Today in class I dictated the poem, “I dwell in Possibility,” by Emily Dickinson, which the students wrote in their journals. They were amused at how many times she used dashes and feigned shock and surprise when I said there was no dash at the end of the third line in stanzas two and three.
Then I assigned a word to each kid or pairs of kids. Words like “dwell” and “Possibility” and “fairer” and “Prose” (no one knew what “Prose” meant in my morning class), even words like “Windows” and “Doors” and “House.” I asked them to look up their assigned word in the dictionary and also think of all the ways the word they were given might apply. They were not to select the one definition they thought might work best, but reflect all the definitions.
Then we gathered together as a group and worked our way through the poem with each kid or pair sharing their multiple meanings of their assigned word. The definitions even for words like “Doors,” for example, helped to steer the conversation to what is locked out and what is locked in. The many different definitions of “Occupation” (from a livelihood, to dwelling, to taking over) stimulated other layers of meaning that the students might not have grasped relying solely on their own understanding of the word. The word “dwell” had positive and negative connotations because of its different uses. These various definitions meant that everyone had something important to contribute.
Some words were a bit obscure for 8th graders (like “Gambrels”) and the word “Impregnable” brought a few snickers and not-so-secret glances between maturing friends. They also found it humorous that I assigned a pair of students the word “This,” which actually turned out to be one of the most important words in the poem. “Of Chambers as the Cedars” was a bit baffling for us all but the various definitions and uses of the words helped us puzzle out a few good ideas.
This is not an easy poem and I fully confessed how I myself have been trying to figure it out for 30 years or so. I know my students believed me as they got more and more into trying to help me out. And they really got the idea that this poem was about this poem, that there was a meta layer to it, and felt really smart and sophisticated as this fact dawned on them, as they realized that maybe they were the actual “Visitors” to this poem, trying to make sense of it.
The word “Possibility” brought the most spirited engagement. Perhaps it is because they themselves, at 13 and 14, are filled with limitless possibility and they know it. This year, the trick will be to sustain “This” and consistently support the dwelling “in Possibility–”
I dwell in Possibility – (466)
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –