Mitchell’s Conversation Starter

Over the course of the past month, I learned about how Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson portrayed themselves, both in their poems, and in real life. Whereas Whitman sang the praises of the human body, and photography, only two photographs of Dickinson exist, on account of how shy she was first thought to be. It turns out that, for all the times people considered the two to be polar opposites, they both were dealing with similar issues when it came to romance. In fact, their lives, and poems, could be seen as metaphors for someone discovering their personal identity.

For starters, Whitman dabbled with the more human side of romance when he penned “Calamus” for Leaves of Grass in 1860. “Calamus” was a series of poems about the sensual side of same-sex relationships, back when it was not so much a taboo subject, as much as it was unheard of at the time. Its themes included how people “[move] from claims of full disclosure … toward [both] revealing and concealing a ‘secret’ at the center of [their] identity” (Killingsworth 123). In other words, Whitman’s “Calamus” poems marked the inclusion of confessions, or coming out of the closet, into the gay culture of today.

This is emphasized in the poem, “Trickle Drops,” which compares the revelation of the narrator’s latent homosexuality to blood from a flesh wound: “From my breast, from within where I was conceal’d, press forth red drops, confession drops, / Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I say, bloody drops” (Whitman 104). To the narrator, admitting that they were gay at all was as painful as cutting or puncturing their skin, yet the relief of being honest about it was worth the blood being spilled as a result.

Dickinson, on the other hand, lived a rather contradictory life to how history saw her decades after her death. According to the Emily Dickinson Museum, she had “several significant male [and female] friends” in her younger days. The Dickinson Electronic Archives implied that the only other photo of her was one she shared with one of those friends, Catherine Anthon.

As for her poetic style, that can be summarized in this short poem, from R. W. Franklin’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson:

“Wild nights – wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!” (Fr269A)

Dickinson’s poetic style was short, direct, and to the point, providing big images with few words, compared to the bombastic, photographic imagery in Whitman’s portfolio. I read this example as Dickinson wanting to live her life to the fullest, regardless of what people say of her.

Overall, the lives and poems of both Whitman, and Dickinson, were metaphors for discovering one’s personal identity. What other poems, or places, interested you where the poets revealed their sexuality? What other forms of identity, besides sexuality, were the poets developing in their entries? Did it surprise you to see these poets, 150 years ago, expressing aspects of identity that society did not accept? How would the two react to the “identity politics” of today?

Words: 506

Christine’s Conversation Starter

I just want to take a moment and talk about our X-Rated Dickinson. “I tend my flowers for thee” forced me to question her status as the “pure-minded spinster” that everyone made her out to be. Did this poem make anyone else question this reputation or did it further strengthen it? Why or why not?

When I first read this poem, the meaning of it flew way over my head. However, as I read it slower I began to understand that the flowers represented the prime of the speaker’s life and how it was being wasted away while they waited for their love. Still, it wasn’t until I got to the VoiceThread questions that I recognized the sexual imagery that was hidden within the poem. (Did anyone else read the poem a couple of times only to get different interpretations each time? What were they?)

It all started with the cactus. I was really confused by the lines “My Cactus-splits her Beard/ To show her throat-.” I had no idea what was going on in these lines until I read that there is a plant called the bearded cactus ( However, I thought-“With all of the other delicate flowers, why would Dickinson choose to include a bearded cactus? Maybe she wants this plant to stick out to her readers.”

And that’s when it hit me…

What if the cactus represented a certain hairy, womanly area?! What if all of the flowers represented that body part or other body parts? I reread the poem with this metaphor and it changed the WHOLE poem for me.

“I tend my flowers for thee”
“Carnations—tip their spice—/ And Bees—pick up— (Bees being males)
“A Hyacinth—I hid—/ Puts out a Ruffled Head—/ And odors fall” (This is a Hyacinth-

Did anyone else interpret similar sexual imagery? In what ways does Dickinson approach sexual imagery similar to, or different from, Whitman? Are there any other lines that stand out to you that seem particularly provocative? Are there any other poems (or lines in other poems) that can be read in a similar manner? Why do you think Dickinson chose to include a bearded cactus? How might we be able to understand Dickinson’s beliefs on femininity within this poem? Why might Dickinson feel like she needed to hide the sexual imagery so much?

I’m excited to hear everyone’s different opinions. After all…

Word Count: 401

Sean’s Conversation Starter

Upon reading the assigned Dickinson reading for the first half of the week, the thing that immediately struck me (due in no small part to my own fascination with the subject) was her frequent mention of bees. By my count, in 6 of the 29 assigned poems, as well as several others I happened to come across that were not assigned, Dickinson specifically includes bees, sometimes as a central focus and sometimes not. I may not be a mathematician, and perhaps this data cannot be properly extrapolated to the rest of her work (short of reading every single poem she has written there is no way to be sure), but including bees in roughly 20% of these poems certainly reads to me as statistically significant. This raises the obvious question; why bees? How are bees operating in Dickinson’s poetry? What is it about bees that compelled Dickinson to write about them so frequently?

In order to answer these questions I think a brief introduction to the biology of  bees and the history of how we observed that biology would be helpful (maybe this is overkill, but like I said, I am endlessly fascinated with bees and will take any opportunity to talk about them). So, for those that do not know, bees (specifically European honey bees) could accurately be described as a matriarchy. Bees are categorized into three groups based on their role within the colony. Each colony has one queen, a genetically female bee whose sole job is to reproduce and give birth. In addition, there are worker bees who are also genetically female but unlike the queen do not have functioning reproductive tracts. These worker bees do all the heavy lifting of the colony. They care for and raise their sister bees and do all of the foraging, thus providing all of the nectar and pollen that the colony needs to operate. The third and final class, the drone bees, are composed of all of the males in the colony. Their one and only purpose is to mate with and fertilize the queen, after which they promptly die. This means that the vast majority of bees you have ever seen in nature (and certainly every bee that has ever stung you, as drones do not have stingers) has been a female. Given these facts it is easy to see how bees could be used as a symbol for powerful femininity.

