Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 23, 2015

217. A Word on Statistics: Wislawa Szyborska

I love data more than I do poetry.

When I read poetry, I find it intellectually rigorous. I like to do analysis. Or break it down and see how it works. The idea of meter and rhyme and how it comes together–supports the underlying theme–is fascinating. Writing poetry is hard. Poets are builders. Elegant builders. They are a class above me.

I appreciate that. But I don’t write poetry–too hard. I know enough about poetry to know that my writing is mediocre and that knowledge distracts me from it being a true outlet (instead, I post blogs). And I don’t really read poetry for fun like my wife does, except to take it apart with analysis.

But data, I like for the same reason I appreciate poetry–BUT I CAN DO IT. As this is the golden age of data driving instruction, this is my time. Which is where I make my shameless plug for another blog Educational Statistics Fun! And also my most recent post (relevant to middle school English teachers) about the DRP as a measure.

As data becomes more of our life, more and more poems seem to address that dehumanizing element of an information driven society. It’s not new. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” is a great example, written long, long ago. But the lives of our students have fundamentally changed. Privacy is at an end. At the same time we can no longer post test scores publicly and every email has a confidentiality warning (all in the name of privacy), our students are being tracked and filling databases with minute details for scores of people to see. No one talks about the abusive parent that might be affecting their learning, but we have a nice data trail of their failure to thrive. Our cameras track who wrote what graffiti on the wall, while notifications come up when they harass a peer using the school’s gmail account. And when it goes into the local newspaper that 78% of seventh grade students met proficiency in math, the other 22% know who they are.

Where are they? What Szymborska offers is a use of percentages to make a point. Data shows fractions. It shows ratios. And those ratios reveal. Just like writing and poetry and art does.

Look at your class and create data. Dont’ worry about it being scientific. Or do. In fact, ask students what “valid” data even is. How many agree what that definition? Whatever. Collect data. What data is important to them? Who plays baseball? Bah. Reveal.

Here are data points kids care about:

  • How many people like me?
  • What is the chance this boy/girl will dance with me?
  • How many kids in the room would you consider “nice”?
  • Do I look like a dork?
  • How many friends do I have? What’s the “normal” number?
  • Am I normal?

Show of hands?  Eyes closed?  Or not.  Brainstorm a list of questions.  Perhaps they don’t want to know the answer, but let them use the answer–or their perceived answer or feared answer–as the content of the poem.  “Every kid in this room is okay with me, but zero percent know who I am.”

Data is telling.  The next question to ask is if it is valid.

A Word on Statistics
by Wislawa Szymborska
(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)

Out of every hundred people,
those who always know better:
fifty-two.

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:
forty-nine.

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four — well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:
eighteen.

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:
four-and-forty.

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:
seventy-seven.

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

Cruel
when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
thirty
(though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:
three.

Worthy of empathy:
ninety-nine.

Mortal:
one hundred out of one hundred —
a figure that has never varied yet.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 1, 2015

216. Briggsflatts: Basil Bunting

Why, no, that is not a made up name.

Remember Dire Straits?  “Walk of Life”?  “Money for Nothing”?  Great band with a lot more going on than those two hits (but they are great songs).  Mark Knopfler, the founder and guitarist of the band, knew Basil Bunting.  The not-yet-frontman was working in a newspaper while Bunting was trying to make a living.  He tells Ian Robson:

He said: “When I was 15, I was a copy boy on the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, it was a Saturday afternoon job that I had.

“I’d go in to the newspaper office, and you’d deal with all the sports copy coming in, and you’d be putting them in tubes, down to the printer’s, or going over to the subs’ desk.

“There was a chap work-work ing there who was very dif-different from the others. He was grumpy and he was older, and differently dressed, and I learned that that was Basil Bunting.

“It was very clear that he’d rather be writing poetry than writing copy for the Evening Chronicle, and he didn’t really fit.

There are different ways to go with this poem, but I suggest using it to look at your town.

Students need to look at what is in front of them.  They need to write about what is in front of them.  Too often, we encourage kids to write fiction when they have no ability to ground it in reality.  Good fiction has a foundation.  It is tethered.  Even in fantasy, the world is real.  How can you have a dragon lay siege to a castle if you cannot tell me about the castle’s construction?  How many towers?  Defenses?  The great writers know about castles.  Really know about castles.  Then, they create dragons that breathe.  Only then do those dragons attack.

