Would Emily Dickinson have been awarded a ModPo certificate?

I dwell in Possibility   by Emily Dickinson

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 –

I love this poem by Emily Dickinson, brought alive for me by Al Filreis and his teaching assistants in ModPo, the hugely successful Modern and Contemporary American Poetry massive open online course, now running for the third time.

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In their close reading Al and his team unpick this poem line by line and almost word by word. They also discuss the poem in relation to Walt Whitman and his poem ‘Song of Myself’ .

It has occurred to me that if Dickinson and Whitman were students in the ModPo course, then Whitman would probably get his certificate, but Emily Dickinson probably would not. Why – because Whitman would have been all over the discussion forums like a rash, but Emily would have eschewed this activity. Participation in the discussion forums is a requirement for a certificate of completion in ModPo. (I realise that this is a personal perspective, but that’s what ModPo encourages – alternative perspectives, right or wrong).

In this age where there is almost a ‘tyranny of openness and interaction’, where openness seems to mean we have to be willing to interact with anyone and everyone, I can relate to Emily Dickinson’s resistance to open her house to just anyone. She seemed to recognise the relationship between filtering out unwanted distractions and the potential of dwelling in possibility with others who could engage with her seriously. I am not sure whether she recognised the value of solitude and contemplation or whether this was a necessary part of the age in which she lived, but she seemed to appreciate that selective interaction would for her be more productive. It would be possible to enter her house and dwell with her in possibility, but only through hard work, and then the sky would be the limit.

I would have liked to be able to enter Emily Dickinson’s house. I would have worked hard to gain entry. She sounds like the kind of woman I would have valued knowing, but I also appreciate that from her perspective, she might not have opened her door to me – and that would be OK. For me it would be important to have a mutually respectful and meaningful relationship, not one dictated by the edicts of the age. OK I know that ‘edict’ is too strong a word, but hopefully I’m allowed a bit of poetic license here 🙂

3 thoughts on “Would Emily Dickinson have been awarded a ModPo certificate?

  1. Sanjeev September 27, 2014 / 7:12 pm

    Great thought exercise, Jenny… you are right that ED would probably not be on Facebook for sure and likely wouldn’t indulge in forum discussions too much either. Her house of possibility had windows for her to take in the richness of the air she got drunk on but not as many doors for people to go in and out of. She tired of small talk.

    That said, she was a prolific letter writer. Though she wrote to a select few people she admired from afar or trusted and loved dearly, she did write a lot. (Her letters, often with her little gems of poems embedded in them, are worth a read..if you want to ever get more into ED after ModPo [1]). So, maybe the openness and democratic Whitmanian spirit of the MOO[Cs and the forums would unnerve her a little bit but she may have gone aside and formed her own little small private Facebook group and discussed things at length with her trusted “friends”. But yes… she wouldn’t get the ModPo certificate possibly – she only vaguely heard of Whitman and wrote” You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.” [2] — so surely she’d have just given up on ModPo in Week 1 itself with Song of Myself and the related quiz. 😉 LOL


    {1] Letters: http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Dickinson-Everymans-Library-Pocket/dp/0307597040 but also available online in a not too easy to read format at: http://archive.org/stream/lettersofemilydi00dick/lettersofemilydi00dick_djvu.txt

    [2] http://www.theatlantic.com/past/unbound/poetry/emilyd/edletter.htm

  2. bohemian9 September 27, 2014 / 9:00 pm

    I appreciate your stimulating application of Emily’s preference to be alone or in the company of a select few, yet my first thought as I began to process that idea of Emily and Walt in ModPo was the same as Sanjeev’s. Still he expressed it so well, I can only say that yes, she loved writing letters and maintaining contact with certain individuals. She even entertained a few in her home, one-on-one, of course.

    But I do agree that she would not jump to comment on every thread, and, even if stimulated to comment as I was when I read your post, she, unlike me, would probably avoid commenting. In fact, the only reason that I did push past my fear to share here was because of your larger point about education and social media and that my friend Sanjeev once again seems to have similar thoughts.

    One last thought. I watched a documentary last year about Emily and was especially intrigued with her school (uni) years. Not only did she resist the religious authority embraced by the administrator and teachers, she also resisted other cultural norms and expectations of the day. So applying that about her in this context, I think you are correct that she would eschew social media.

    Walt, on the other, probably would be an active contributor to the threads–but I think he would definitely be present at the webcast in person, soaking in all the smells, sounds, textures of the room–and each individual.

  3. jennymackness September 28, 2014 / 9:24 am

    Many thanks Sanjeev and Bohemian for your comments. I am looking forward to reading Emily Dickinson’s letters. It’s interesting to think about how letter writing might relate to discussion forums. There was a period in my life when I wrote weekly long letters to my family and friends. What has changed so much is the pace of interaction. I get the sense (although I know very little about her) that Emily Dickinson would probably have like to take things slowly. There is a lovely calm to ‘I dwell in possibility’, despite being controversial.

    You might both be interested in this blog post by Glen Cochrane – http://apointofcontact.net/2014/09/12/our-real-world-of-technology/ – where he raises the question of what is the ‘real’ world.

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