I am a Literature teacher who hates the classics. I wasn’t an English major in college, never read Shakespeare, couldn’t be bothered with the old white guys of the canon. I discovered my love of literature when I discovered magical realism and post-modern and post-colonial (women) novelists and poets. I gravitate towards today’s rule-breakers: the outsiders, the daring.
It’s only through teaching Lit that I’ve learned to embrace those who came before. Teaching American Literature to teenagers who immigrated from refugee camps in Nepal, Thailand, and Kenya, from the slums of Malaysia and Ethiopia, and from temporary refuge in Turkey and Syria means teaching American history and culture alongside the literature. Teaching kids from other countries, from other cultural contexts, it’s impossible to separate – isolate – the writing from the culture in which it was written.
This way of thinking about history and art reminds me of my favorite museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Their permanent collection could be easily mistaken for an archaeological museum rather than an art museum – as you walk through the exhibit, you travel back in time to pre-Columbian pottery and paintings, cathedral murals inspired by Catholicism yet infused with Aztec and Mayan symbolism, portraits of presidents and battle scenes from the Revolution. The art tells the history.
The curators of the National Museum of Mexican Art realized something fundamental and often overlooked in Literature and Art classes: that art is a product of it’s time, and that artists are usually revolutionary.
To understand Shakespeare’s plays, you have to know something about the culture – the daily life, the sense of humor, the political climate, the fears – in which they were created. To understand Emily Dickinson’s poems, you have to understand her as part of a generation that was forging new ground, establishing a spirituality outside the confines of the Church – setting the stage for many of the ideas we take for granted 150 years later. The canon is not so much full of boring old guys as it is a testament to the original rule breakers.
I remember reading Emily Dickinson poems as a teenager. My analysis of her writing was, shall we say, complex and nuanced. “It’s all about love and god and birds,” I would have told you. “She capitalizes stuff that isn’t even important, and uses this awful forced rhyme.” Clearly, I was a literature teacher in the making.
Standing with my class, watching these new English speakers unravel the vocabulary and puzzle out the meaning of “A Service of Song,” I stumbled upon the meaning myself. Using Google Image searches, we pieced together that a “Bobolink” is a type of bird, a “chorister” is a member of a church chorus, and “surplice” is a kind of frock worn by a preacher. We figured out her preferred setting – an orchard, like a farm of fruit trees – and how she finds reverence there, rather than in the “dome,” or the church.
Yes, yes, god in nature, I thought. Sweet, but not super relevant for today’s world. I found the image calming, even enjoyable, but the cynic in me held strong. Then, unexpectedly, she hands us the whole point, in two tidy lines.
“So instead of getting into heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.”
In other words: While you suckers are preoccupied in life by dreams of heaven and fears that you won’t be righteous enough to “get in,” I’ve figured out how to live an experience of heaven.
Take that, Puritan forefathers.
Take that, everyone who isn’t living their own experience of heaven.
My teenage interpretation of the poem could not have been more off-base. It’s not about god, or even birds. It’s about finding blessings, joy, and peace in life. It’s about not holding out on yourself, not assuming that you cannot, will not, live a life that is blessed, joyous, and peaceful.
While I do find peace in nature, I am too much an extrovert, too dedicated to the idea that blessings and joy originate in and lead back to community, to truly follow Emily Dickinson into the woods.
Mine is an exploration of both the orchard and the dome.