Where do your students live?  As we fill them with ideas of colleges and far off lands, let them know where they come from.  What is before them.  This is the time when they are developmentally ready to understand their siblings and parents and community.  How do people make a living?

Why do they work?  Hopes and dreams?  Take a moment.

How does Bunting capture Briggsflatts?  Tools and sounds and purpose.  This is a town that works.

But it is also a town that is lyrical in nature and metaphor and sound. Stray one way (realism) or another (fantasy) and you lose the truth.

Bunting is writing an epic.  Only one stanza of it is here (to focus on the work).  Have your class each write a stanza.  Capture a snapshot of your community, and string it together.  Make it real and magical and real again. Have them tweak their styles to match each other.  To steal from the best in the group.  To mimic and through that understand their own individual voice–while still part of the community.  The community of your town.  Of the class.  Of poets and writers.

from Briggflatts
Basil Bunting

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter’s edge,
fingertips checking,
till the stone spells a name
naming none,
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave’s slot
he lies. We rot.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 29, 2015

215. Fire Safety: Joshua Mehigan

Another poem exploring safety, from our year-long look at Maslow (each stage a unit).

Three things to take away:

First, how does Mehigan capture an everyday object? Why use such a ubiquitous object as the subject of a poem? After looking at this poem, ask students the next day if they noticed the fire extinguishers in the school more than in the past. Did they even know where they are? They probably know they exist, but, before the poem, you could ask them to write down where, exactly, they are. Try landmarks in town (police station, fire station, church, etc.). Do they know where they are? Why not? How about items at the supermarket?

Because we take so much for granted, which leads the question of what other objects we take for granted. Substitute fire extinguisher for a parent. Or friend. When was the last time they told that person how important they are? One nice exercise is to have students write a very brief note to a teacher who made a difference. It is a good time to teach letter writing skills (still important!) or, at least, the value of a “thank you” card. Why do we take so much for granted? And, could we function if we noted every important thing, like the location of every fire extinguisher we passed in our day. Thus, holidays.

T.Z. Suzuki is a Buddhist philosopher who claims awareness happens in three stages: Parroting, consciousness and unconscious consciousness. Note: I don’t believe these are the terms he uses, but the ideas at correct.

The first is parroting, where we say things without thinking. For example, we say “Good morning” without thinking it being about “good” or, sometimes, the morning (we’ve all said it after lunch). Have a student recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” solo and they often stumble, after doing it for eight years!

The second stage is awareness–“It’s morning, and I want you to have a good one.” Blow. Your. Mind. What are they pledging to? What does allegiance mean? What does the flag stand for? Hmmmm. You can also talk about game controllers–when they first get a gaming system, they look at it a lot. And gaming is slow. Consciousness.

The third stage is unconscious consciousness. Ask how many of them don’t even look at their game controller anymore. Some have good stories about that. It becomes an extension of us. We wish a “good” morning in earnest. We need the second stage to be human–we are the only animal that is reflective. That’s what history is.

How, then, do we revive this reflectiveness so we move forward? Brush our teeth with the left hand? Sleep the wrong way in our bed? It’s a start. Question everything. Read a poem about an ordinary object, like a fire extinguisher. Write your own poem. And thank your parent.

The second lesson is similes and metaphors. Where are they in this poem? How do they work? Why did the author choose these? Explore.

The third lesson is the moral. Until the last stanza, this is a simple descriptive poem. But the whole theme is wrapped up in the last stanza. That last line. In this poem, students should be able to see how a simple thing like those last two stanzas elevates this to art. Why is one painting of a tree art and their’s is not? How is one story worthy of class time and another not? Theme. Truth. In understanding that last line, they “get” the poem.

Now, theme in hand, work backwards and see how those similes and metaphors lead to that understanding. Then write that note to your old teacher.

Fire Safety
Joshua Mehigan

Aluminum tank
indifferent in its place

behind a glass door
in the passageway,

like a tea urn
in a museum case;

screaming-machines
that dumbly spend each day

waiting for gas or smoke
or hands or heat,

positioned like beige land mines
overhead,

sanguine on walls,
or posted on the street

like dwarf grandfather clocks
spray painted red;

little gray hydrant
in its warlike stance;

old fire escape,
all-weather paint job peeling,

a shelf for threadbare rugs
and yellowing plants;

sprinkler heads,
blooming from the public ceiling;

all sitting
supernaturally still,

waiting for us to cry out.
And we will.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 26, 2015

214. Grip: Jericho Brown

We are in the midst of a unit called “Safety”.  It’s part of our Maslow year.  

What’s interesting about “safety” is that everything connects to it, but nothing does directly.  When we did our first unit, Survival, we read “The Most Dangerous Game” and “To Build a Fire” and kids took notes and it all was pretty clear.  Our “high flyers” were able to make connections beyond physical survival–how elements of survival apply to emotional experiences, too.  But safety is not so clear.

Here is an interesting poem about tug-of-war.  Everyone likes tug-of-war.  Well, not everyone.  In fact, many people hate it.  Why?  Good question.

Get out the journals and have them write about their tug-of-war feelings.  Then break out the rope.  Fun?  Not so much, except for some.  Who?  Why?

Then read the poem.  Analysis!

Note: As with many poems, analysis may or may not determine if this is a poem about sex or not.  I have used it to talk about the conflict that happens in relationships, when you get to the point where you are hurting the other person because winning becomes more important than resolution or truth.  Very middle school drama.  The end of the second paragraph and start of the third has all of the hallmarks, though, of a tryst.  I still believe that this is about relationships, but perhaps the bedroom is one side of that.  Or not.  (Mr. Brown, if you read this, please chime in).  I used it before it was pointed out to me, but next time I will probably pass.  Your call.

Grip
Jericho Brown

If it had become a competition in which we,
Like children desperate for the blue ribbon,
Pulled knotted hemp, gripping until certain
Of calluses, if our contest awarded the strongest,

The boy who could best inflict pain yet not
Flinch when injured, then you won, for I must
Imagine the brown of your back to reach my
Peak, a short thread of breaths, a tug of war

With the heaviest child grunting at the end
Of the rope until jerked and dragged over
The line. That fat kid flounders through muck

The way I splash your relentless name
In shivers about me. Watch him wallow.
If he tastes mud as bitter as this poem

Of mine, then I win – and you love me.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 20, 2014

Crown of Sonnets/Heroic Crown of Sonnets

In asking my students to make crowns, I realize the origin of monarchy–good crown makers are hard to come by.

For an exercise in rhetoric, I asked a group of students who had finshed the assignment early to make enough crowns for half of the class. With specific instructions, drawn on the board (because an earlier class had struggled, too, so I thought I’d make it clear), I watched as otherwise high honor students struggled to conceptualize cutting in a zig-zag pattern, taping two papers together, fitting a length of paper to their own head (or another student) and taping that, too, into a loop.

My theory is that original societies wanted to be democracies, but when they tried to make symbols of citizenship–the crown–only a few were able to make one. Everyone else figured they should listen to that guy, thus creating a king. When the ruler had a son, he realized the kid would never get his own decent crown so he just gave him his own. Thus, a system based on birthright.

I doubt few historians will accept my belief, but the story holds true in my experience. Craft is hard. I have spent too much time this fall at conferences promoting standards based learning, and the concept of having students repeat skills (formative) to attain mastery (summative) is logical, but scary in practice. Highlighting specific elements over and over tends to lay raw what students can and cannot do (which is the point). Fortunately, crown making is not part of the Common Core.

An interesting test is to have students complete the “Crown of Sonnets”. The crown consists of seven sonnets centered on a single person, often around a single theme. For example, Jenny and love. Each sonnet explores a different aspect of the theme. The neat trick, though, is that the last line of the last poem is the first line of the first poem. Neat.

I had no idea such a thing existed.

Even cooler is the “Heroic Crown of Sonnets”. What makes it heroic? It’s fifteen sonnets and the last sonnet is composed of THE FIRST LINES OF THE FIRST FOURTEEN!

You can find a compact handout on these two crown here. Eric Chevlen wrote a book called “Triple Crown” where he writes a heroic crown of heroic crowns of heroic crowns (I think). Gimmick or art, I have no idea.

All of this might be above your student’s heads. Even writing a sonnet might stretch them, if only because you are adding new, bad poetry to the world. There is, though, value in such things. Two ideas:

First, group seven students together and have them write seven different sonnets (or any style of poetry) on a single person, theme or both (it depends on how strict to the structure you want to be–me, I like structure as the restrictions force them to dig deeper, which ultimately leads to freedom). They have to work together, while still offering independent takes on a shared idea.

