Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1800 poems, so where does an educator begin? Here are some suggestions from teachers who have successfully taught Dickinson’s poetry:
Focus on words. Make a teacher-generated or a student-generated “Dickinson vocabulary list.” What words does she use often? Are these words that the students know and/or use? If not, have them look up their dictionary definitions. Do these definitions seem to fit the way Dickinson uses the words? Older students may want to check their definitions against definitions from the Emily Dickinson Lexicon.
Read a Dickinson poem aloud to the class. Have them make a “bubble map” of words and then write a response to the images that they find most intriguing in the poem. The response can be either a poem or a paragraph.
Dickinson’s poems are full of distinct visual imagery, although she also leaves much to the imagination. Have students select and illustrate a Dickinson poem.
A good poem to discuss the use of metaphor and symbol is “Blazing in Gold and Quenching in Purple” (Fr321), a description of a sunset.
Abstract and Concrete: “Definition” and “Riddle” Poems
Emily Dickinson wrote many poems that are “definitions,” in which she describes something abstract with something concrete. Have the students read several of these poems and compare Dickinson’s “definitions” with a dictionary’s definitions of the words. What does a poetic example bring to the meaning? How does it illuminate the word in ways that the dictionary might not. Why might Dickinson have written poems like these? Have students choose an abstract word and then write a prose definition and a poetic definition.
- “Death is a Dialogue between” (Fr973)
- “Doom is the house without the door” (Fr710)
- “Exhilaration is the breeze” (Fr1157)
- “Experience is the angled Road” (Fr899)
- “Faith is the pierless Bridge” (Fr978)
- “Fame is a bee” (Fr1788)
- “Fame is a fickle food” (Fr1702)
- “Glory is that bright tragic thing” (Fr1700)
- “God is a distant – stately Lover” (Fr615)
- “Grief is a Mouse” (Fr753)
- “Hope is a strange invention” (Fr1424)
- “Hope is a subtle glutton” (Fr1493)
- “Hope” is the things with feathers” (Fr321)
- “Noon – is the Hinge of Day” (Fr1060)
- “Paradise is that old Mansion” (Fr1144)
- “Presentiment – is that long shadow -bon the Lawn” (Fr487)
- “The Lightning is a yellow Fork” (Fr1140)
- “Wonder is – not precisely knowing” (Fr1347)
Dickinson also wrote so-called “riddle poems” These are not unlike her “definition” poems, except that they do not state explicitly what the poem is describing. What are these about? Have students write a riddle poem.
- “I like to see it lap the miles” (a train) (Fr383)
- “A narrow fellow in the grass” (a snake) (Fr1096)
- “It sifts from leaden sieves” (snow) (Fr291)
- “A route of evanescence” (hummingbird) (Fr1489)
Dickinson in Translation
Emily Dickinson is popular throughout the world, and her work has been translated into many languages. Foreign language teachers might have students translate a Dickinson poem. What words were difficult to translate? What about the syntax? Why was it difficult? What was easy?