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IDEAS

Teaching Emily Dickinson to men

With equal parts faith in poetry and concern for America’s young men, I spent a semester teaching a reclusive female poet to dudes. They didn’t see what was coming — and neither did I.

photo illustration by Kimmy Curry, Globe StaffKimmy Curry

What, oh what, will save our boys from toxic masculinity? A President Chris Evans? Truer hugs?

A few years ago, as a freshly minted English professor, I thought I’d found the solution: Emily Dickinson. I’d teach a class, composed entirely of men, about a reclusive female poet. We’d read her poems and letters. We’d learn about the male literati who failed her. We’d ask ourselves why she thought that “all men say ‘What’ to me.” We’d say something more.

If this sounds idealistic and misbegotten, hopeful as a “thing with feathers” and risky from the start, perhaps it was. It was born of a faith in poetry that’s evangelistic and a concern for American men that’s approaching DEFCON 1.

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I should note that all my courses are with men. Every day. All the time. I teach at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., which, since 1832, has been single-sex. I know a lot of dudes. Few tell me that they attend Wabash because it’s all-male. The real lures? The alumni network, intimate classrooms, and athletic esprit de corps. Fewer still matriculate to study gender. And some subscribe, particularly as freshmen, to a form of masculinity that is — if not toxic — traditional: Vulnerability is weakness; physicality equals strength.

This demographic makes for a unique classroom, whatever the curriculum. It’s also a gender laboratory and testing ground for guys in higher ed. And if I’ve learned anything from six years of teaching men — including one unlikely semester teaching them Dickinson — it’s this: Many dudes like discussing gender. It’s as if they were accidentally invited to a party with the cool kids. Faces peek out from the shadow of ball caps. Chairs squeak with shifted weight.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to approach such conversations with patience and listening. As Dickinson writes, “the Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”

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I took that advice when I taught her work, and it paid off. Twelve students enrolled. They wrote papers, talked, and considered — in ways I’d describe as empathetic — the limits placed on a 19th-century woman poet. They gave presentations on Dickinsonian subtopics: the sartorial symbolism of the famous white dress — her primary garment from the 1860s on; Dickinson’s little DIY books, known as fascicles; and her complicated relationship with abolitionist, writer, and Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

If, as Dickinson writes, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” then most classes were a voyage, all hands held tight to the deck of R.W. Franklin’s edition of her 1,789 poems, the first to preserve her eccentric orthography, capitalization, and punctuation.

And gender was often our North Star. Discussing marriage, my students found pathos in Dickinson’s speaker’s description of herself as “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded,” a life reduced to three past participles. They also noted that each one — swaddling, wedding, burial — came in white. They brainstormed the expectations put on 19th-century brides: Submit to sex, bear children, tend a home. Some of my students lamented the masculinist expectations put on them today: Suppress emotion, provide.

To this compassion they added curiosity, expressed best in their writing. One student described Dickinson as staging “a rebellion against beauty standards.” He argued that, by eschewing photography and describing herself to Higginson as the “only Kangaroo among the Beauty,” the poet had begun a proto-feminist effort to redefine looks.

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If, as the iconoclastic scholar Karl Keller once wrote, “a man trying to write well about Dickinson is an honest case of intellectual drag,” then I’m proud to say that my guys were queens.

The class, in short, was a joy. They read Dickinson’s Master Letters, a trio of (probably) unsent letters written by someone named Daisy (Dickinson) to a figure (Master) whose identity remains unknown. Why do scholars obsess over that identity, my students wanted to know. Many posited that Dickinson’s first scholars, all men, had skewed the debate. Couldn’t the Master, as one student firmly believed, be Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Emily’s sister-in-law and friend? Did the letters ironize the patriarchy? Defy it?

The answer, as with so much in Dickinson, is both. Her work is a Rorschach test for readers who project themselves into the work. That’s the nature of all reading, but Dickinson, I’d argue, built her life and art around that purpose, a posthumous “letter to the World / That never wrote to Me.” Dickinson’s gender, my guys agreed, contributed to that letter’s posthumous fame. (She almost never published while she was alive.) The reader’s gender, these same students noted, still colors how Dickinson is read.

I’m thinking here of the 20th-century male poets whose poems reimagine Dickinson as their erotic partner. (I’m looking at you, former Poet Laureate Billy Collins.) In a class devoted to Dickinson’s posthumous suitors, most students saw these sexualized homages as, well, creepy. Here’s the supposedly chaste Dickinson. Here’s the male poet as predator or seducer. One student called Collins’s poem a “literary assault.” Wasn’t it also a metaphor, I asked leadingly, for a man trying to “get at” the meaning of her evasive poems?

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My Dickinson class was open only to seniors. This surely contributed to its success — these guys grow a lot in four years. It’s also why I’ve only taught it once, though, as Dickinson notes, “Success in Circuit lies,” which I take to mean I really need to offer it again.

My students learned together that gender isn’t a certainty or straitjacket — it’s something they can shape. Here, too, Dickinson’s life is a model. Offered one, traditionally feminine existence — marriage, motherhood, make a home — she bent her life into another. My students, too, can bend masculinity, remake it until it selects its “own Society – / Then shuts the Door.” On bro culture. On bullying. On suffering alone.

They learned that masculinity, like poetry, “dwell[s] in Possibility – / a fairer House than Prose.” That it’s flexible enough to include therapy, dresses, and weeping at poems. It can even include our end-of-class extravaganza: a Dickinson birthday party — she’d have been 188 that December — for which college guys baked her gingerbread. I built a fire. The students brought their favorite literature. We lathered on the butter and read aloud.

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Derek Mong is a poet and associate professor of English at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, Ind. His latest collection is “The Identity Thief,” excerpts of which can be found at derekmong.com.