Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Some very smart teachers I know (much smarter than me) think that this year’s HSC English Paper could possibly focus on the concept of identity as an aspect of belonging. Earlier this week I came across a series of images, Untitled Film Stills by Cindy Sherman, that encapsulate this theme brilliantly. Not only that, but thanks to the wonderful educators at MoMA Learning, there’s some pretty substantial study resources to go with them. Consider this image, Untitled Film Still #3:



What might you imagine about the subject’s sense of identity? How might this affect her sense of belonging? Are the objects around her significant? Do they symbolise anything about her life? She is looking away, what might be occurring off-camera? This photograph is a self-portrait of the artist. How might this knowledge affect your relationship with the image?

For a deeper discussion of this image in terms of the theme of identity, see this recording of a MoMA Google Hangout.

I also think this series of images could work well with another potential essay question: Barriers to belonging. Consider ideas of gender roles and social expectations, particularly if your core text is the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the film Strictly Ballroom.


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Essay planning in an exam situation can be tricky. You need to ensure that your essay answers the whole question; however, you’re also pretty pressed for time. In the HSC, taking five minutes to plan is worth it and the first part of your planning time should be spent breaking down the question. Here are some examples of how breaking down the question can give you an essay plan.

2009 Area of Study: Belonging, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

“Understanding nourishes belonging … a lack of understanding prevents it.”

Demonstrate how your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing represent this interpretation of belonging.

Break down

  • Understanding nourishes belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I died for beauty’ finds belonging through a shared understanding of art (shown through the metalepsis of truth and beauty).
    • The bilbies in The Rabbits understand and therefore belong within their landscape (shown through their shape, which echoes the natural swirls of the setting).
  • A lack of understanding prevents belonging
    • The persona in ‘What Mystery Pervades a Well!’ is alienated from her surroundings through a lack of understanding (alternative: gender distance due to mutual lack of understanding).
    • The bilbies and the rabbits are unable to co-exist harmoniously due to language and cultural differences that prevent understanding.
  • A lack of understanding can lead to a different type of belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I had been hungry all the years’ fails to grasp the attraction of belonging to a community but finds a different type of belonging with nature.
    • Rather than learning to belong in a landscape they don’t understand, the Rabbits reshape the landscape and commodify it to belong to them.

2010 Module A: Texts in Time, Frankenstein and Blade Runner

Analyse how Frankenstein and Blade Runner imaginatively portray individuals who challenge the established values of their time.

Break down:

  • What are the “established values” of the times?
    • Industrialisation (progress and ownership) and Enlightenment (rationality) versus Romanticism (spirituality and Nature) and Morality (compassion and kindness).
    •  Capitalism (commodification and profit) and Technological advancement (pushing boundaries) versus Environmentalism (nature and conservation) and Ethics (humaneness).
  • Which “individuals” are “challenging” them? How and why?
    • Victor Frankenstein challenges traditional morality by usurping the role of god as creator, he does this because of hubris.
    • Eldon Tyrell challenges ideas of conservation and ethics by creating disposable genetically engineered “replicant” slaves, he does this for profit.
  • What are the consequences of these challenges?
    • For Victor the consequences are personal, the death of his family, friends, and himself.
    • For Tyrell the consequences are global, the destruction of the natural world, as well as personal.

2010 Module B: Critical Study of Texts, Hamlet

‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to engage audiences through its dramatic treatment of struggle and disillusionment.’

In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Hamlet?

Break down

  • Who struggles? What with?
    • Hamlet struggles with the task of revenge laid on him by the ghost because of the conflict between his duty and his personal ethics.
    • Ophelia also struggles with the conflict between her role as a daughter and a sister (and the contextual expectations of woman) and her feelings for Hamlet.
    • Modern audiences continue to relate to this struggle because the conflict between family obligation and personal beliefs is a universal human concern.
  • Who is disillusioned? What with?
    • Hamlet is disillusioned with what he sees as a corrupt world; the corrupt court of Denmark is a microcosm of this.
    • Political and moral corruption are ongoing concerns that resonate with a modern audience.
  • What is the ultimate consequence of this struggle and disillusionment?
    • Tragedy.

Asking a few brief questions to draw out the key ideas in the question is a worthwhile use of your precious exam time if it means answering the whole question with a sustained, structured response.


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The HSC is an endurance event and the Trials are the last corner before the finish line. Most students probably have at least one internal assessment (my guess is for Module C) remaining but, for the other modules and the AoS, all that’s left is two exam responses: the Trials and the HSC. Studying at this stage should consist firstly, of making summaries and, secondly, of writing practice responses.