Second, you could have them find seven poems that do this. Seven poems around the theme of love. What is learned? Either have each student find seven poems, or seven kids find a poem each. As they come together, depth is achieved. Lesson: The body of literature, not a single work, is what humans need. Keep reading.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 17, 2014

Too Many Cooks

I whipped this together while watching football.

.

And if you’d like a gentle poke in the ribs and good procedural mystery, try this:

Absentee List: An Old Horse Mystery

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 28, 2014

213. Anecdote of the Jar: Wallace Stevens

Last week I spent two days at a conference on standards based learning, hosted by the New England League of Middle Schools and run by Rick Wormelli.

Wormelli’s writings are well known, but his live show is just that–a show. If you liked Robin Williams in “Aladdin” or “Dead Poets Society”, this is two days of that. A tad distracting from the main ideas, with lots of 80’s references (his analysis of a clip from “Song of Music”, though, is priceless). This is not to take away from the content or ideas, but know that if you get a chance to see Wormelli you’ll a) be subjected to that type of performance, b) if you have a decent background in standards based teaching and grading much of it will be review. So, be prepared before you sign up.

It got me thinking, though, about the use of rubrics and our system of instructing and assessing rubrics. One of the exercises I do with kids–and adults–is something called “Clapping University”. Here’s the procedure, and I think you’ll see the point:

  • Welcome your students to “Clapping University” where the outcome to produce quality clappers.
  • Ask for three volunteers. They will be “judges” and have them sit in a prominent place at the front of the room. Each will have a marker and four pieces of paper.
  • As for four more volunteers–students at Clapping University. Have them leave the room, where they cannot see or hear what the previous student does when called in.
  • Tell the judges that they are to say nothing, and to follow your directions and your directions only.
  • Call the first student in. Tell them to clap. They’ll seek direction, but give them none. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student (A, B, C, D…. or whatever your grading system is) and keep it to themselves. That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Call the second student in. Tell them to clap. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student. This time, they are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Now, ask the class what makes for good clapping. Pick two characteristics (pace, volume, enthusiasm, etc.). Tell the class and the judges, “When the next student comes in, you will judge them only on those characteristics.” This is your rubric.
  • Call in the third student. Tell them to clap. Again, no one should say anything and wait for your cue. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Finally, call in the fourth student. Share the rubric with the student. Have them clap. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.

The point?

  • In the first case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and never give feedback.
  • In the second case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and share. But the feedback is useless because, from the varied grades, it’s clear no one has defined success prior to the performance.
  • In the third case, the judges have a common rubric. The student claps and the assessment is uniform. And, the student gets feedback. Except, because the student did not know the standard beforehand, the grade is unfair with regard to what they could have done.
  • In the last case, the student knows what’s being judged. And they do it. And they get a universally good grade. Having a clear expectation, sharing it and providing feedback works.

You can talk to your students about their experiences with each kind of teacher (judge); they love to share their horror stories.

But what of Stevens?

There are, apparently, a host of interpretations of this poem. You can read them here, at Wikipedia.

But I like to imagine, and my students come to this conclusion year after year, that placing the jar down creates order to the wilderness. It becomes a fixed point–made by man–that all else relates to. Much like creating a rubric and taming the wild that is student work.

There is probably more there, but I would recommend going outside and placing a jar in the field or wild near your school. Read the poem. Ask, “What’s with the jar?” Have them defend it.

Anecdote of the Jar
Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 6, 2014

212. the genius of the crowd: Charles Bukowski

I don’t know if the title is capitalized or not. It is where I got it from, but I suspect that’s wrong, or an auto-function of the website.

Bukowski is probably not one of the most middle school appropriate poets you will come across, but doesn’t mean your students should be denied genius where it falls.

Like many of my age, I first encountered him through Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of him in the mediocre independent movie “Barfly”. Ah, 1987. That was when Rourke was huge, and the advent of home video gave independent films you’d have never seen a second life and a certain cache. I remember that when Bukowski died, papers printed a publicity photo of Rourke next to the announcements. Anyway….

So, watch out for the references of not listening to preachers or whatever else is in here that will offend your particular community. Know this, because you need a job and your students need you.  

