optional program called Dickinsons in Love in which we were able to participate in readings from Dickinson family letters, including those of her parents Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross when they were courting, Austin’s letters to Susan Gilbert before their marriage as well as letters to his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and Dickinson’s own letters to Judge Otis Phillips Lord. I hope the Dickinson Museum will revive this program for regular guests, as it was most entertaining, and I learned a great deal.

Our final day was a shorter day, and the main event was visiting Emily Dickinson’s grave and reading our favorite poems. I shared the poem I read at my grandmother’s funeral. I was much more moved than I expected to be when one of my fellow workshop participants led us in singing one of Dickinson’s poems to “Amazing Grace.” Because Dickinson wrote in ballad meter, many of her poems can be sung to songs written in that common meter, and “Amazing Grace” is one of them.

Emily Dickinson’s grave. I left the flat stone on the far left to mark my visit. © Dana Huff

We concluded our workshop with a picnic on the lawn at the Dickinson Homestead, complete with gingerbread, for which Emily Dickinson was famous. I bought a small Dickinson recipe book in the museum gift shop and tried out Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe this morning.

Gingerbread made from Emily Dickinson’s recipe. © Dana Huff

It’s pretty good.

I would do this week all over again. It was an amazing experience, and should the NEH be spared and willing to offer this program again, I highly encourage you to apply. Thanks to Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst College, and all the visiting faculty from whom I learned so much.

A note about the images in this post: The Emily Dickinson Museum gave me express permission to take photographs in the Museum for distribution on my website and social media with the caveat that I do not use the images for material gain. I cannot control what happens to these images if you use them, so you do not have permission to duplicate them on your website, social media, or any other place.

Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 3

A view of the Dickinson Homestead facing east © Dana Huff

This post is the third in a series about my experiences at the NEH summer program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. If you haven’t read the first two, you can find them here and here. My experiences on the third day may differ slightly from those of other participants as we divided into groups.

Once again, we started by “writing into the day,” considering “The Brain—is wider than the Sky” (Franklin 598) and the elements of Dickinson’s craft.

Next, we a heard a lecture from Dickinson scholar Christanne Miller from the University at Buffalo. As I mentioned in my previous post, there have been three major editions of Dickinson’s poems since the 1950’s. Thomas H. Johnson’s was the first to make an attempt to date the poems chronologically and restore some of Dickinson’s intentions. Ralph W. Franklin’s Variorum edition has been widely influential in Dickinson scholarship. Christanne Miller has a new edition called Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. The organization of Miller’s book differs from Johnson’s and Franklin’s precisely as the subtitle describes. The first section of Miller’s book includes Dickinson’s fascicles; the second, Dickinson’s poems saved on unbound sheets joined together with a fastener (Dickinson may or may not have fastened the manuscripts); the third, loose manuscripts in Dickinson’s possession; the fourth, others’ transcriptions of her poems with no extant manuscripts; the fifth, poems given away to others. The concept is really interesting, and I really wish I had brought my copy of this book for Christanne Miller to sign. I considered packing it and decided not to in order to save space. I hope I run into her again so I might get it signed. It’s a beautiful book with images of manuscripts.

Miller’s lecture was on “Editing Dickinson.” From everything I’ve learned in this workshop, editing Dickinson is difficult because of all the variants in her manuscripts, but we also have a large body of well-preserved work, and we can’t say that of every poet. One big takeaway from Miller’s lecture is that there is always more than one way to edit an author, and editors make decisions largely based on the tastes of the eras in which they are working. She said that no edition is neutral; each edition is a lens into the times in which it was created. As such, while our modern audience might see Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson as heavy-handed editors, changing slant rhymes and word choices, a case can be made that they knew their audience well and were editing the poems to suit their audience. Dickinson was ahead of her time. I can’t remember if Miller said it or if someone else did, but someone remarked that Amy Lowell believed Dickinson to be a “precursor of the Imagists.” In any case, Todd and Higginson’s editions of the poems were wildly popular, and we have much for which to thank them.