The first part of any summary should be an annotated copy of the module rubric. You can use key words from the rubric or the ETA’s aspects of belonging as subheadings. Choose the ones that are relevant to your texts, but make sure that you have a good range to work with. Under the subheadings, list quotes from your texts (both prescribed and related) with an analysis of the techniques and an explanation of how the quote/technique relate to the aspect of belonging.

For example:

belonging in historical contexts

“beauty” and “truth” in ‘I died for beauty’ by Emily Dickinson are literary allusions to the Romantic poet, John Keats. This connects the persona, who feels isolated from her own context, to a tradition of poets.

“the night of Europe” is Primo Levi’s metaphor for the spread of fascism in his own historical context. He feels isolated because he is Jewish but finds a sense of belonging through his “comradeship” with Sandro. This term is used specifically for its political connotations, as the communist Sandro is an antidote to the otherwise pervasive fascism.

A simpler way to approach this would be:

belonging in historical contexts

‘I died for beauty’ – ED. “beauty” “truth” – literary allusion to Keats. Belonging to poetic tradition.

‘Iron’ – Primo Levi. “night of Europe” – metaphor for fascism. “comradeship” – political connotations. Belonging through friendship.


belonging to place

‘I had been hungry all the years’ – ED. “Nature’s dining room” – personifiction – persona feels more at home with nature than in human society.

‘Iron’ – PL.  “a new communion with the earth and sky” – biblical allusion – similar to but also contrasting with ED. Primo and Sandro belong in the mountains, away from the politics.

Even thought the BOS seems to be moving towards specifying ONE related text in the Area of Study response, it is worthwhile having at least TWO thoroughly prepared. Your summary should be around three pages long. The real value of a summary lies in the making of it but it can also be a kind of security blanket, something for you to clutch onto the night before an exam.

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‘What Mystery Pervade a Well!’ is one of the more difficult Emily Dickinson poems on the HSC Syllabus. The reductive nature of the Area of Study (where everything must be analysed in terms of what it says about the concept of “belonging”) makes it even more difficult. One way to approach this poem is to think of in terms of dichotomies.

A dichotomy is when something is divided into two opposing halves and, whether you knew the word before or not, I guarantee that you use dichotomies all the time: hot and cold, good and evil, natural and artificial, young and old, male and female.

The two dichotomies that are most useful in ‘What Mystery Pervades a Well!’ (as well as in some of the other Dickinson poems) are natural vs artificial and female vs male. In the poem Dickinson sets up two opposing sides. On the one side are: water and Nature, represented as female and, ultimately, unknowable–this is the “mystery” of the title. On the opposing side are man-made objects such as the well, the domesticated “grass” and “sedge” and traditionally masculine ways of knowing, such as science.

The man-made “well” surrounds the feminine and mysterious “water” but is unable to contain its alienness. The masculine “grass does not appear afraid” but the speaker of the poem is in “awe”. The poem suggests that this is the proper response to Nature. The metaphor is then extended and enlarged. “The sea” takes the place of the “well” and the domesticated “grass” becomes a wilder “sedge”.

The purpose of this masculine/feminine, grass/water dichotomy is made clear in the final stanza of the poem. The speaker of the poem pities the men who try, and fail, to know Nature. These could be scientists or male poets, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. They, being male, struggle to approach Nature with the attitude of awe mentioned earlier.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

For another interesting analysis, see the link below.
Poem of the Week at The Guardian

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When first learning the superficial details of Emily Dickinson’s life, it is difficult to avoid developing a mental picture of her that looks something like this:

If, however, we are going to discuss Dickinson’s poetry in the context of Area of Study Belonging, we need to explore a life that was much more complex than “Emily Dickinson felt she didn’t belong”.

I have put together a powerpoint with some further information. See the link below.

Emily Dickinson Contextual Notes

Some notes to accompany the powerpoint:

Slides 3-4: Emily Dickinson was highly educated for a woman of her time. When compared to other female poets of the era like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rosetti, she had access to a huge amount of formal education as well as books and journals to continue her education through reading.

Slide 5: Darwin’s and Lyell’s theories were both hugely controversial when they were first published (still are in some places).

Slide 8: Emerson’s and Thoreau’s essays and/or articles might make good related texts for this module. Particularly if you’re interested in the ideas of belonging to a tradition of writers/poets or belonging to nature.

Note for teachers, tutors and extra keen students: you are free to download and use any of my docstoc powerpoints. It would be nice if you mentioned where you got it, particularly the Module A powerpoints that were actually put together by some of my students.

