186. My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -: Emily Dickinson

An art studies friend in college made up a stamp that read: This is Not Art! She would stamp it on pictures and such that she found in art magazines, but which, in her opinion, was not (capital “A”) Art.

Today I was at a fairly good vocabulary seminar. The gist of it was that we needed to have conversations about vocabulary on a regular basis with our students. Teaching vocab is not a worksheet (although that might be part of it) but creating a constant awareness that language is important and interesting. In a vocabulary successful classroom, the teacher is talking about words, word origins, use of words and having a basic conversation–not a lecture, but a two-way conversation–about what words mean.

After hearing about games, activities, books and whatnot I left with the understanding that the best thing we can do for our students is a daily poem. In a poem there are lessons on vocabulary, idioms, metaphors, similes as well as themes and multiple meanings. And, the lesson is short because poems are short. Because they are accessible at many different levels, they are easy to differentiate.

Ah, and they are Art (capital “A”)!

At this seminar the leader recommended this book “All the Small Poems and Fourteen More” by Valarie Worth. You can find it here:

This brings you to Indiebound.com where you can buy it at your local independent bookstore.

My friend would have stamped this book: This is Not Art!  I have a pet peeve against poesy being called poetry, because I associate poetry with Art and have seen too many tossed off bits with broken lines on the page called “poetry”.  For some reason, kids this age love to be poets and can really crank it out.  Yes, yes it should be encouraged, but I don’t want to leave my standards at the door.  Our basketball coach, for example, doesn’t hold our best players up against Larry Bird.  Let’s draw a line between Susy Student and Dorothy Parker even as we encourage the former on her path to surpassing the latter.

But I digress.

I mention this book because, although it is not Art, it is clever.  (I mean no disrespect to Ms. Worth, and I have no stamp to wield.)  Each poem is designed to describe an animal or thing without giving it away.  It’s a riddle more than a poem.  Our facilitator said she would do it with a class as follows:

  1. Pair kids up.
  2. Read it aloud, slowly.
  3. Kids discuss their thought of what it might be and reasons for that conclusion.
  4. Read it aloud a second time.
  5. Kids discuss, again.
  6. Classroom discussion.
  7. Reveal.

I could see kids loving it (everyone likes a good riddle).  And it takes little class time.

But it was relevant for us because the words she uses are great vocabulary.  After the reveal, the teacher can go over the reasons (another slow read) and talk about the vocabulary.  “What does (blank) mean?  How is it used in this context?  That’s what we call a metaphor….”

Before Ms. Worth wrote her book, Emily Dickinson was doing much the same thing.  Post No. 10 “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is much like Ms. Worth’s work (Spoiler Alert: It’s a snake, but the title will make some older kids giggle for other reasons).  Kids have interesting interpretations of what the “narrow fellow” might be (a hose or a stick are popular).

I present here another Dickinson great, “My Life has stood – a Loaded Gun.”  This, I feel, is Art (capital “A”).  First of all (Spoiler Alert) it’s a gun.  Few kids get it.  (What’s funny is that it’s in the first line, but kids miss it.  Ha, ha.)  That’s not what makes it Art.  And it’s not that, once revealed, it’s obvious.  No, what makes it Art is the personification of the object.  What is Dickinson saying about the gun!  That, in part, is what makes this poem so hard to figure out: We don’t think of guns in this way.

And she is saying something!

For a better analysis of the poem, and an argument for it being Art, read this analysis from a Brooklyn College class.

Once again, as with other Dickinson poems, I cannot attest for the formatting. Between the first printed and the original Dickinson text, twisted by postings and copies, I don’t have the time to find the authentic Dickinson grammar edition. No disrespect meant, but know that I recognize the issue is an important one and that I’m not ignorant (just time strapped).

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun
Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without–the power to die–


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