Now that we have this context in mind we still must ask; does it help strengthen our reading of the use of bees in Dickinson’s poetry? Could she conceivably have known these specific details of bee anatomy and society? The answer to the second question is a resounding maybe. François Huber published Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeilles, which definitively proved what we know about bees today, in 1792 and it was translated into English in 1806 (side note: the history of how we came to this conclusion, including how we finally stopped referring to “queen” bees as “king” bees is incredibly interesting and here is a link to a Twitter thread that gives a surprisingly thorough and well cited synopsis). We know that Dickinson was well educated and the knowledge definitely existed when she was attending school so it is definitely possible that she would have been exposed to this information, but, given the subjects she would have reasonably been expected to be taught, is it likely? And if it isn’t, is it possible that she would have somehow come across this information on her own? I do not know the answer to these questions, and I am not sure if anyone does, but because the possibility exists (even if the chances are small) that Dickinson was privy to this information, I consider the biology and social hierarchy of bees to be a valid lens through which we can potentially gain some new insight into her poetry.

So what do you all think? Is this knowledge helpful in your reading of Dickinson? Can her use of bees be seen as in some way representative of some greater struggle for female empowerment? Is my personal fascination with bees leading me to create meaning that doesn’t exist? Is her use of bees simply coincidental with her use of nature? Is she using bees in some way that is completely unrelated to their social hierarchy and biology? Included below is a list of assigned poems from the first half of the week that mention bees.

F5A, F17A, F22A, F68A, F122C, F134A

Word Count: 745

Morgan’s Conversation Starter

One of the things that I found interesting while reading the biography and information about Emily Dickinson was the fact that most of her work was not published until after her death. I liked how they talked about the fact that it is ambiguous whether or not she actually wanted her work published or not. This method of only showing those close to her, her poems make it seem like there is something intimate about her pieces. Do you think these poems are all personal and are meant to connect directly to those that she sent them to, or do you think this was the only way she felt she could get her work out into the world since publishing work as a woman was difficult at the time? Also, what do you make about the fact that only one-third of her work was sent in these letters? Why do you think the other two-thirds of her work she kept to herself?

One of the links that Dr. Scanlon wanted us to look at was tips on reading Emily Dickinson’s work. Did you find reading and understanding Dickinson’s work challenging? Also, the way in which Dickinson described poetry– “if I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physical as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” — do you find this as an accurate representation of what her work does? Did you have physical reactions to her work?

While I was reading Dickinson’s work, I found her very progressive and she came across to me as a feminist in a way. She fought against traditional writing techniques and made her own stylistic choices, she also never published anything under her name. Do you think deciding not to publish under her name was her way to break the stigma that women could not be writers or do you think she was being submissive in a way and was only pretending to be someone else in order to get her work out into the public?

I thought Dickinson all together was really interesting and her work was just as interesting. I never had much exposure to Dickinson before this, maybe a few poems in high school, but never to this extent. It was really nice to finally take a look at her work and study it in depth now. I know I have asked a bunch of stuff in this post, but I just have a lot of questions that I want to get other opinions on, but I am going to add one more: what, so far, do you find the most interesting about Dickinson and her work?


Word Count: 473

Sarah’s Conversation Starter

I want to focus my discussion around the readings for the first part of this week that revolve around sexuality.  In “I Sing the Body Electric” both men and women’s bodies were discussed but I felt that there was a different tone being used between men and women.  The way in which Whitman described the sexuality of a woman’s body was more reverent, and the purpose of a woman’s body was for use and not pleasure. The description of men’s bodies was more detailed than women’s, so it held the primary focus for me.  This brings me to the Killingsworth essay where he explains a reason for Whitman’s constant mention of sexuality, because sex itself connects generations together, and is therefore integral to humans and nature. Women’s sexuality fulfills a functional and natural purpose, so does Whitman view men’s sexuality towards other men as only to satisfy the soul?

In the Calamus poems, I was confused as to the type of love Whitman was discussing, because there was a romantic and lustful love, and a brotherly love that Whitman experienced while spending time with soldiers during the war.  The collection started with what I read as brotherly love in “In Paths Untrodden”, the “athletic love” phrase made me picture the kind of affection that teammates have. The situation I came up with to connect with Whitman’s “athletic love” was how players on a basketball team give each other high fives or put an arm on each other’s shoulder when they score or need encouragement, but I was unsure if there was a sexual tone included in this poem as well.  There are other poems that seemed self explanatory in their sexual purpose, such as the poem “City of Orgies”. Whether or not hand holding in “Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand” is affectionate and brotherly or an intimacy between romantic partners is unclear to me. What purpose did Whitman give homosexuality? He wrote about the many different ways to show endearment physically, and the lines seem blurred between friendly affection and romantic affection.     

The Killingsworth reading compared Whitman writing about men and writing about women, and I am curious as to whether this says something about Whitman being bisexual, or if he is discussing sexuality so freely as to destigmatize it.  Killingsworth summarizes why sex needs to be destigmatized saying, “a society that allows the body to be treated as ‘corrupt’ ends up by ‘corrupting’ itself,”. Whitman does write about sexuality often enough to where Killingsworth’s assertion has evidence, but I do not think this is Whitman’s sole purpose.  Does it matter whether Whitman is hetero or bisexual and if he is bisexual, does this change the way in which we need to read his poetry?

WC: 458