On Choosing the Poems
This week we present several more student projects on poems from Steve Glazer’s unit on Emily Dickinson. To contextualize the work the students do, we offer a section from Steve’s lesson plan for the unit, “There’s a Certain Slant of Line: Emily Dickinson’s Sound, Sense, and Syntax.” Note that all the “textbooks” he refers to–grammar, rhetoric, dictionary, Bible, and hymnal–come from the Dickinson family library. Steve took photographs from the replica collection in the Amherst Historical Society and we include images of them here.
from Lesson Plan: “There’s a Certain Slant of Line: Emily Dickinson’s Sound, Sense, and Syntax.” Glazer, Sound Sense Syntax-Full Lesson Plan
Students will approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry from three perspectives: sound, syntax, and sense.
Introduce the essential questions:
(i) What makes a poem memorable?
(ii) What factors contribute to the distinctive power of Emily Dickinson’s poetry?
(A) We will begin by reading this Dickinson poem aloud. Listen carefully. We will change the reader with the changing of each line. We’ll read it through twice . . . and then a third time as a chorus.
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain – (F620, J435)
(B) Titles . . . or not!
Notice . . . there is not a title. Emily Dickinson rarely titled her poems. Because of that, students of poetry refer to the poems using the first line, in this case “Much Madness is divinest Sense.” Many scholars use R. W. Franklin’s manuscript numbering system. This poem, composed in 1863, is also referred to as Franklin number 620, or F 620. You can find the Franklin number by consulting The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Fascicle information can be found using the index in Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them. Digital images of the manuscripts can be found at the Emily Dickinson Archive, www.edickinson.org,
Neatly and accurately transcribe this poem on a sheet of lined paper. Skip lines to leave room for your annotation and analysis.
Look at the punctuation. What do you notice? Highlight Dickinson’s punctuation using a yellow colored pencil. How many times does she employ a dash in this short poem? Can you describe the different ways that Dickinson uses her dashes? Dickinson seems to employ dashes to meet a variety of punctuation needs: to pause,to separate syntactical units, for apposition (or renaming); for contrast; as a vehicle for parallel construction.
The Dickinson library included a copy of Well’s A Grammar of the English Language (1846). Here are the instructions for the use of dashes:
What do you notice about Emily Dickinson’s use of capitalization? Highlight her capital letters using a green colored pencil. The Dickinson library included a copy of Well’s A Grammar of the English Language (1846). Here are the lessons concerning capitalization of letters:
(F) Stanza Form
Count the lines! Number them! The poetic term for a stanza with eight lines is an OCTAVE. While Dickinson wrote many octaves, she often composed using the quatrain, or four-line stanza.
(G) Line Length
Read the poem silently and make a mark for each syllable. Can you find see or hear pattern in the length of Dickinson’s lines? In fact, Emily Dickinson paid careful attention to the rhythm of her lines. Most (but not all) of her poems feature lines with six to eight syllables. The family library included The Sabbath Hymn Book, which featured many hymns like this one by Isaac Watts:
(J) Slant Rhyme
Students and scholars of poetry use the term slant (or “half”) rhyme to describe a partial rhyme. Dickinson is a master of slant rhyme! She will complete or close her rhyme using an incredible array of approaches: repeating the first letter (alliteration), repeating a vowel (assonance) or consonant (consonance) sound, repeating a single letter, or a sequence of letters that look the same yet sound different (eye rhyme).
One way of making a poem more memorable–and more musical–is by repeating the initial sound of a word. You can think of this as being a bit like the opposite of rhyme: instead of repeating the ending sound, a writer is repeating (or echoing) an initial sound.
Powerful writers bring careful attention to diction, to their word choice. Sounds can also be repeated across and within many words or lines. Read the first two lines aloud. What sounds do you believe that Dickinson is playing with?
Authors repeat sounds; they also repeat words. Repeating a word (or words) at the beginning of a line is called anaphora. Find it.
Authors also repeat words but change their order. Chiasmus means “crossing.” Find it.
Antithesis is the parallel presentation of paired opposites. Find it.
Clearly, Dickinson cares about her diction, her word choice. She also owned and used the 1844 edition of Noah Webster’s Dictionary. Below are the 1844 definitions of assent and demur:
(Q) Is My Verse Alive?
On April 15, 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to T. W. Higginson and asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Clearly it is alive: vibrant, compressed, and startling.
Curiously, Newman’s A Practical System of Rhetoric (1839), part of the Dickinson family library, offers these pointers to achieving “vivacity,” or life, in composition:
Do you see these qualities in Dickinson’s work?
Here are six more poems and the wonderful projects produced by the Crossroads students.
"Hope" is the thing with
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without
the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale -
is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the
That kept so many warm –
I've heard it in the chillest
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
I see thee better in the dark,
I do not need a light,
The love of thee a prism be
I see thee better for the years
That hunch themselves between,
The miner's lamp sufficient be
To nullify the mine.
And in the grave I see thee best –
Its little panels be
A'glow, all ruddy with the light
I held so high for thee!
What need of day to those whose dark
Hath so surpassing sun,
It deem it be continually
At the meridian?
An illustration by a Crossroads student.
The Moon is distant from
the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –
He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward
the Town –
Just so far – goes away –
Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –
An illustration by a Crossroads student:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them
lift a Box
And creak across my Brain
With those same Boots of
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in
And I dropped down, and
And hit a World, at every
And Finished knowing – then -
+Crash +Got through–
A recitation of the poem by a Crossroads student, in a suitably creepy locale!
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
'Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Link to EDA manuscript. [Please note that this poem will get full treatment in next week's post.]
A recitation of There's a Certain Slant by a Crossroads student, with her illustration.
How many Flowers fail in Wood –
Or perish from the Hill –
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful –
How many cast a nameless Pod
Opon the nearest Breeze –
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight –
It bear to other eyes –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXV, Fascicle 28-10. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (137a,b) I reckon – when I count at all -, J569, Fr533; How many Flowers fail in Wood -, J404, Fr534. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Further Poems (1929), 82, from the fascicle copy (B).
Here is a Crossroads student's close reading of this poem.