But, here’s something you might use.

the genius of the crowd
Charles Bukowski

there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average
human being to supply any given army on any given day

and the best at murder are those who preach against it
and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace

those who preach god, need god
those who preach peace do not have peace
those who preach peace do not have love

beware the preachers
beware the knowers
beware those who are always reading books
beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it
beware those quick to praise
for they need praise in return
beware those who are quick to censor
they are afraid of what they do not know
beware those who seek constant crowds for
they are nothing alone
beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
not being able to create art
they will not understand art
they will consider their failure as creators
only as a failure of the world
not being able to love fully
they will believe your love incomplete
and then they will hate you
and their hatred will be perfect

like a shining diamond
like a knife
like a mountain
like a tiger
like hemlock

their finest art

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 1, 2014

211. To Be of Use: Marge Piercy

Last week was the first day of school, so, belatedly, I’d like to remind you of this old post: 105. First Day at School: Roger McGough.  As these posts tend to be more-or-less timeless once posted, this might not make sense in your time-scheme, but the video is worth the click.

Along with the start of school, our superintendent kicks off our supervisory union’s annual gathering with a poem.  I hate this, but that’s because I have a knee-jerk reaction towards anything calculatingly twee.  You’d think I would be glad–poetry!–but I don’t believe our super is a fan.  I suspect there is an intellectual cache involved, but that says more about me than her, I suspect.

But the poem she chose was quiet appropriate: Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use”.  Some of the audience scoffed a bit, noting that, as our boss, she WOULD like us better if we put our shoulder to the wheel every waking moment.  That, I feel, is a misinterpretation.  This is not about work, but attitude.  

Spark.

My career has been spent trying to deflect negative energy.  As a skeptic and critic, I tend to be the one who sits in meetings and hacks at initiatives.  Oddly, it comes from romantic impulses–I want things to succeed, so I attack the weak points before the roll-out so that fixes can come earlier and in private.  From the outside, it can seem negative.  I’m the teacher who makes a paper bleed, and when a student asks why I hated it I reply, “You got a B-plus–above the standard–and if you fix these things you’ll attain greatness.”  Misunderstood, and perhaps with reason.

We are, though, surrounded by negative people.  

Deeply negative people.  

One sort are the truly negative–nothing will work and they are practically insulted that anyone would even try to make things better.  The more insidious ones, though, are those who generate positivity, yet see any criticism as a torpedo.  Recently, our Essential Skills program came under fire from the board and they were asked to demonstrate success.  I suggested pulling some data that showed progress, but the mere suggestion that the success of the program even needed defending was taken as betrayal.  What makes these people so dangerous is they make any questioner into an enemy, poisoning the goodwill of a group.

I know it comes from fear, but sometimes don’t care.  Who has the energy?  It’s bad enough batting down a hundred negative students and their parents–I don’t need it from my colleagues!

Here, Piercy writes about the lightning caught in a bottle.  I see it like that.  Energy.  Potential energy, ready to spring, but even before you let it out it’s clear that there is probably more energy in that bell jar than anyone has an ability to harness.  

It’s something I’d like to aspire to.

With your students, you might talk about their “hopes and dreams”.  In my head, it sounds sappy whenever I use the term.  So be it.  By returning to “hopes and dreams” time and again, I find classroom management problems are mitigated because a) there is a focus, b) students feel I am listening.  Why, after all, are they here?  Hopes and dreams provides the start of an answer.

More direct to this poem, who are the models for their own lives?  An idol is one who has blazed a path a person wants to travel.  What are the characteristics of those people?  Do your students see them in this poem?  Is it any wonder why Ms. Piercy loves them the best?

And that energy is contagious.

Note: Two good links you might want to pursue. First, a look at Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs”. Check out the Wikipedia entry here, but, basically, he modeled it after healthy, successful people (like Ms. Piercy looks to here). Second, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code–I can’t recommend this book enough.  It dovetails off of Gladwell’s “Outliers” book, but is more applicable and less scattershot (in the end, I found little in Gladwell that would guide me towards a growth mindset classroom).

To Be of Use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 12, 2014

210. I started Early – Took my Dog -: Emily Dickinson

What do you do with texts that may or may not be sexual?

