Parsing Dickinson leads to new meaning


Juniors Jennifer Yin and Emily Zhou annotate the poems.

Two students from Mike Miller’s Humanities II class pored over a photocopy of a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.

“We’re supposed to interpret and transcribe it,” junior Emily Zhou said.  “We have to answer four questions:  Is it a poem? If so, where does it start? What does it say, and what does it mean?”

The letter opened with what looked like “My Sue,” though it could easily have been “Ms. Suz,” but then gradually – or suddenly – waxed poetic.  However, interpretation of the letter was made difficult by several things.

Zhou explained that it was hard to tell what Dickinson was saying “because her ‘v’s look like ‘r’s, which look like ‘n’s, which look like ‘m’s”.

Junior Jonathan Lee also thought the capital letters threw people off.  “It looks like she’s starting a new line there, but then that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

After long discussions of what the author wrote, including changes from “yellow” to “fellow” and “a sour teeth” to “at your feet”, clarity finally emerged.  To some extent.  People still disagreed on the meaning of the overall poem and where it started.

Miller explained that students often try to find the “right” answer, even when there isn’t one.  The activity opened people’s minds enough to let them come to their own understanding instead of just learning what literary critics said the “right” answer was.

The exercise took place after the class read an essay written by a former Miller student on how changing one letter in an Emily Dickinson poem could affect the meaning of the entire piece.