When my grandson was 5 years old, we visited Emily Dickinson’s house, which is now a museum. My own association with the famous 19th Century poet is my high school English teacher — a tall, thin, older woman with steel grey hair and a prim and proper bun planted at the back of her head. She wore plain, out-of-style shirtwaist dresses that were much too long for the mini-skirted generation she taught. But she would get a contagious, ethereal look in her eye when she read poetry to us.
I can still remember her classroom recitations of Dickinson’s poem about the small bird who “bit an angle-worm in half” and the one about a “narrow fellow in the grass” who suddenly slithered by the poet’s feet. Much of Dickinson’s poetry revolves around death and much weightier topics than robins and garden snakes. But her prolific writing about nature appeals to children of all ages, and it’s the anchor to my own love of the tempo and more complex topics half-hidden in poetry in general.
The impetus for introducing my grandson to Emily Dickinson came from the proximity of his house to hers, and from knowing that children learn best by making connections and developing personal associations. Poetry is also the most natural and effective way to augment an emerging vocabulary and the rhythm of poetry teaches children the cadence of our language, giving them a basis for loving and appreciating the written word — and for delving into the deeper meaning of the poems.
Aside from reading Dickinson’s poetry, my grandson and I read “The Mouse of Amherst,” “Emily” and “My Uncle Emily,” children’s fiction that characterizes the isolated and reclusive poet as someone who loved children, made them gingerbread and played with her niece and nephew on the lawns of her home. She shared her love of flowers, plants and small animals with many of the neighboring children and, through her poetry, with the world. In my grandson’s eyes, she became a warm and friendly character he could wave to as he drove by her house on his way to town.
By rereading her poetry, visiting her house and gardens and finding fictionalized accounts of her life, I became the high school English teacher who, without a bun, could help my grandson make connections between his life and the life of a famous poet and neighbor (of sorts). He learned new vocabulary words in a context he enjoyed, he looked thoughtfully for “angle-worms” in his own garden and he appreciated “narrow” from the perspective of a garden snake.
He also wrote poems of his own, borrowing from the rhythms of Emily’s work, using many of her words and reflecting, in his own way, on the local wildlife, flora and fauna. Experiencing the gifts of Emily Dickinson, a native of his own Massachusetts town, moved him toward a deeper appreciation for nature and for the power of words, in my mind, two critically important and powerful aspects of life.