The Somatic Dickinson: Listening and Movement as Analytic Tools (2024 MLA Paper)

By Christina Katopodis, PhD

This paper was delivered on Thursday, Jan 4, 2024 at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention.

“Soma” comes from the Greek word meaning body (Merriam-Webster). “Somatic” is often defined as pertaining to the body, not the mind (e.g., “somatogenic” meaning originating in the body), but in medical terminology we also find it in “psychosomatic” phenomena that quiver the mind/body split, describing a physical illness aggravated by a mental state such as stress (OED). Troubling the Cartesian split even further, therapists are now using somatic experiencing therapy to treat various mental and emotional illnesses, giving attention to particular parts of the body to release tension, stress, and trauma. Although I was not aware of somatic therapy at the time, when the COVID-19 pandemic descended on New York City and we were confined to a small Brooklyn apartment in quarantine for weeks, I found myself wondering about Emily Dickinson’s body. What did it feel like to inhabit her body? To feel the sun only through a window? How could her mind run wild, sauntering through an expansive imagination when her physical person must have remained so still? Importantly, as an educator, I wondered what we could learn from her tightly confined poems that explode into multiple realms—this, living one, and another—when we are isolated, hardly ever seeing a new person in the flesh? Although I am an educator, and not a trained therapist, nor a trained yoga instructor, I brought yoga into my pedagogical praxis to help my students read and understand the somatic Dickinson, to stand still and yet see and feel a whole world in imagination. This talk will focus on somatic readings of Dickinson’s poetry, particularly her poem, “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose” (J318, F204), framed by Audre Lorde’s theory of satisfaction as a source of power. 

Teaching in the pandemic, I became acutely aware that we had become hyper empathetic, easily caught up in horrible news. We experienced record-breaking forest fires, hurricanes outnumbering the letters of the alphabet, atrocities against Black lives, affronts to democracy, feeling, in Dickinson’s words, “zero at the bone.”[1] I felt it imperative to ground my students in what Gregory Bateson calls the “sacred space” of poetry and the ecstasy we feel “when discursive and corporeal codes fuse” in reading literature. “[2] This sacred space,” Kristie Fleckenstein explicates, “is the matrix from which issue what Richard Rorty calls ‘shudders of awe,’ the exaltation we feel when we connect emotionally with literature and art.”[3] The greatest difficulty, and the question we as faculty needed answered, was how to engage our students—and light that kind of fire—online?

The pandemic challenged me to create ways to engage students’ bodies, bringing me to new, embodied readings of Dickinson. For example, I began—and still do begin—every poetry lesson by asking for 5-6 volunteers to read the poem aloud. Different voices surface peculiar inflections and manifold entry points for literary analysis and personal discovery. Listening is a learning mode, and not just a passive one, like the banking model of education that Paulo Freire denounces in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Passive listening is simply depositing information for later use without active engagement. That’s not the kind of listening I’m talking about. Active listening, listening with the purpose of immediate application, and with one’s whole body, leads to what I call a vibrational epistemology: a way of knowing through concrete perception.[4] A situated listener’s embodied knowledge of the heard sound connects them to its source, and to the particular environment shaping its direction and texture. Sound, in other words, does not exist in a vacuum. Furthermore, sensing sonic vibration is as much about embodied feeling (sound’s material pressure on the skin, the ear’s tympanic membrane, the hairs in the cochlea, and the skull) as it is about affects (emotions, feelings). So, first, we listen to at least five people read the poem aloud. They read at different tempos and syncopated rhythms, with emphasis on different syllables, they stumble over different words, read with accents, and with various degrees of feeling. Each voice reveals a new inflection of the poem, like turning a diamond in the light. Importantly, I emphasize that there is no authoritative way, no one “right” way to read the poem (though we also learn about hymn meter, free verse, slant rhymes, and so on—all that comes later) and I warn them, early on, that I will wait patiently for at least five volunteers. I highly recommend this as an active learning strategy and daily practice. 

We then read for understanding, discussing anything students may not know. Next, I try to engage students in some kind of bodily practice, such as movement or meditation. For example, when teaching “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose,” I guide students to stand in Tadasana or Mountain Pose, moving into a Salutation Seal.[5] This involves grounding your feet, lifting your rib cage which holds the heart, evenly away from your pelvis (as Alexandria Crow instructs) and toward the sun. You might splay your fingers like tiny suns radiating and reaching outward. I say, “This pose is an offering before you begin a sun salutation. Offering yourself to this moment, to poetry, to the sun rising inside you.” We listen to the poem again: while holding this pose I play a recording. This practice helps us to slow down and live in a poem. The important part for me, and for my students, is focusing for a few minutes on the inner sun at your heart and lifting it up. In your microbiome it is the equivalent of the sun at the heart of our solar system. Honoring the important role of the heart is not something we do very often in academic settings. We tend to neglect our bodies, and our feelings. So when we did this together as a class over Zoom, dialing in from our places of confinement, we realized how long it had been since we had thought about our hearts and connected with them. That set the stage for grounding ourselves, in imagination, in front of a window watching the sun rise. Dickinson writes: “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose—/A Ribbon at a time—” and, once we’ve slowed down, we can see these slight changes in light, a ribbon at a time, feel our bodies as steeples, in salutation or prayer—“The Steeples swam in Amethyst—/The news, like Squirrels, ran—/The Hills untied their Bonnets/The Bobolinks—begun—” and, of course, because I am a sound studies scholar, I played for them a recording of Bobolinks from the American Bird Conservancy.  

We also read for texture (observing colors, creatures, syntax, capitalization, and sounds). Once you hear a bobolink’s bright, sprightly singing, it gives new meaning and emphasis to “—begun—” like a shot of caffeine or the rush of sugar from some coconut cake at breakfast (when meeting in person, I bake Dickinson’s coconut cake to share with students as we study her poems side-by-side with her recipes). I also play sound recordings for students when teaching other poems by Dickinson. We focus not just on the sounds of words, commonly emphasized in poetics, but also on the actual sounds of the creatures she writes about, even insects, when she imagines her own death. As John Cage has shown in Silence (1978), presumed “silence,” or rests in a musical score, are filled with ambient sounds. He concludes that there is no true silence except in death, and even then nature continues its noise-making. Dickinson demonstrates this point repeatedly in her poetry: in a poem that takes place “when I died —” a Fly imposes itself “With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz,” and in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” from her coffin she hears a funeral service “like a Drum— … beating—beating—” and mourners “creak across” her “Soul” with “Boots of Lead.” Both Cage’s note on the dependability of ambient sounds and Dickinson’s ability to find noise in “The Stillness in the Room” emphasize that nature’s din persists regardless of our ability to hear it. This is why I encourage students to take their earbuds out and listen, to open the window and discover new sounds. One of the few wonderful things about spring in 2020, was hearing wood thrushes singing in New York City parks. They can be as reclusive as Dickinson was herself in her later years of life, but when the city went quiet, I could hear them everywhere. Wood thrushes have a syrinx, not a larynx, which enables them to make two sounds simultaneously, a natural ability we as humans will never have. Yet that little piece of information, made all the more mystical when heard first-hand in the classroom, illuminates Dickinson’s talent for double meanings in her poems. Students observe her remarkable ability—like the many little birds she observed—to say two things at the same time in a poem.  

At last, after listening and engaging our bodies in meditation to slow down and reflect on the somatic Dickinson, we respond to the question, “What is this poem about?” Most would ask this question first, but it is a rather intimidating and alienating one for those who are terrified of poetry, as I once was. We discuss meter, common themes across Dickinson’s oeuvre, and the mirror-like structure of the poem. The time invested in embodied listening pays off. After engaging in multi-sensory exercises, students remark on a wider variety of things in “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose:” dashes that act as pauses or notes held in a musical score, or physical gestures, such as the arm of the “Dominie in Gray” as he “Put gently up the evening Bars—” and again as he “led the flock away—” The “Bars” act as a gate for a flock of sheep, could represent the gates of heaven, or, one student pointed out, they could be the last bars of sunlight sliding their way up a windowsill as the sun sets. This reading came from the emphasis on the sun salutation at the beginning. The dash at the poem’s end signaled for students that there is no finality in nature, and the satisfaction felt with the finished rhyme—which Dickinson does not always give her readers—bestowed us with a sense of peace knowing that the world will keep moving, with or without us. 