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The ETA has very helpfully put together a list of aspects of belonging. The list includes:

belonging through place

belonging through kinship

belonging through shared experience

belonging through shared culture

belonging through global networks

belonging through textual engagement

To this list my students added belonging through shared purpose, as this helped them to include many of their own experiences, including their experience of the HSC English classroom, to their resources for this study.

Remember to think outside the obvious as well. Belonging is also a word for a piece of property.

Please do not think that these are the only aspects of belonging you can refer to in your responses. They are a useful starting place but you must develop your own theses about belonging based on your own experience and texts. You can use these aspects in three main ways:

Section I: a common one mark question early in the first part of Paper One is “what aspect or type of belonging is represented or portrayed in this text? The ETA list can often supply you with an answer. For example, the poem “We Are Going” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal portrays belonging through place (more specifically, the connection between Indigenous Australians and country) and the loss of that belonging due to white settlement.

Section II: I mentioned in my last post that it is important for creative responses to have a thesis. The ETA list can help you to develop one. Which type of belonging does your character long to experience? Does he/she achieve it? How does the character feel about the outcome? For example, one of my students composed a lovely story about a gap year student feeling out of place in a remote African village but coming to terms with his isolation through a kinship ceremony, which made him feel connected to the tribe. His thesis was that one type of belonging could overcome a sense of not belonging.

Section III: when approaching your core and related texts, a good first question to ask is: which aspect of belonging (or not belonging) is portrayed here? For example, Emily Dickinson’s poetry often conveys the poet’s lack of shared experience and perspective with the people around her and her kinship with nature. Peter Skrzynecki’s poetry delves into the displacement felt by immigrants as well as their connection to their homeland and to those who have shared their experiences.

Remember when exploring ideas of belonging that NOT belonging is always implied as well. In a later post I will explore various forms of and words for not belonging to assist students in making their responses more fluent and elegant.

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The Area of Study Response, also known as Section 3 of Paper 1, is a particularly strange type of essay. In it, you are asked to synthesise ideas from a range of texts with your own personal response, addressing a specific question or statement, under an umbrella concept: Belonging. It’s not an easy thing to do but here are some hints to help you:

  1. Know your texts. This knowledge is demonstrated through quotes and close references, not through vague or sweeping generalisations;
  2. Engage with the question and the concept. Don’t just talk about the texts, try to develop a personal response to the idea of Belonging. This can be done through having a two part intro, the first part addressing the question/concept/issues raised, the second part introducing the texts. Continue this engagement throughout your response, which brings me to the next point;
  3. Develop an argument. The AoS is not a persuasive piece but having an argument can help to keep your writing focussed and structured. What is your own concept of Belonging? How has this been influenced by the portrayal or Belonging in your texts?
  4. Use the magic circle. Quote – Technique – Effect. Every body paragraph should do this at least once. Make clear and distinct links between the text being discussed, the technique used in the text and how that portrays an aspect of Belonging;
  5. Write clearly. Yes, English teachers love big words and complex sentence structures, but not when they obscure meaning. You are not James Joyce. Clarity is more important than verve (if you can have both, however, go ahead). Read your work aloud to check that it makes sense.

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‘The Saddest Noise, The Sweetest Noise’ by Emily Dickinson is a poem of contrast and paradox. The “noise” of the title is the birdsong that haunts the poet, reminding her that although the seasons continue, individual immortality does not exist. The beauty of nature is both intensified and undermined by the memory of lost friends and family.
The setting of this poem is the edges, the in-between places, the “magical frontier” between Winter and Spring; and the moment before dawn, “night’s delicious close”. These edges are, according to British myth, the realm of faery so these allusions bring with them an air of beauty tainted with mischief and loss.
In the same way, the beauty of the changing seasons is tainted by the knowledge of that which cannot and will not be renewed: the lives of lost lovers. The memory of whom is “cruelly dear”.
Unlike other Dickinson poems, the persona here is neither childlike nor innocent, she is fully aware and even world weary. Yet in spite of this she can still appreciate and connect with nature. Her feelings, too, are on the edges. She hesitates, she “almost wish”es and Summer is “almost too heavenly near”. That last line conveys the awkwardness and anticipation of the emotion rhythmically.
Finally, the poet finds herself separated from those she loves and cruelly reminded of this fact by nature. But she is not alone. The poem uses inclusive language, particularly first person plural, to generalise the experience. We, too, have lost loved ones and must suffer through reminders of that loss as the seasons change.

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