A Week with Emily Dickinson…

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For years I had been avoiding Emily Dickinson.  Her poetry is hard, and the popular image of her as an unknowable recluse made it easy for me to put her in the “perhaps another day” box.  When my son became a student at UMass Amherst, I drove by the Emily Dickinson Museum countless times, peeking into the windows and wondering if it was time to take the first step. I began by visiting the Museum’s website and learning about the Dickinson family. Easier to access than her poetry, I learned about her family’s relationship with Amherst College and the compelling story of how Dickinson’s poetry was discovered and published.

But when I started to read her poetry, I was frustrated. Although I’m a good reader and can usually discern an author’s meaning, Emily Dickinson does not give the reader that luxury. Reading one poem quickly basically gives you nothing. It requires, as one of last week’s speakers said, “some ironing out.”  But I was interested enough to pursue her – or more accurately, frustrated by the riddle-like nature of her poetry.

During one of my visits to the Museum’s website, I saw a reference to a week-long program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and decided to learn more. In my letter, I was honest about my struggles to understand Dickinson’s poetry, but expressed enthusiasm for grappling with her work. But after being accepted, I was a little unsettled. What if the other participants “got” every poem after one reading!

Luckily, that was not the case. In fact, the best part of the program was reading Dickinson with others. Talking and re-reading and being guided by leading Dickinson scholars, I began to realize that the rewards for reading Dickinson are great, but not easily gained. Emily Dickinson was a brave writer who confronted things head-on.  She was subversive and engaged – not at all the caricature we latch on to of a woman unaware and uninterested in the world around her.

We spent the week immersed in Dickinson’s world, but looked at her life through a broad lens. One of the most interesting sessions took place at the Jones Library in Amherst where we looked at objects related to life in the mid-1800s. At a table filled with material related to the Civil War years in Amherst, I began reading an 1861 sermon delivered by Rev. William Stearns, the third president of Amherst College. I opened the document expecting to read a few pages before moving on to something else, but nearly 45 minutes went by before I looked up and remembered where I was.

The days were full and demanding, in the best way. There were lectures, small group sessions, poetry discussion groups, and curriculum planning.  At the close of the formal day, several of us gathered for dinner during which the conversation and questions continued.

There’s a lot more to say, but honestly, I’m still working through the experience myself. I keep returning to something the Dickinson scholar, Joanne Dobson, said: “We don’t read Emily Dickinson. She reads us.”

I’m not intimidated by reading Dickinson’s poems anymore.  They challenge and confuse me, but she is worth the effort. And I’ve just explored the tip of the iceberg.

One of Dickinson’s famous “envelope poems”

Emily Dickinson’s gravesite

Mid-Summer Reflection….

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Summertime and the living is…..kind of busy actually, but in a good way.  Ordering books for school, meeting with my book group kids at Buttonwood Books and Toys, and reading – along with helping my son get ready to move to his first post-college apartment. No complaints.

Next week I will be in Amherst to participate in a program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place – a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Humanities.  Along with other middle and high school English teachers, I will spend the week immersed in Emily Dickinson’s world, and according to the description, gain “a deeper understanding of the forces that shaped Dickinson’s development as a poet and a greater appreciation for the quiet yet powerful presence she exerted at home, within her community, and, now, throughout the world. A diverse range of experiences will illuminate Dickinson’s life and poetry and inspire you to share that poetry as well as Dickinson’s story with your students back home.”

Although I’ve never included Dickinson’s poetry into our middle school literature classes, her themes: death, faith, science, and love, connect with almost every book we read. One connection I’m especially interested in exploring is how to integrate our reading of Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, with Dickinson’s poetry.  Although the two women write about dramatically different personal experiences that were separated by 150 years, they both challenge readers to think about their identities and beliefs.

Other book related news….

The New Yorker has a wonderful piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of E.L. Konigsburg’s classic novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Here’s a link:

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler-fifty-years-later

I recently reviewed Kat Yeh’s new middle grade novel, The Way to Bea, for School Library Journal – and loved it. The factor that moved her book into “starred review” territory is the way Yeh’s secondary characters come to life.  Bea, the protagonist, is wonderful, but her supporting cast do not feel like stock characters, rather each is distinct and memorable. Here’s an excerpt from my review.:

“Seventh grader Beatrix Lee puts a lot of faith in haiku. Since her family and friendships are changing dramatically, Bea abandons her love of free verse poetry and takes solace in the haiku’s dependable five-seven-five rhyme scheme. After an embarrassing incident at a pool party causes a painful rift with her longtime best friend, Bea writes most of her poetry in invisible ink, a reflection of the loneliness she feels at school and at home, where her parents are happily preparing for a new baby. Bea’s love of words starts to reemerge with the encouragement of a supportive librarian who introduces her to the kids at Broadside, the school newspaper. During lunch time, Bea takes refuge in the Broadside office, where she meets Briggs, the paper’s editor, who makes her feel like a valued member of a team, and Will, who is obsessed with labyrinths…..As Bea works her way through the maze of new friendships and a new role in her family, she begins to see herself and her friends more clearly.”

Once again, I’ve gone “off list” from my summer reading plan.  I’m currently reading a short memoir, The Hue and Cry At Our House: A Year Remembered by Benjamin Taylor.  I read about it on a book website and started reading it later that day.  The jumping off point is Taylor’s memory of being eleven-years-old and meeting his hero, President John F. Kennedy. He shook the President’s hand in Fort Worth, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963.  Of course, only a few hours later, Taylor’s teacher announces that the President had been shot in Dallas.

Taylor grew up in a financially privileged Jewish family at a time when the world was going through seismic changes, and the book is an elegantly written story of one boy’s coming of age.

Finally….rocks.  During a morning walk earlier this week, I passed by a house with this on their front steps:

I’ll be back after spending the week with Emily…maybe I will leave a rock in her garden!