Mixing It Up with Dickinson

Two high school poetry workshops.

The following essay was originally published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative in The T&W Guide to Classic American Literature edited by Christopher Edgar and Gary Lenhart (2001).

Attempting to understand Emily Dickinson sometimes puts me in mind of the last lines of her Poem 1400—” That those who know her know her less/ The nearer her they get—.” The mystery and delight, ambiguity and power of Dickinson’s genius make her, in my opinion, almost a force of Nature, something to be reckoned with yet always beyond our grasp. She stands as a model of fiercely determined artistic choice, of incomparable linguistic artistry, and of an independent woman’s insistence, as Adrienne Rich put it, “… to have it out at last/ on [her] own premises.” In 1998, thanks to an NBC Classics in the Class­ room Writing Residency, I was able to bring the power of her words to a class of eleventh graders at Detroit’s Henry Ford High School, where I had been working as poet-in-residence. I was curious to know how Detroit teens would respond to her, and I wanted to see how her writing could trigger theirs. Later that spring, I used Dickinson as the focus of a series of poetry workshops at Western Michigan University with high school students attending the Michigan Youth Arts Festival.

“Dear World”: Dickinson in Detroit

Because so many unfortunate biographical myths, oversimplifications and distortions abound about Emily Dickinson, Roberta Herter (the class­ room teacher at Henry Ford High School) and I decided to start our study of Dickinson by presenting students with her letters, thus giving them a chance to know something of her voice, style, and biography. One of the most erroneous stereotypes of the poet is that of a mad isolate who renounced the world around her. While it is true that, for the latter part of her life, Dickinson avoided visitors and “never left her Father’s grounds,” she was nevertheless deeply engaged with many friends and relatives, chiefly through letters.

The portion of her correspondence discovered to date includes nearly 1,200 letters addressed to more than ninety correspondents and has been compiled in a three-volume collection, The Letters of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas Johnson. Given the sheer volume of her correspondence, Roberta and I felt fortunate to discover a thoughtful, classroom­friendly selection of letters from a commercially-produced resource—Reading Emily’s Mail by Linda Boxleitner—which arranges some of the better-known letters into useful groupings and provides exercises on describing the author’s voice and identifying poetic language. The students worked in groups of three or four, examining packets of letters addressed either to Dickinson’s cousins, to her girlhood friends, to the publisher Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to the mysterious “Master,” to Judge Otis Lord (suggested by some as the recipient of the passionate “Master” letters), or to Helen Hunt Jackson, a fellow writer and friend. The students responded almost immediately to the passion and emotion in Dickinson’s writing, were perplexed and intrigued by some of her phrasings, and were curious about the Master letters, which I showed them in facsimile.

After a couple of days with the letters and some discussion of Dickinson’s life, family, and home, I felt that the students were ready to begin looking at some poems. Among the first poems I gave them, along with “This is my letter to the world” and “She staked her feathers—gained an Arc,” was “Some keep the Sabbath”:


Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard, for a Dome—

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton-sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.

I put two columns on the board with the titles EMILY and CHURCH, and asked the students to identify contrasts between Dickinson’s way of worship and that of the church: that of her Bobolink to the church’s choir, the sky instead of the dome, and so on. The students were quick to identify the differences and to appreciate her lack of orthodoxy, her worship of nature, and her independence. For these teens, many of whom come from highly religious families, the idea of personal, self­determined worship was surprisingly appealing. Next I talked about the patriarchal relations in Dickinson’s family and explained how she had never entered into the church her family attended, despite the fact that by her father’s doing it had been built right across the street from their home. I also told the story of how she’d been a “no-hoper”—i.e., she had refused to declare herself as “saved” for Christ during revival season at Mt. Holyoke when she was a student there. One student, Tanisha, raised her fist in the air on that one, a right-on sister gesture that amazed and delighted me.

Throughout our conversation, I tried to stress Dickinson’s independence of thought and lifestyle. I agree with the views of many contemporary critics who see Dickinson’s rejection of nineteenth-century society as a willed and ultimately triumphant assertion of her own individualism. She was determined not to be trapped by the “dimity convictions” or restricted definitions of what was possible for a woman of her time. By retreating inside her tightly drawn boundaries and “selecting her own Society,” she retained control over her emotional life and created space for her genius. But another quality I love to stress about Dickinson is her sense of humor. How can we fail to admire the wit of a poet who tells us “I like a look of Agony/Because I know it’s true”; who, when her mother tells her to turn over a new leaf, writes, “I call that the Foliage Admoni­ tion”; or who deflates ministerial pomposity with “He spoke upon Breadth/Till it argued him narrow”?

