Getting Comfortable with ambiguity

DickinsonEmily Dickinson today! —I dwell in Possibility—

A difficult poem but after I dictated the poem to the class and they carefully wrote it in their journals, I then assigned each student a word to look up and define (like “dwell,” “Possibility,” “House,” “Prose,” etc.). As we reread the poem, each student shared what they had learned about their word and we all worked at how their word added to the poem as a whole. The process went smoothly, even at points quite energetically, involving everyone. The students actually were able to get at some meaning for themselves, close to the core of Dickinson’s poem.

What makes most students uncomfortable with poetry is its ambiguity. It is the students’ lack of confidence about what they think, about what they think the teacher wants to hear, about how their ideas sound to their peers, and about how they think it all reflects how smart they are or aren’t that makes poetry for some so perplexing and awkward and irrelevant. Getting comfortable with ambiguity is difficult for most of us. Convincing students of the inspired room in ambiguity, the creativity and “possibilities” of ambiguity, is counter to the specifics we ask of them in every other avenue of their education— in essays with specific evidence, in descriptive writing with articulate observation, in analysis with cause and effect. Even in the poetry they are exposed to in school, meaning and symbols are often, unfortunately, prescriptively taught.

How comfortable we are with ambiguity often broadcasts how comfortable we are to “dwell 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 –

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