“So We must meet apart”: #NationalPoetryMonth 2017 and My Journey with Emily Dickinson

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

“[I cannot live with You (640)],” Emily Dickinson

I stumbled into college a hyper-student, with greater parts ignorant arrogance than knowledge or awareness.

By traditional schooling metrics, I was a very smart redneck.

Formal education had convinced me I was a math and science person; therefore, I often stated in my first two years attending a local junior college that I intended to major in physics—that wonderful nexus of math and science.

But then college intervened. During my first survey literature course, my professor, Dean Carter, asked me to tutor for all his classes. I was stunned and initially balked at the idea.

Dean Carter was effusive in his praise of my work in the course, and I gave in, mostly, I think, because tutoring was a paying position. This moment, however, is the foundation of my becoming both a teacher and a writer, I believe.

During my first year of college because of a speech class where I discovered e.e. cummings, I also started writing poetry. Yet, making the transition from math/science guy to English guy was still slow in coming.

My junior college experience, as you may be able to tell already, was extremely important in steering me toward who I am as a person and professionally. Those years, though, were not without bumps.

There, I found myself in Mr. Pruitt’s class for the second time, the first being a positive experience in which we covered some standard American literature I had enjoyed in high school—Thoreau and Emerson standing out in my memory.

This second class began by covering what felt like at the time every single poem by Emily Dickinson, who I genuinely did not enjoy.

Mr. Pruitt had a condition causing him to shake, his head always in motion, and he, like my French professor, was a chain smoker. (This was the late 1970s, early 1980s when smoking was common in every situation casual or formal.)

And Mr. Pruitt loved Emily Dickinson.

These were the days of ditto machines, a copying process that involved typing onto paper with a purple ink sheet behind it in order to create a master to run through the ditto machine; the product was a slightly damp stack of papers reeking of chemicals.

Mr. Pruitt’s Dickinson test was on 8.5 x 14 paper with prompts and questions squeezed into every inch of white space, even sideways along the left and right margins as well as crammed against the top and bottom edges.

Let me return for a second here to the hyper-student claim in the opening: throughout high school, I was capable of making As and Bs without much effort, very little studying.

Before Mr. Pruitt’s Dickinson test, I likely spent more time recreational beer drinking than studying or even reading the poems by Dickinson assigned.

I made a 62.

At that point of college, I was already more of an A student than the A/B student of high school so that 62 soured my attitude about Mr. Pruitt and English, but it completely poisoned my view of Dickinson.

After junior college, I declared a secondary education major when I transferred to a local hyphenated campus of the state university, focusing on English certification. I also dedicated myself to taking as many upper-level courses as the so-called “straight” English majors did.

I graduated college very dedicated to a career as a teacher and extremely aware that I was a writer, specifically a poet. For about a decade or more, I must confess, I carried my disdain for Dickinson into my high school English classes.

And then, from 1995 until 1998, I continued to teach high school full time, adjuncting as well at local colleges, and enrolled in my doctoral program, where I wrote a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant for my dissertation.

My doctoral work included my own commitment to read as many biographies of women as possible along with my scholarly examination of feminist theory on biography, education biography, and the history of education in the U.S.

Toward the end of my program, I discovered The Passion of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr, a literary biography that carefully confronted Dickinson’s life in a way I had never experienced before. Farr anchored her biographical considerations in Dickinson’s poetry and letters, emphasizing poems often not a part of the traditional canon of what we teach, which tells students Dickinson is obsessed with death, and once wrote about a snake [1].

Of course, despite my being a poet and an avid reader/writer, I had simply failed to see Emily Dickinson reflected in the grandeur of her work, her words. And that was traceable back to how she had been taught, misrepresented, in formal English classrooms, including the singular daguerreotype:

Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database

Several things changed for me then.

I pledged to be more intentional about what I taught my students in terms of author biography, and I began to work even more carefully about honoring the sanctity of what I taught over other less important objectives: echoing Dewey [2] from my doctoral work, I began to ask what did it avail me or my students to badger them with canonical poetry and scansion if that experience made them not want to read poetry.

Just as men “edited” Dickinson’s found treasure of poetry to make it publishable, Dickinson has been reduced to a caricature, and the canon of her poems further misrepresents her, glossing over her full humanity, her womanhood, and her richness as an artist/poet.

My journey with Dickinson also included Adrienne Rich’s brilliant and revolutionary examination, “Vesuvius at Home.” My classes already included joyful lessons on Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, all of whom had been taught wonderfully to me by Dr, Nancy Moore over my junior and senior years of college.

After my conversion, then, I began to include “Wild Nights—Wild Nights! (249)”—yes, Dickinson was sexual, even erotic, and she played with gender expectations of her poem’s personas—and “This World is not Conclusion (373),” my favorite Dickinson because the first line includes a period, creating tension with “not Conclusion” and student expectations of Dickinson’s use of punctuation.

“I cannot live with You – ,” Dickinson’s speaker begins, adding later: “I could not die – with You –.” And then the tension that in many ways defines her life and her poetry:

They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –

“So We must meet apart – ,” the speaker concludes, Dickinson ending the poem with the single “Despair – .”

And there we are confronted with poetry—the human compulsion to capture our experience through words, as expression and investigation.


Notes

[1] The traditional canon and formalized ways of teaching women writers often, I think, is at least shaded by the misogynistic “hysterical” marginalizing of women. Male writers return again and again to universal themes or are hard drinkers and womanizers, but women writers are “obsessed” or disproportionately reduced to suicidal and/or psychotic.

[2] John Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

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One thought on ““So We must meet apart”: #NationalPoetryMonth 2017 and My Journey with Emily Dickinson

  1. Thank you for this post! It was wonderful to read because of its experience and honesty. I think this post is also important to read because of this experience and honesty. I also appreciate background links with the ditto machines link!
    I thought of other people outside of myself reading it and what they might get from it. Looking from students or younger people, many stories have similar patterns as this story. It’s affirming for these youth to see someone’s story, to see that someone else went through the same thing. For example, they might see that their teacher had the same path, changed majors, or felt the same way about the material they are reading. Another more specific example would be looking through the eyes of an English major who is questioning poetry or writing. They might see this post and think to look differently at that material, and even change their views.
    This post was also important, I think, in stepping back and looking at the power over narrative teachers hold and how easy it is to just give a fraction of the author’s work. This perspective is not always talked about, and also shows how easily students can be influenced, too, if the work is something they don’t research on the topic or follow it on their own.
    Anyone can be influenced forever by one small thing and we never know what that one thing just may be.
    Thank you, again, for writing this! This is applicable to everyone, and something that should be explored in everyone, with everyone’s passion or interests.

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