Continuing our discussion of “Some keep the Sabbath,” I wrote circumference on the board, drew a big circle with known on the inside and unknown on the outside and talked about the limits of knowing that ever perplexed and attracted Dickinson. I mentioned her idea that “The Brain is wider than the Sky” and discussed “My Business is Circumference”—a declaration she made early in her life (Letter 268). Dickinson’s preoccupation with her concept of circumference coincides with her desire to transcend received knowledge; for instance, in Letter 950 she commented, “The Bible dealt with the Centre, not with the Circumference—.” Engagement with circumference creates “vaster attitudes” that erase boundaries between dual concepts such as the known/the unknown, inside/outside, life/death, and so on. The imagery in many of Dickinson’s poems carries the reader into vast, ungrounded territory, resulting in a let­ ting-go of conventional concepts.

Finally, I mentioned that reaching beyond the limits of circumference rewarded Dickinson with moments of sacred revelation, and I connected her isolation from the world with these intense spiritual and intellectual preoccupations. Her commitment to this project of “knowing” what cannot be known—the “uncertain certainty” as she so aptly puts it in Poem 1411—must have undergirded many of her life choices. In fact, a concordance to Dickinson reveals that “know” is the most frequent verb Dickinson employs in her poetry. I wrapped up the session by emphasizing Dickinson’s desire to probe the unknowable and answer unanswerable questions. I asked the students to generate a list of questions, then pick one to answer in a short poem, as a sort of “mini-exercise,” trying to connect it with Dickinson and her desire to probe “the uncertain certainty.” Before class ended, each student had shared a question.

Why ask why?
Where did time come from?
What did I do to deserve so much agony and pain? Will my life end in suicide?
Will death take my mother the same way he took my father? Why am I so tired?
Why is everybody so down? Why am I so confused?
Why did I come to school today?
Why do I want to climb out of this window? Why do I feel so crazy?
Why do they say the earth moves but we can't feel it? How does the sun light up so many places at one time? Why does Ashley have on all black?

The next day we read more poems, and I gave them choices for writing using Dickinson’s first lines as springboards. They began, and the hour filled quickly. Many chose to do their own versions of “This is my Letter to the World”—pieces which, not surprisingly for a group of Detroit teens, took on racism, crime, and urban violence. Dale used the entree to take issue with a world in which he felt freedom was a sham. His world, or white racist society, is “always watching/ scared to see us united.” Krystal addressed a world filled with crime and violence before “retreating into her little ranch (house).” “Do you miss me?” she queried, “Because I do not miss you.” Rachael expressed a similar bitterness:

Dear World

You never told me about 
unfairness. I had to experience 
that myself.
You never assured me of my safety 
but threw me in the arms of 

You never wrote to me.
From Day One you showed 
me I wasn't accepted.
Every obstacle I passed, you
disowned me more.

You were my only hope
but when I needed you the 
most you turned your back on

This is my first and last letter to
the world, just to express my 
gratitude and tell you thank you, 
thank you
for nothing.

—Rachael Head

After a number of students had shared their drafts, I told them that on my next visit they could choose to deal with poems about God, birds, or pain, since I’d collected packets of poems on each of these topics. They decided that God was too controversial, birds were boring, but pain was something they could all identify with. I began our next session by asking them to identify what kinds of things cause pain and to give reasons for what they had to say. The list was lengthy, ranging from physical injury, having a friend move away, losing a loved one, and not being able to help someone in need, to racism and parental abuse. They opened up and were willing to tell their stories, for which I was appreciative. I view this kind of storytelling and sharing of personal experiences as an important part of writing. As each student shares a story, others listen and formulate or reflect on their own experiences. Dale described his anguish at seeing a woman on a bus going into an epileptic seizure and not being able to help her. Martina had recently been in an emergency room with an asthma attack and described the smell of fear and the panicky feeling of not being able to breathe.

The Dickinson poems I selected on this topic ranged from the acerbic to the tender to the Gothic or surreal.