This last feeling, a sense of peace and contentment with uncertainty, I would argue, could only be achieved with a somatic reading, especially mid-pandemic. By slowing down our bodies through breathing, close active listening, and attending to matters of the heart, we release tension and can find peace, beauty, and even optimism in a chaotic, uncertain, and ugly world. By grounding ourselves in the present, and mentally isolating ourselves from society for a moment to think about every detail of a sun’s rise and fall in a day, we could transport ourselves momentarily and feel perhaps a glimmer of the freedom of mind that Dickinson must have felt in her isolation. 

The purpose behind the structure of this lesson is to give students a personal, meaningful connection to a poem. Instead of intimidating students, poetry is given breath, movement, and warmth for all readers, no matter their level of experience. This practice fosters a community of inclusion and belonging, aligned with the pedagogies of scholar-activists like bell hooks, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde, in particular, emphasizes the importance of feeling satisfaction in her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic,” as a necessary means to liberation and self-advocacy.

Lorde, a self-described Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet, wrote that the erotic is a resource of feeling within us. But, she points out, we have been alienated from our own power. Lorde tells us that we have been taught to suspect the erotic, that this resource has been vilified, abused, and devalued within Western society. She writes: “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives.”[6] The erotic is the opposite of the pornographic. The pornographic, in contrast, denies women their own power. Lorde says sensation alone is not enough; instead, her emphasis is on learning to value the feeling of satisfaction instead of denying ourselves that right: “Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.” For Lorde and poets like her, poetry taps into the forces within us, giving “name to the nameless.” It helps us say “yes” to what Lorde calls “our deepest cravings,” and to reimagine what is possible. So when I stand in Tadasana and think of the sun rising in my chest and in Dickinson’s poem, I also mourn the fact that I have neglected my heart, that it has been—sometimes weeks, months, or years—since I last checked in with my heart, lifted it up, and gave it the honor, time, and attention it deserves. Once I feel the satisfaction, strength, and love—Eros—for my heart, in that pose, then I can release my grief and stand in worship—for the sun, for poetry, my body, my life—feeling more full than empty. 

This bodily attention is a crucial part of letting go of stress and trauma. It’s not uncommon to tear up or cry when giving careful attention to the body in this way. Again, I’m no therapist or yogi, but I am an experienced educator and have done extensive research, with my coauthor Cathy N. Davidson, on active learning methods that empower students, and the exercises I’ve shared with you today are impactful because they honor students’ expertise, their lives outside the classroom which impact their ability to learn. These methods are equitable because they require no prior knowledge of Dickinson, and they can be adapted for diversely-abled students. The point is to set the stage so students can appreciate and maybe come to love poetry as a resource, literature we can come back to again and again to help us through a hard time, to meditate, or for intellectual challenge, and more. They may not remember the lessons about meter and form, but learning sciences have shown that deep engagements in metareflection and lessons that are made personally meaningful are most likely to stay with us, and can even stay with us for the rest of our lives. 

In my course, we use Lorde’s concept of the erotic to measure how deeply we have embraced our own power, and, likely, find that we still have vast resources within us. Lorde writes: “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.” At this time especially, in the wake of a global health crisis, in the midst of war, a climate crisis, and more, we need to teach students resilience, to remember their power. This somatic Dickinson lesson works toward teaching poetry in a way that taps into the forces within us, in Lorde’s words, giving “name to the nameless” when we struggle to find the words to make sense of our world and tell our stories.

Endnotes

[1]  Dickinson, Emily. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass.”

[2]  Fleckenstein, Kristie. “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies.” College English vol. 61, no. 3 (January 1999): 292: Bateson, Gregory. A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Triarchy Press, 2023.

[3]  Fleckenstein, 292.

[4] Katopodis, Christina. “Vibrational Epistemology in the Nineteenth-Century American Soundscape: Music and Noise in Walden.” ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture vol. 65, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 382-423.

[5] Alexandria Crow, “Five Steps to Learn Tadasana,” Outside: Yoga Journal, February 14, 2016, http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yogapedia/5-steps-master-tadasana/.

[6] Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press, 1984.

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