Miller also argues that Dickinson may not have distinguished much between poetry and letters. Most tantalizing for me as a teacher was the fact that there is evidence Dickinson was instructed to select alternative word choices in her school compositions. I love to think of Emily Dickinson’s writing instruction in school. Another issue that Miller acknowledged is that Dickinson made many typographical errors, often over and over. For instance, I had noticed she almost always uses the contraction “it’s” when she clearly means the possessive “its.” In the manuscripts, the mistake is clear, and it’s not a word choice variant. Franklin retains these typographical and spelling errors in his edition of her poems. While Miller points out that spelling and punctuation were not rigidly fixed or standard in Dickinson’s time, I have always found the kinds of errors she makes interesting. Most interesting regarding punctuation was Miller’s comment about the ubiquitous dashes in Dickinson’s poetry. While Dickinson does use a lot of dashes, some of them may be commas and periods. If you examine the manuscripts, it is hard to tell whether or not the marks are dashes. We all do such things when we are writing, especially in our drafts. Here is an example of a manuscript I saw in which it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing dashes or something else.

The mark after “several” could be a dash, or it could be a period. © Dana Huff

One last comment about Miller’s lecture and I’ll move on (we’re already at nearly 700 words!). Miller believes that Dickinson composed at least the beginnings of her poems largely in her head. The last stanzas often include more variant word choices (not that the beginning stanzas never do, but you see a lot in the last stanzas). Also, the last stanzas are sometimes the most problematic. I know as a reader, I have more difficulty understanding the last stanzas of her poems. Also important for teachers: Dickinson tries out a number of speakers and perspectives. We are usually so good about asking students to think of the speaker as separate from the poet, but I think we might be guilty of forgetting to do that with Dickinson’s poetry. One way to help students with her poetry is to ask them to read it aloud and to look for natural “sentences.” Don’t worry about the dashes and enjambment.

Next, my group joined Martha Ackmann for a discussion of Dickinson’s poetry. She is delightful—funny, knowledgeable. She quoted Dickinson’s letters and poetry frequently, and without consulting notes. Ackmann suggests that we can look at many of Dickinson’s poems as Dickinson’s philosophy of poetry—ars poetica. We did a close reading of “I reckon—When I count at all—” (Franklin 533). Ackmann reminded us as teachers to slow down when we are reading and teaching Dickinson. She also reminded us that Dickinson’s schooling largely consisted of declaiming lessons and memorizing, and she had an encyclopedic knowledge of many texts, including the Bible. When Dickinson is ambiguous, she intends to be. Ackmann also said we must acknowledge the “primacy” of Dickinson’s imagination. We tend not to give her credit for being able to imagine experiences she never had or places she never went. My favorite quote from our discussion was Ackmann’s argument that “She lived in her own mind, and what a place to live.” Ackmann also argues that Dickinson didn’t care about publication, but she did want her poems to live on. She wanted to do more than publish; she wanted to be immortal, a subject discussed in many of her poems.

After lunch, we took a self-guided landscape tour, which is something you can do yourself if you visit the Emily Dickinson Museum. You can even use your cell phone and either call into a number to follow the tour or use the QR code provided. They also have wands you can use to listen to the tour if you don’t have a cell phone or don’t want to use one. The tour was narrated mostly by poet Richard Wilbur. After the tour, we met with our curriculum groups to discuss how the essential questions and key understandings for our lessons or units were shaping up.

We ended the day with a reading from Martha Ackmann, “Mary Lyon, Emily Dickinson, and Women’s Education.” Mary Lyon founded the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson went to school at the age of 16. Ackmann is writing a book tentatively titled Vesuvius at Home about ten monumental days in Dickinson’s life. Ackmann is a narrative nonfiction writer, which means her books are all factual but use the techniques of storytelling. She fictionalizes nothing. She described how she writes each chapter, and the amount of work she puts in is incredible. She mentions enjoying Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, especially praising the way he begins the book, but she dislikes the fact that he invented dialog. She will not read narrative nonfiction that doesn’t have footnotes. Her book should be out in 2018, and I will be getting it for sure after the chapter I heard, which was about Emily Dickinson’s decision to continue to question her religious beliefs. You can see this questioning over and over in the poems. Ackmann is a Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College, the institution that grew out of Mary Lyon’s school. I understand the Emily Dickinson Museum has plans to host an author event when Ackmann’s book is published, so keep your eyes on the news, and I will see you there.

Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 2

Manuscript of Franklin 1286
Manuscript of Franklin 1286 “There is no Frigate like a Book” © Dana Huff

This post is the second in a series about my experiences at the NEH workshop Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place last week. If you haven’t read the first post, you can access it here.

The second day of this workshop was one of my favorite days. We opened, as usual, with some time to write and reflect on an Emily Dickinson poem—Franklin 729, “The Props assist the House.”

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House supports itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter—
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life—
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness—then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul—

We were invited to think about the poem through the lens of teaching, and I liked the prompt so much that I plan to use it in a department meeting early in the school year.

Next, we divided into smaller groups, and though the sequence of events differed depending on the assigned group, all workshop participants had the opportunity to engage in the following experiences in some order.

My group first went to Amherst College’s Frost Library to hear a lecture from Marta Werner, an Emily Dickinson scholar—”‘She does not know a route’: Reading Emily Dickinson’s Manuscripts.” Werner invited us to think of the manuscripts Emily Dickinson left behind almost like maps, where we can see a topography and travel from one continent to another, and even from one world to another. Werner noted that she believed Dickinson’s handwriting became more ungendered over time. Her earliest manuscripts are written in what Werner describes as a more feminine hand. There is certainly a lot to think about, but regardless of whether or not one agrees with this assessment (I can actually see it, having looked at some manuscripts both in person and online), I found it fascinating to learn that her handwriting changed so much over the course of her life that it is often through her handwriting that her manuscripts are dated.

I feel I should stop and explain something you might not know anything about if you haven’t engaged in a study of Dickinson’s poetry. I mentioned in my post yesterday that the first real attempt to date Dickinson’s poetry and arrange it chronologically as well as restore, as much as anyone can, Dickinson’s intentions free from the heavy editorial hands of Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a publication of her complete poems in the 1950’s by Thomas H. Johnson. There have been two more recent publications—Ralph W. Franklin’s Variorum Edition of the poems in three volumes, which is an attempt to show all the extant manuscripts, including variants, and also variant word choices Dickinson considered on single manuscripts. There is a reader’s edition of this same work, which was our main text for the workshop, and therefore why I refer to her poems by their Franklin numbers. Franklin set out to date the poems as accurately as possible and differs from Johnson somewhat. I mentioned there have been two more recent comprehensive editions of Dickinson’s poetry since Johnson’s, but I will save discussion of the second for a future post, as later in the week I had an opportunity to study Dickinson’s poetry with the editor of that third collection.

Dickinson left behind a variety of manuscripts in many stages of development. Some were mere scraps with ideas.

Scrap Manuscript
Scrap manuscript of Franklin 1286 “There is no Frigate like a Book” © Dana Huff

In the above example, it seems clear Dickinson was playing with the phrase that would later be used in Franklin 1286 “There is no Frigate like a Book.”

Dickinson also has drafts that seem to be in a clearly unfinished state. She has fair copies and also gift copies sent to friends and family. Just because a manuscript is copied out in a fair copy or gift copy, however, does not mean that it was a final draft. Dickinson often continued to change words and lines even after making fair copies and gift copies. In addition, there are also intermediate copies that Werner describes as “worksheet manuscripts” that show the continued consideration Dickinson was giving to a poem.  Some of you may know that Dickinson bound some of her poems together in what Mabel Loomis Todd first described as “fascicles.” These were manuscripts sewn together with a needle and thread. Again, just because the poems were bound in fascicles does not mean Dickinson considered them final drafts. Dickinson was comfortable with a great deal more ambiguity and a lot less fixity than most of us. As such, we can’t really talk about her intentions with any sort of authority in some cases. We spent the remainder of our time with Werner discussing some poem variants. If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, looking at Emily Dickinson’s drafts is both interesting and maddening. You can examine many of her manuscripts online.

After Werner’s lecture, my group headed downstairs to the Frost Library’s archives. This was a real treat. We were able to examine several artifacts connected with Emily Dickinson, including the famous daguerreotype that is the only definitively authenticated picture of Emily Dickinson. It was very hard to photograph in the lighting.

Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype
Emily Dickinson daguerreotype © Dana Huff

We also were able to see a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair. The color may surprise you.

A lock of Emily Dickinson's hair
A lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair

In addition, there were also some daguerreotypes of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and George Gould, who may have been an early suitor of Dickinson’s and sent her this invitation to a candy pulling.

Candy Pulling Invitation
George Gould’s candy pulling invitation © Dana Huff

On the back of this invitation, some 25 years after receiving the invitation, Dickinson wrote the poem “I suppose the time will come” (Franklin 1389). She saved the invitation all that time, and it’s tantalizing to think she was inspired by it when she wrote the poem and to wonder what she was thinking. Was she regretful about not taking him up on it? Or was she just making use of a scrap of paper she saved out of a sense of Yankee frugality?

"I suppose the time will come"
Manuscript of Franklin 1389 “I suppose the time will come” ©  Dana Huff

We saw so many manuscripts that I will not share them all here, but I will share one last one that you will recognize.

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant"
Manuscript of Franklin 1263 “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” © Dana Huff

I promise I’m not trying to be cute by sharing a slanted photo of the poem. There was a bad glare from the lights, as you can see, and I was attempting to take a picture in a way that would not cast a shadow on it and also reduce the glare. As you may have already surmised, we were not allowed to touch any of the artifacts. I don’t know if you can see it well enough in this image, but she actually wrote this poem on graph paper. Who has a sense of humor?

After lunch, we returned to the Emily Dickinson homestead for an object workshop. My small group headed over to the Evergreens, the home of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and his wife Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Nan Wolverton of the American Antiquarian Society (here in Worcester!) allowed us to examine two objects. I partnered with my friend Whitney, and we were given a small hearth broom and wastepaper basket to examine. We learned that the objects were both made by Native Americans. The broom was probably bought from a Native American peddler who traveled door-to-door selling wares, and Dickinson describes such events in her writing. The wastepaper basket was of a Penobscot design and probably bought as a souvenir when the family vacationed in Maine. It’s weird to think that people have always bought such things when they travel as mementos.

My group had some time to reflect, which Whitney and I used as a much-needed coffee break. At 4:00 PM we returned to Amherst College for a tour of the Beneski Museum. I have to admit I was wondering why we were doing this, but our guide, who is the museum’s educator, Fred Venne,  made some intriguing connections between Dickinson’s poetry and the museum’s focal collection of dinosaur footprints. Venne is extremely funny and a great explainer. I learned that Dickinson might have studied with Edward Hitchcock, an early president of Amherst College and geologist who discovered the many examples of dinosaur tracks in Western Massachusetts. Though plate tectonics had not yet been discovered, Hitchcock apparently realized the Holyoke Range was formed through some kind of volcanic mechanism (because of the kinds of rocks he found, I imagine). In fact, had Pangaea not separated to form the coast at Boston, it might have split close to Amherst, and the coastline would look a lot different. In any case, the Holyoke Range was formed, and Emily Dickinson wrote this poem that seems wildly ahead of its time scientifically (Franklin 1691):

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography
Volcano nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home

I asked Fred Venne how on earth she could have known the Holyoke Range was formed through plate tectonics and vulcanism—it seemed like such advanced science for the time, and he told me it was because Edward Hitchcock was so advanced. He was the first to surmise that the footprints he was finding, the dinosaur tracks, were left behind by a large bird. It would be a very long time before paleontologists began thinking of dinosaurs as early birds. It was absolutely fascinating, and if you can visit the Beneski and talk to Fred Venne, you should. In the meantime, you can check out the museum’s new website. If you go to Special Features and look under “Voices,” you’ll see Emily Dickinson referenced.

I will write more about the rest of the workshop in future posts, but I hope at this point I’ve convinced you of a few things: 1) write to your representatives and senators about preserving the NEH; 2) if this workshop can continue because the NEH continues, please apply to be a part of it; it’s amazing, and 3) Emily Dickinson is a bottomless well, and one could devote a lifetime to scholarship of Dickinson and her world and always learn new things.