Encountering Emily: A Close Reading of "Hope is the thing with feathers"

Timothy DykeTimothy Dyke is a fiction writer and MFA candidate at the University of Arizona.  He currently holds the field trip internship position at the Poetry Center, leading and creating content for field trips for students of all ages.

During October and November, two groups of students from Tucson High School visited the Poetry Center for field trip experiences focusing on the work of Emily Dickinson.  As a writer, reader and teacher, of course I was delighted to converse with young people about the poetry of this great American writer. As an education intern at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, I found myself confronted with this question: what can Emily Dickinson mean to teenagers in Tucson today in 2011?

There are, of course, answers to this question. Some educators might focus on the biography of Dickinson. Perhaps students would draw inspiration from learning about this original and independent woman who refused to allow society's expectations to hinder her dreams of personal expression. 

Teachers who are experts in American literature might be able to place the work of this particular poet in some kind of historical perspective, and perhaps this would be useful to students who aspire to learn more about language and literature.  While I respect the notion of studying literature from a biographical and historical perspective, I quickly figured out that I was not the right person to teach from those points of view. Maybe I just don't consider myself to be an expert in the biography of Emily Dickinson or in the history of American arts and letters. If I want to teach from any kind of expertise, I had to ask myself what I know.  Is there anything I feel particularly knowledgeable about when it comes to Emily Dickinson?

I suppose I see myself as an expert in making myself open to beauty and complexity.  If that seems vague, what I mean is this: I don't know everything there is to know about Emily Dickinson, but I know how to enjoy her work, and I know how to make myself receptive to all she has to offer. This, then, became my goal: engage Tucson High School students for an hour and a half in some way that focused on enjoyment and receptivity. If all went well, students would leave the Poetry Center with a sense that reading a Dickinson poem was useful, helpful, maybe even fun.

To begin my field trip workshops with my two different groups from Tucson High, I began by talking to them about how they usually read poems.  Students used words like "analyze," "close read," and "translate."  I don't have a problem with careful consideration of poetic texts, but I proposed that on this day of our field trip we would consider the idea of "interacting" with a poem as opposed to "breaking it down."  I used the analogy of music: one can certainly learn about music by examining the way a song is technically composed, but one can also learn about a song by dancing to it, by putting it on in the background while one cooks dinner.  Today we were going to dance and cook and live with Emily's poems a bit.  In one session I used the poem that begins "Hope is the thing with feathers," and in the other I used "Tell all the truth but tell it slant."  

We circled words and talked about why we thought they were significant. We discussed what hope and truth might mean. We drew the poems, sang them, acted them out, and drummed out their rhythms. In one session I gave the students the lines of the Dickinson poem printed out of order and asked them to reconstruct the poem as if it were a puzzle. The underlying idea in all of these activities was to approach the poetry as a complex system with music and meaning and order in the lines. We would face all this complexity through play. By playing with the poems, we'd sneak up on some of the work.

When our field trip sessions ended, the creative writing and honors English teacher asked her students if they could believe that they worked on just one poem for an hour and a half.  The students laughed, and talked about what they enjoyed.  If they learned anything, I hope they learned that a poem, especially an Emily Dickinson poem, contains multitudes. Certainly there is enough in a good poem to sustain one's imagination and spirit and intellect for an hour and a half. Perhaps there is enough in each single Dickinson poem to sustain a person's creative side for a lifetime.  If hope is the thing with feathers, then my hope is that these students left the Poetry Center wanting to spend more time with poetry. If one should tell all the truth but tell it slant, then I would like to think it is true enough to say that we did everything I could possibly think of to interact with one poem, and in doing all that, we hardly did anything at all; when it comes to encountering the poetry of Emily Dickinson, there is so much more to be done.

Download Tim's lesson plan here.

Created on: 
Monday, November 28, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents