196. This Merit hath the worst: Emily Dickinson

I have no idea what this poem means.

But. That’s. Okay.

We are in the middle of a unit on merit vs. entitlement. That’s the theme. I’m having students look at data about themselves, reflect on their role in their success and basically trying to empower them. We’re reading the short story of “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card–it was a short story before a book and movie, focusing on hard work and practice.

And I found this poem. True, I don’t think it has anything to do with merit as we are discussing it, although in a discussion on fate we can get there through the backdoor. I’m curious what the students, though, do with it.

Because it is, at first glance, difficult to approach, I thought it a good time to discuss how I have students analyze poems–and anything I throw at them.

When writing, so many of my students start at the top.  They agonize over a good title.  They pick fonts.  Based on their initial impression of a poem, they write a lead sentence which turns out to be the opposite of what they prove in their text.  When they realize they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they freeze: Ten minutes of creating a good title leads to half-an-hour of manipulation because they don’t want to simply delete it and start again.

And students hate graphic organizers.  Extra work, they think.  So this gets them to do it without them realizing it.  So, I have a process that they do every week for a poem.  My directions are:

  1. Read the poem.
  2. Underline the title and poet’s name.
  3. Underline the three (3) lines or quotes struck you the most (as important or interesting or were memorable….).
  4. In the graphic organizer below the poem:Write your “so what”: What deeper idea should your reader walk away with?
    • What theme or idea links all three of the quotes you choose.
    • Write the Line # of the three lines you underlined.
    • Explain how that specific line supports the Lead in you did in Step C.
    • Write your “so what”: What deeper idea should your reader walk away with?

I have a graphic organizer, but it doesn’t paste here.  Instead, here’s my take-home worksheet for this poem.

Like a detective, we start with evidence.  My presentation on how to do this is here (a bit grim, but we’re talking about detectives).  They know from watching “Law and Order” and “CSI” that the detectives begin with the evidence, not a conclusion or a suspect.  In comparing a poem to CSI, they get it.  Gather evidence, thus the underlining.  Not only does it start the thinking process in the right place, but later they easily and willingly lift the quotes/evidence right from the text to the paper.

The focus is one single lines.  Looking at this entire poem, for example, any student would be overwhelmed by what it could mean.  A measly eight lines, yet each seems to contradict the one before and after it.  So, break it down.  Focus on one line.  Even Elizabethan or Romantic poems, with their complex vocabulary, have a line or two which a student can understand.  If they choose those lines, half the battle is won.

The analysis is of that one line.  It may be a concrete analysis of a concrete line, but it’s something.

Evidence/Line: It cannot be again.
Analysis: One time used. Done.

Simple. Any student can do that three times.

Now, looking at those three bits of analysis, a student should be able to come up with some sort of connection between them. That’s the Focus/Lead. Note that the Focus is based ONLY on the three lines and their analysis. The poem might be other things, but your student should only care about those three lines.

So what? That’s really the question–and the theme of the poem. What is the poet saying about that poem? Again, they need to focus ONLY on those three bits of analysis. I find that nine out of ten times, their Final captures a theme of the poem. The other…. it’s creative.

In the end, I’ll probably “get” the poem after reading fifty or so of their graphic organizers. When I grade, though, I’m interested in the path their thought takes. Does it go from the Lead to the Final logically, with the analysis supporting and flowing naturally to the theme? It should all hang together.

This method works with stories, articles and even movies. Anything they need to think about and bring something deeper to, it works.

Try and see.

This Merit hath the worst
Emily Dickinson

This Merit hath the worst—
It cannot be again—
When Fate hath taunted last
And thrown Her furthest Stone—

The Maimed may pause, and breathe,
And glance securely round—
The Deer attracts no further
Than it resists—the Hound—


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