She dealt her pretty words like 
Blades—How glittering they shone—
And every One unbared a 
Nerve Or wantoned with a 

She never deemed—she hurt— 
That—is not Steel's Affair-
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh— 
How ill the Creatures bear-
To Ache is human—not polite— 
TheFilm upon the eye 
Mortality's old Custom—
Just locking up—to Die.


The Bustle in a House 
The Morning after 
Death Is solemnest of 
industries Enacted upon 

TheSweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use 
again Until Eternity.


There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
 So Memory can step
Around—across-upon it—
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye— 
Would drop Him-Bone by Bone.

Once we had read the poems, I told the students how “The Bustle in a House” meant so much to a friend who had recently lost her husband, and how her daughter had set the poem to music and sung it at the funeral service. The students were taken with lines such as “The Sweeping up the Heart” and intrigued by “There is a pain—so utter,” especially by its concluding image of walking over the abyss in a swoon. I asked them to think of an experience or a topic related to pain and then to make a list of images, in three columns (sight/ sound/ other senses), that related to their topic. After they had spent some time on this, I asked the students to start a poem and encouraged them to freely borrow lines or phrases of Dickinson’s language, if they found them useful. As they had previously with “This is my letter to the World,” some chose to use one of Dickinson’s lines as a first line. The pieces seemed to have personal significance for the students. Brandii wrote about her grandfather who had recently died. Shannon adapted Dickinson’s rhythms to indict an abusive parent. Will focused on the time his father left the family for good. I had a feeling that something had opened up and felt optimistic about the lesson to come.

When I arrived for the next session, the students were closed, quiet, almost refusing to talk. It seemed necessary to widen the discussion beyond matters of pain, so I asked them to look at Dickinson’s two Eden poems, with some discussion about the sexuality in those poems. On several occasions, the students had expressed curiosity as to whether “she had a man.” I did not want to lecture on the mysteries and controversies surrounding Dickinson’s love life; clearly she was a passionate person. Whether she had lovers or who they may have been are to this day matters of speculation. I did mention, however, that there are a number of candidates for her affections championed by various scholars on a list ranging from Otis Lord to Charles Wadsworth to Samuel Bowles to her sister-in-law Sue. More to the point, I simply wanted them to experience a different side of Dickinson’s writing.


Come slowly-Eden! 
Lips unused to Thee—
Bashful—sip thy Jessamines—
As the fainting Bee—-

Reaching late his flower, 
Round her chamber hums— 
Counts his nectars— 
Enters-and is lost in Balms.


Wild Nights—Wild Nights! 
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be 
Our luxury!

Futile-the Winds— 
To a Heart in port­
Done with the Compass— 
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden— 
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
In Thee!

We ended this session in individual conferences, as students revised and polished their Dickinson-inspired poems. Some were close to being finished. Bridgett had been taken with “The Bustle in a House” and used its second line (“the morning after death”-changing morning to mourn­ ing) as her first line, and its last phrase “until Eternity” as her last line. Bridgett’s poem felt empty of imagery to me, but when I raised that issue, she argued that if Dickinson could use abstract terms, why couldn’t she? I was aware that Bridgett, whose forthrightness in writing about sexual abuse had shown us all how poetry could help deal with personal horror, might not take to too much prodding on this issue, so I stopped pushing. Besides that, I had loved her assertive question! Her revision efforts centered around balancing stanzas and choosing some precise words. Her poem ended:

awakened nerves mourn
memories of pain
left behind, a shattered Heart
and you, a breathless child 
lost within reality
a hidden love

that shall not surface again
until Eternity.

Shannon also began and ended with Dickinson’s language. In addition to the poem’s first line, the second line of Shannon’s third stanza altered “She dealt her pretty words like blades” to “what pretty words she deals.” There were some rough spots in the rhythm, so I encouraged Shannon to regularize the form, using her final stanza as her guide. We discussed how she could make other stanzas fit her rhyme scheme and how she could eliminate unnecessary syllables. I felt that her poem made strong use of the senses to express the emotions of its speaker and was pleased at how willing she was to confront a painful relationship.

There is a pain so utter
you can feel it in your bones—
 the angry words, red faces—
children startled from their rooms.

The yells and tears and sweat
as she pushes you into the wall— 
your saliva mingles in the air
with the leftover pizza smell.

While you're down, she curses you
and what pretty words she deals.
You hear fine china breaking 
with every slash you feel.

Oh, it hurts you scream in your mind, 
not daring to let her hear,
'cause she'll bare white teeth and say 
"To ache is human, my dear."

—Shannon Sullivan

Our final session focused on exploring Dickinson’s poetry in conjunction with visual art. While I was working at Henry Ford, I received as a gift Language as Object: Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Art, an art book published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. This marvelous collection of photography, sculpture, painting, collage, and poetry inspired by Dickinson contains images and scenes that provide other paths to understanding her, and expresses the power and mystery of her work in many haunting ways. For our final session, I brought in color xeroxes of some of my favorite reproductions in the book. I asked the students to choose one and then to meditate on it. Next, they were to freewrite or free-list words and phrases that came to mind and see if or how new language inspired by the artwork might connect with their drafts. Ashley chose Carla Rae Johnson’s Lectern for Emily Dickinson, working in one of the earlier “unanswerable” questions to good effect.

Climbing the stairway 
to nowhere
step by step
to the beat of silence 
holding on
to the rail for balance. 
Where did time come from?
Time seems to fall 
from the sky
only to come
to a closed door.
The knock falls silent 
interrupts the creak of 
the staircase.

—Ashley Little

Will, whose poem was about his father’s abandonment of the family, selected Joseph Cornell’s Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson. I had first seen Will on the previous Halloween when he had come to school dressed as Jason from “Friday the Thirteenth” and refused to take off his hockey mask. The only white kid in the class, he had seemed angry and defensive. By the spring, however, his good nature was evident as he teased and joked with his classmates. I was pleased that he felt comfort­ able enough to write about what was surely one of his great losses in life. His first draft had covered more than a page, but once he encountered the sparseness of the Cornell image, he whittled his poem down to only the bare and necessary essentials.

There is a pain
like I was locked in a cell 
that only had two windows 
not even a door.
The pain comes from my Father
who tells me I don't want you no more, 
tells me to go ask a barely known man 
will he take me.
Pain like my life in a cell
the walls coming in and crunching me
into a powdery dust.

—Will Morris

“Walking toward you without knowing”: Michigan Youth Arts Festival, Kalamazoo

My goal for the short (two-day) but intensive workshop sessions held at Western Michigan University was to “mix it up” as much as possible. The high school-age students who attend this workshop are already committed, self-identified poets whose work has earned them an invitation to the Festival. I used many of the strategies (artwork, questions, borrowed lines) I employed with the students at Henry Ford High School, as well as a set of mini-assignments adapted from “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” by Jim Simmerman, which I had just enjoyed using myself in a Detroit Writer’s Voice poetry workshop. I also introduced poems by contemporary poets Adrienne Rich and Lewis Turco.

At our first session (Friday morning), I began by telling the kids that teachers usually approach them with questions. This time I wanted them to pose the questions. I instructed them to write a list of questions, any questions at all. After a few minutes I asked each participant to select a question, which I then put on the board—questions that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, the personal to the mundane. Poetry, I told them, gets us into places where we are faced with unanswerable questions, and thus challenges us. Then I asked the students to write a poem that gives a mundane question an extraordinary answer, or to pick a complex, unanswerable question and answer it in a poem that is fairly simple. After a time, I had them all choose partners and read their poems to each other. (I find that this is a good way for the kids to loosen up and to begin talking in productive ways about their work.)

I then introduced Dickinson, characterizing her as someone whose mission was to probe the unanswerable. These students already had some familiarity with her. Many had bits and pieces of poems in their heads-first stanzas of “Because I could not stop for Death” or “There’s a certain slant of light.” We went around the room and shared what of Dickinson we knew by heart. I recited “Split the Lark,” which I’d prepared on a handout. They were interested in the reference to “sceptic Thomas,” which I explained—as is often the case with Dickinson—has many possible interpretations. (It may allude to “doubting Thomas” in the New Testament; to Sir Thomas Browne, who tried to find the soul by dissecting human bodies; or to Dickinson’s friend and mentor Thomas Higginson; or to all three.)

The discussion ranged widely. The students expressed some of the usual stereotypes about Dickinson—as mad, fearful, a “ghost.” I countered their assumptions by describing her social standing in her hometown of Amherst, her stubbornness toward religion and patriarchy, and her humor. To create some common ground, I provided what background I could, trying to give a picture of her complexity and intensity. I discussed the Gothic grotesqueries in some of her poems, circumference as her “Business,” and immortality as her “Flood subject.” I brought up the transcendental ideal of surpassing limits and characterized Dickinson as eccentric, brilliant, passionate, and intellectual. Some critics, I told them, tend to see Dickinson through their own political or psychological lenses (Grabowsky’s agoraphobic Dickinson, Cody’s Freudian Dickinson, Paglia’s Emily as dominatrix). I discussed the publishing that she did during her lifetime, the discovery of her poems, the fascicles (chapbooks), and how her letters have survived and can be read as poems. We ended by reading Lewis Turco’s poem “Winter Bouquet,” which is composed from language gathered from Dickinson’s letters.

We began our afternoon session by looking at a number of poems from the handout, reading and commenting. The students and I took turns reading, and quite a few poems were heard aloud this way: Wild Nights! Much Madness is divinest Sense The Bustle in a House After great pain The Lightning is a yellow Fork Come slowlyEden! ...These are the nights that Beetles love. I put a selection of her first lines on the board and asked the students to choose one as a springboard into their own poems. They wrote for a while, and some seemed to enjoy playing with her language and ideas. Eleuheu used rap rhythms to jazz up the idea of circumference, and Tom took off into a “Wild Nights” that was all his own. Kaitlin’s personal “slant of light” owes a number of debts to Dickinson. Her final stanza adapts imagery and rhythm from “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.”

Emily's in My Bed

"There's a certain slant of light"
 across the milky skin
of cheeks and nose and eyelids 
stopping only to begin.

"Dust is the only secret" 
this vivid light reveals
in small specs of passion 
churned up by porcelain 

—Kaitlin Russell

Others complained that Dickinson’s rhythms were inhibiting. Her voice seemed to lock onto theirs in some cases. Gina wailed, “This sounds like Dr. Seuss!” and Geoff complained that he “hates Emily Dickinson.” “Go ahead,” I said, “quarrel with her.” I didn’t want to force Dickinson down their throats.

Saturday morning. Because we were all in a new space, away from home and immersed in the Festival, I began the next day’s session by asking the students to jot down several things they had noticed on their way from dorm to workshop that morning. Then I talked about how modern poets have been influenced by Dickinson. We read Adrienne Rich’s “I Am in Danger—Sir—” and discussed how Rich uses the second person “you” to address and pay homage to Dickinson while also posing the question “Who are you?” Another unanswerable question, Lindsey astutely pointed out.

Using the same collection of visual art inspired by Dickinson that I had used at Henry Ford, I spread out color xeroxes, asking the students each to come up and choose one. Then I asked them either to revisit their drafts from the previous day, or to begin a new piece. As well as suggesting that they try writing letters to Dickinson, I gave them some other ideas, which I listed on the board:

Use as much language as you can suggested by the artwork you selected. 
Include an observation from your morning walk to class.
Include an example of synaesthesia.
Include a statement that makes no sense at all.
Include a line in which all the words are in alphabetical order: e.g., 
Artists breathe color.
Use a phrase from a song or an old-fashioned (or parental) saying.
Include a metaphor using a plant, music, or tool.

Geoff’s choice of artwork—a paper cutout of a human profile incorporated into the body of a fish (Head in Fish by Mary Frank)—showed a new appreciation of Dickinson and her transcendental desires.

"Why Must Everything Burn Free?"

This golden halibut—
heart beating energy
glowing life
burning, radiating, rising
like the Phoenix from the inside—

you are free.
I was once like
you—my fires 
Now, I sit and watch
your leaps of faith.

One day I would
like to be like you
again. To jump
here, from the 
to some place new.

I would like the strength
and courage
to free myself from
the evening's sea.

-Geoff Denstaedt 

There's a certain slant of light
that slides across my walls
when someone pulls
into the driveway.
There's a certain music
that is night, as it 
past my window and
collects on my pillow.
Night time music, like
what the planets 
to shooting stars.

The streetlight warm,
direct shadows across
the pavement. A certain
of sunlight.

