I am a married man, have been for the last 7–wait–8 years, and I have to say that I have the highest respect for the institution of marriage, as far as it symbolizes the total commitment of two people to stand by each other no matter how fat, stupid, and hairy they may become in their latter years. However, I must admit that there are certain conditions under which I would allow that Celeste or I may justifiably harbor what kids these days refer to as a “crush” on an extra-marital third-party entity.
In Celeste’s case, I am totally permisive of her deep-but-unrequited feelings for handbags, expensive leave-in hair conditioner, and Neko Case.
I can only pray that she will be equally as understanding as I admit here that I have just a tiny little crush on Emily Dickinson. Yes, I know, I reveal too much, but isn’t that what blogs are for?
Frankly, I blame my new crush on this weeks’ classes, in which we read some of the best poetry ever written. Here’s why I like Emily Dickinson a little more than a “friend”: Her poems are simple, often even juvenile, while at the same time dealing with big important topics like the purposes of life and death. But these big important topics don’t scare her way from irony. The world reflected in her poetry is as important and serious as it is sort of ridiculous, pointless even. What’s the difference between the black-dyed-hair kid with black eye-liner sitting on a bench at school weeping as he listens to Slipknot, and an Emily Dickinson poem about death? A sense of humor. And that, in the immortal words of William Carlos Williams, “made all the difference.” Oh wait–that was Frost. According to William Carlos Williams, humor was that thing on which “so much depended.” Or was that a wheelbarrow? A rooster, maybe? Anyway, you get my point.
Emily Dickinson. Instead of going into all the usual biographical details, the first day this week we spent talking about her poetry. Specifically, we read, annotated, and discussed the poem “Because I could not stop for Death”: “Because I could not stop for death” annotation
I went into this discussion having glanced at this poem once or twice (and having read it myself, I can only suppose, in high school) because I wanted to see what the class members would come up with, free from the influence of the teacher’s massive, totally overwhelming genius. And what they came up with was great.
Which brings me to my next point: How can I summarize 5 hours of deep poetry discussions on this blog? I can’t. I refuse. The best way to hear how bored high school kids deal with a hyperactive, twitterpated teacher forcing Emily Dickinson death poetry down their throats would be in its podcast form. I’m working on it. Until then, here are a few highlights
- the narrator didn’t necessarily wantto die (could not stop), but was polite and accommodating when death stopped to pick her up
- the carriage ride to death was slow; time has a way of expanding and contracting in this poem so that moments last forever and entire lives pass in a flash
- as they drive along, they see images of youth, maturation, and old age in the form of schoolchildren, ripe fields, and the setting sun
- the children are playing in “the Ring,” which was a topic of great discussion in each class; most students agreed that the most exciting interpretation of the “Ring” was that they were playing “Ring Around the Roses,” a fun game that children play that refers to death
- they pass the setting sun, and then it passes them…what the? we couldn’t figure this out, although it does seem to have something to do with being outside of the regular flow of time, dying, and maybe a rebirth? a backwards rebirth? the sun moves backwards?
- she find herself dressed in “Gossamer” and “Tulle,” which, though they are fine, expensive threads, may remind you of the decomposing rags worn by many zombies and various other living dead characters in movies and literature
- the coach finally arrives at her new house which seems a mere “swelling in the ground,” which most students had no trouble figuring out was a grave
Now, I just implied that the “smart” students know how to decode the poetic language to figure out what’s reallyhappening in the poem. That’s stupid. There are all kinds of things happening in this poem. An allegory relating to physical death is merely one of them. Students found imagery they related to childbirth, jilted love, animal husbandry, Freudian psychology, you name it.
Emily Dickinson’s poems are chock full of possibilities. While many of the poems certainly refer to death, for example, she gives us giddy readers ample opportunity to interpret “death” in so many different ways, ranging from serious, life-threatening disappointment, to mild heartburn following an Amherst Junior League pot luck. In fact, the second-to-last slide in the biography presentation I put together for day two has numerous quotes from her poetry that indicate how much she loved the unrequited struggle for meaning, maintaining open possibilities, and simply not-knowing. Here’s the presentation: Dickinson bio, quotes, graveyard activity
You’ll notice that the last slide has a bit of an assignment on it, an activity that combined all the fun of elementary school at Halloween-time with all of the wit and wisdom of Emily Dickinson. The poems students selected for their graveyard markers actually fuelled two days’ discussion as we tried to put together some kind of theory about Death in Dickinson’s universe. This is a discussion which is at this moment spilling over into students’ response papers. I suggest you pop over to our class Netvibes page to read more about this. Suffice it to say, every new poem we read over the past two days added a new twist to what we thought her attitude was. The only other author I can think of who can be this delightfully hard to pin down is Shakespeare, and that, in the immortal words of William Carlos Williams, “is a very good thing.”