By Mark Bauerlein | If you teach English in the deep South, as I do, the first line of Emily Dickinson’s poem #1068 doesn’t make much sense.
Further in summer than the birds . . .
It sounds poetic, to be sure, with the echoing “-er” sound, but what does it mean? None of the words is difficult or strange, but their combination strikes southern youths as gibberish. How can you measure summer by the birds?
Poems often open with puzzling statements, of course, and they are clarified soon after. Here, the following lines don’t help.
Pathetic from the grass
A minor Nation celebrates
It’s unobtrusive Mass
What is the “minor Nation,” and what kind of Mass transpires? The words themselves won’t tell you, no matter how skillful and experienced you are in the reading of verse. When I present the poem to first-year students, they stare with blank faces, even though they have a half-dozen AP courses and 1200 SAT scores on their résumés.
The next stanza extends the religious language, but one little word remains enigmatic.
No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Most students need a dictionary for the second word, “Ordinance,” which signifies an official or divine decree. “Grace,” too, confuses the non-religious students, and I lay out its basic meaning as God’s virtue and support. The terms amplify the “Mass” of the fourth line, but even so, we are far from realizing what exactly is going on. We have some kind of religious ritual at hand, but we’re in the grass, not in church; a “minor Nation” celebrates it, not regular parishioners; and it happens only in summer, not every Sunday. We still don’t know what “it” is.
Students grow more frustrated as the next stanza stumps them, too.
Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify . . .
The dictionary defines “canticle” for them (a religious song such as the Canticle of Mary), but it doesn’t help with “Antiquest.” If they keep the first stanza in mind, they might connect “August burning low” to “Further in summer,” and, of course, the song extends the Mass motif, but those connections only baffle them the more.
When the last stanza arrives, it’s a letdown.
Remit as yet no Grace
No furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature Now.
Their reaction is universal: “Huh?” They can’t untangle this new reference to “Grace,” nor can they attach the phrase “furrow on the Glow” to any actual thing. A quick explanation of the Druids doesn’t reveal what a “druidic difference” is, either. We never reach that satisfying “Aha!” moment.
What’s a teacher to do?
As an English major at UCLA in the early-1980s, I was trained in “close reading,” which begins by treating the poem as an independent verbal universe. The critics we read (Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism) warned against external evidence such as a poet’s biography and impressionistic responses such as “It seems like Dickinson is trying to evoke what it’s like to . . .” They insisted on objective analysis of words within the context of the poem, mindful of the way literal meanings of certain words are loaded, charged, turned, and intensified by their place in the verse. To do that, you should proceed with nothing but the text and a dictionary.
That was 30 years ago, but the approach lives on in the Common Core State Standards. The standards require that teachers assign “complex texts” and guide students to read and reread them carefully and deliberately, analyzing precisely the layers and turns of meaning that close reading targets. David Coleman’s well-known formulation offers a neat metaphor for the “close” approach: “Sometimes I sum up the standards by saying they require you to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter” (http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/docs/bringingthecommoncoretolife/part4transcript.pdf). The organizations created to help teachers implement the standards treat this reading habit as a seminal goal. Student Achievement Partners, for instance, provides “Close Reading Model Lessons” (http://achievethecore.org/dashboard/300/search/1/1/0/1/2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/page/752/featured-lessons-list-pg), while PARCC’s ELA “Model Content Frameworks” document (http://www.parcconline.org/sites/parcc/files/PARCCMCFELALiteracyAugust2012_FINAL.pdf) repeatedly underscores “close, analytical reading.”
Given ACT’s determination that the leading differentiator of students who are college-ready and those who are not is “their proficiency in understanding complex texts” (http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/reading_report.pdf), Common Core and associated projects are right to do so. Teachers of freshman English classes see students three months out of high school enter their classes and falter when they have to comprehend a dense piece of prose or poetry. They read too quickly, overlook ironies, and miss significant figures of speech. Much of the meaning of complex texts escapes them.
Close reading is the remedy. It focuses attention on the text itself. It forces students to pause over single words, distinguish figurative nuances, mark ambiguities and bias. Students become less passive and impatient, less like consumers and more like detectives. Words are clues, sentences are evidence. We skip appeals to how students feel; no pat social or political themes serve as “what the text is about.”
But there is a problem. Some works are explicable only if we draw on outside evidence. The words they contain aren’t enough to deliver the meaning of the poem, at least not to certain students.
In this case, two external appeals have to be made.
First, the scene. Dickinson composed the poem in the mid-1860s at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. When she stepped outside on a mid-August afternoon, she might look up and watch gigantic flocks passing overhead, millions of birds heading south for the winter. In June and July they filled her neighborhood with song, and their departure by late-August leaves a marked quiet in the air. Southerners and Westerners haven’t experienced it, which is why a teacher has to add that context to the text.
Once the setting is established, students can visualize the situation. Dickinson stands in her yard and listens, but hears something else, grasshoppers chirping. That’s the easy step. The next one requires a leap. Dickinson proceeds to describe the sound in religious terms, as if this natural thing were a supernatural event. That’s the purpose of the poem, to impart a curious and haunting observation. Nothing happens. Instead, an ordinary phenomenon is elevated into an odd religious apprehension. To “get it,” students must make a parallel exertion. The words form the outcome of the poet’s fanciful vision, and for the words to make sense, students must launch their imaginations. The teacher guides them to another time without cars or cell phones, late summer and high noon, the ringing in the grass. They have to feel Dickinson’s solitude and imagine how a supernatural presence seems to descend. The teacher’s aim is not to have the students emote. It is to help them experience her emotions. Dickinson’s poetic description of the scene isn’t meaningful until students put themselves in her place.
Once they do, students can see how one might regard the whole thing as religious devotion. The music, the light and landscape, a 35-year-old woman absorbed in matters of faith and loneliness . . . they result in a divine perception. All is “pensive.” The season is ending, time is passing, and crickets “pray.” The words “repose,” “unobtrusive,” “Loneliness,” and “Glow” now fit.
In this case, understanding an important bit of American literature doesn’t so much involve analyzing the words as it does reconstructing an experience. Teachers succeed by charting the structure of the lyric and tracking the worship motif—a solid close-reading effort. But after that, they act like stage managers setting scenes and profiling characters. To be sure, we need students to sharpen analytical skills, to focus intently on one text at a time. But they need to strengthen their imaginations, too, not to be creative in their own right, but to share in the creations of our greatest writers.