Closer Readings Commentary

Emily Dickinson: An American Poet for All Seasons


There is a Zone whose even Years
No Solstice interrupt —
Whose Sun constructs perpetual Noon
Whose perfect Seasons wait —

Whose Summer set in Summer, till
The Centuries of June
And Centuries of August cease
And Consciousness — is Noon.

—Emily Dickinson (1056)

Widely known and loved, Emily Dickinson continues to delight each new generation with her unique verse. But, are your students aware of the other ways she expressed her creative gifts? They may be interested to discover though Dickinson only published a handful of poems in her lifetime, she was renown in her hometown of Amherst as an accomplished baker and gardener!

The Baker

Black cake

Celebrate this multifaceted American poet on her December 10th birthday by baking Emily’s signature Black Cake! The recipe available through EDSITEment-reviewed Folger Shakespeare Library is served at their annual event in her honor. Poet’s House recently exhibited Emily Dickinson manuscripts and included her original recipe for Coconut Cake. The New York Times describes this aspect of the “spectral titan of American poetry” as Sweet Genius.  For more background on the poet’s culinary talents turn to Emily Dickinson and Cooking available from the Emily Dickinson Museum.

The Letters

Inside Emily Dickinson's bedroom at the HomesteadOne hundred and fifty years ago, on April 16th 1862, Emily Dickinson penned her first letter to Thomas W. Higginson, a famous literary critic who would become a mentor. Opening with the words: “MR. HIGGINSON,—Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” she began what would become one of the most fruitful correspondences in American literature. EDSITEment’s curriculum unit, Letters from Emily Dickinson: ‘Will you be my preceptor’? frames this spirited correspondence for students to explore.

In Lesson 1: In Emily Dickinson’s Own Words: Letters and Poems students reflect on Dickinson’s writing process and assume the role of critic/correspondent. Lesson 2: Responding to Emily Dickinson: Poetic Analysis and Lesson 3: Emulating Emily Dickinson: Poetry Writing provides opportunities for students to analyze, and then practice writing their own poems in her style. Dickinson’s dialogues with Higginson and other confidants offer an instructive model for students who struggle to find their voice and then modify it for different audiences.

The Myth and the Garden

Emily Dickinson became something of a mythical figure in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was better known to her neighbors as a gardener than a poet. She cultivated her flowers in public, while in private she produced extraordinary poems. EDSITEment offers a bouquet of Flowers from Emily, a resource in which students examine Dickinson’s status in her community, her flower poems, and the influence of gardening on both.


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The Civil War

“War feels to me an Oblique place” wrote Emily Dickinson on the Civil War. Dickinson was removed from the fighting in her central Massachusetts haven known as the Homestead (today the Emily Dickinson Museum). As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Dickinson’s poetry is as relevant as when it was written. Her poems are a reverie on the universal human condition in all its suffering and joy; thus, her refraining from remarking on the politics of the day and commenting on the war is understandable. Nevertheless, – the war enters her correspondence with loved ones engaged in it, most notably her confident Colonel Thomas Higginson.


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The Poetic Imagination

“The truth must dazzle gradually,” as Dickinson remarks in her poem and concludes, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Yet, her lines can also entertain younger students with their sparkle and whimsy. EDSITEment resources for elementary students introduce young readers to Dickinson’s unique qualities. In the lesson plan, Emily Dickinson & Poetic Imagination: "Leap, plashless," students experience her language, which provides a wonderful balance between imagination and observation and encourages a life-long appreciation of poetry. In Emily Dickinson & Poetic Imagination, students are guided through an activity to brainstorm ideas about a creature, like the bird in her "A Bird Came Down the Walk" (328), to order to write their own poetry.


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The Voice and the Visions

Reproduction of Emily Dickinson's white dressHear Emily Dickinson’s poetry spoken in this audio guide from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read, which features a program written and narrated by John Barr with poetry readings by Mary Jo Salter.

EDSITEment then shines a Spotlight on Voice and Visions. Here, Emily Dickinson is one of twelve American poets featured in the NEH-funded, EDSITEment-reviewed Annenberg website. Students can view a video clip of Emily Dickinson’s poem "The Soul Selects Her Own Society" while exploring her experimental attitude toward life.


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EDSITEment Resources on Emily Dickinson Poetry and Poetry Writing


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EDSITEment-Reviewed Websites

NEH Connections


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