The doorknobs begin being
philosophical, so I begin to sleep
The bed pockets me,
the blankets soothe me.
Night pulls on my eyelids
and moves branches with soft amber 
tattooed with poetry.
There's this certain sleep of mine,
knees tucked under my chin, 
the anticipation of a soft cotton morning
onto my mattress as I dream
about multiplying 
life by the power of 

-Paul  Kostrzewa

Paul explained that “Multiplying life by the power of two” was from a song by the Indigo Girls. “Cotton morning” was his example of synaesthesia, and “soft amber hands tattooed with poetry” came from Leslie Dill’s painting Poem Hands. “A certain imitation of sunlight” and the echoing “certain sleep of mine” adapted Dickinson’s “a certain slant of light.” The doorknob line was Paul’s nonsense statement, and the “night time music” is his metaphor.

Megan’s picture showed Emily with a wine glass. Her poem addressed Dickinson, using the mysterious mirror figure to blur her own identity with that of the poet.

Emily, this night the wine
in your glass is untouched, held
away from you like a sickness.
I wonder if your legs have ever hurt 
as mine did this morning
when I came down the stairs
walking toward you without knowing. 
And now you stand in front of the mirror 
but you don't look in. You will not see 
the wistful stare in your eyes,
or the way your mouth smiles but stays 
taut as the string of a violin.

Emily, does the light sometimes 
scream at you?
In the mornings, coming out 
to touch your flowers,
the sun will wilt you in your 
heavy dress. Outside, there
is nothing to be done about this.
I know, for I have tried.
But in your room, where nothing 
passes through, you are safe
from sun and even air
and the people downstairs 
who have given you this wine 
you cannot drink.

I tell you to let your hair down 
from its coil at your neck,
let the glass fall from your hand.
The red wine will seep
into the floor, will intoxicate 
the woodwork. Tomorrow, 
when you wake,
the stain will be dry 
and easily forgotten.

-Megan van Leeuwen
Appendix: The Michigan Youth Arts Festival Workshop Handout

Poems by Emily Dickinson


These are the Nights that Beetles love— 
From Eminence remote
Drives ponderous perpendicular 
His figure intimate
The terror of the Children 
The merriment of men 
Depositing his Thunder 
He hoists abroad again— 
A Bomb upon the Ceiling 
Is an improving thing—
It keeps the nerves progressive 
Conjecture flourishing—
Too dear the Summer evening 
Without discreet alarm— 
Supplied by Entomology 
With its remaining charm


The Lightning is a yellow Fork 
From Tables in the sky
By inadvertent fingers dropt 
The awful Cutlery
Of mansions never quite disclosed 
And never quite concealed
The Apparatus of the Dark 
To ignorance revealed.

Come slowly—Eden! 
Lips unused to Thee—
Bashful—sip they Jessamines— 
As the fainting Bee— 
Reaching late his flower, 
Round her chamber hums— 
Counts his nectars—
Enters-and is lost in Balms.


Wild Nights—Wild Nights! 
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be 
Our luxury!

Futile—the Winds— 
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass— 
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden— 
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
In Thee!


After great pain, a formal feeling comes— 
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs— 
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, 
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round— 
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way 
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

This is the Hour of Lead— 
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the snow— 
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—


The Bustle in a House 
The Morning after Death 
Is solemnest of industries 
Enacted upon Earth—

The Sweeping up the Heart 
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again 
Until Eternity.


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—


Split the Lark—and you'll find the Music— 
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled—
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning 
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood—you shall find it patent—
Gush after Gush, reserved for you— 
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?


American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. Volume Two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals. New York: The Library of America, 1993.

Boxleitner, Linda. Reading Emily’s Mail. Portland, Me.:J. Weston Walch, 1994.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Eberwein, Jane, ed. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Rich, Adrienne. “‘I am in Danger—Sir—’.” In Necessities of Life. New York: Norton, 1966.

Simmerman, Jim. “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.” In The Practice of Poetry. Edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Turco, Lewis. “Winter Bouquet.” In Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms. Edited by David Lehman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.

Message from the author:

I wish to express my thanks to Roberta Herter, sponsoring teacher at Henry Ford High School, who brought me into her classroom as poet-in-residence under a Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs grant. I also wish to acknowledge the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided me with a Teacher-Scholar Award in 1992-3, allowing me to spend a sabbatical year studying Dickinson’s life and work, and Professor Jane Eberwein of Oakland University, who served as a valued mentor and guide to my research on that project. Thanks also to Teachers & Writers Collaborative for making the NBC Classics in the Classroom grant available. Finally, my enduring gratitude to Louise Harrison, creative writing coordinator for the Michigan Youth Arts Fes­ tival, for her friendship, support, and love of kids and poetry.