I’m not talking about handling clearly sexual material, like a Judy Blume book or a racy poem. This is more about innuendo, and not clear innuendo but what a reading might interpret from the text.

For example, a very good professor I had at SUNY Cortland was fond of gender criticism. It was the lens he saw literature through, and he would always share a gender–often homosexual–interpretation of the text. By having most of the action happen on a boat, for example, the author was able to explore male relationships without the reader wondering why no one had a wife. This isn’t even sexual, but a look at how males interact with each other without women about. He never pushed it, but made us think about the author’s intent and what, as T.S. Eliot notes, we, as critics, bring to the text. I benefited from it greatly, even as I thought some critics pushed things a bit far.

It is not something I would even mention to my students, but what do you do when you know it’s a possible reading? I teach Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, but stop short of talking about the “wolf” wanting to “Eat you up.”

See, now it’s in your head. And while I have no doubt the Brothers Grimm did not have that in mind, gender criticism would argue that the deeper lessons about the dangers that prey on young women in society underlie many of the cautionary and horrific stories we tell each other. The Grimms were just collecting established folk tales, after all.

And I would not touch it. But, every time I do this unit, I get some boy who snickers when that line comes up. As a scholar, I can’t deny anything. Not wanting the topic to dominate the lesson–and it would–I give the “joke” a nod and move on. The child is, after all, acting immature and not providing an alternative interpretation of “The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.”

My wife came home from a week-conference on Emily Dickinson that was held at Amherst College, the holder of most archival information you might want on her and a stone’s throw (literally) from her house. She had a great time. But one of the professors there looked at all of Dickinson’s work as being sexual. I can see it. She’s an intelligent women who explored passion and life in great depth.

But then the professor examined “My Life had Stood–A Loaded Gun.” The link to my post on that poem is here.

My argument is that Dickinson was experimenting with point-of-view and giving an inanimate object a personality–a soul. Simple. Looking at the development of American literature, and her groundbreaking work, it seems the obvious answer. Occam’s Razor and all of that.

But the more I talked about it with my wife, the more I thought it might be both. It’s certainly an interesting idea, which was fleshed out through discussion. I’m skeptical, but the door is open.

So what do you do when something else might be there? As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And certainly, a gun is often just a gun. This was written long before Hemingway and the cliche of phallic symbols existing on every page. You CAN find sex everywhere, but where does that get us? I think it diminishes greatness. But I also don’t want to be naive. And we seek truth.

That professor tipped her hand, a bit, when she kept emphasizing the loaded gun was dangerous. Not only was it sexual, but Dickinson, the professor argued, saw that topic as to be handled with kid gloves because guns are dangerous. But that’s a modern view of guns. At the time Dickinson wrote, guns were useful tools. Powerful, but not seen as inherently dangerous as we often see them in our post-Columbine world. Again, I defer to T.S. Eliot’s concerns that the critics sees him or herself in the poet.

My solution, as I’ve noted, is not to raise the issue. I tend to steer towards safer poems and push interpretation in all sorts of directions. Still, we know that even innocent children’s stories often have deeper allegories and symbols.

I leave with a link to a post written by Professor Lilian Milani for a course she taught at CUNY Brooklyn on Emily Dickinson. It offers a balanced look at the many interpretation of this Dickinson poem. One is sexual, but several are not. Her final thoughts are worth noting, but she’s also writing for mature adults.

Looking at my old post for “Loaded Gun”, I noticed I had used Milani there, too. For a better analysis of that poem, and an argument for it being Art, read this analysis.

Milani’s final thoughts bring around, for me, a point I’d raised earlier: Where does that get us? I cannot imagine Dickinson’s be-all landing on sex, although I can see it being a stepping stone to several deeper themes. Perhaps I’ll just skip that stone as I make my way down the path.

In fact, I’d skip this poem and focus on her other works. But my wife doesn’t feel comfortable with “Loaded Gun” now that her professor’s argument is in her head. Don’t get me thinking about “A narrow fellow in the grass”, an old staple of my classroom which has only a kid’s snicker of underlying sexuality (it’s a nature poem!)….

How would you teach this poem, if you’d teach it at all?

Update: When I mentioned this post to my wife, and the water imagery and its possible sexual nature, she looked at me and said, “No, she just really loved that dog and went for walks with him every day.”

I started Early – Took my Dog –
Emily Dickinson

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

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