Poem of the month: ‘We Like March’ by Emily Dickinson

When I had my own classroom (I used to be a secondary school English teacher), one of my favourite wall displays was a ‘poem of the month’ board which held a rotating selection of verse.  The rules were simple.  Each poem had to contain the name of the relevant month within its lines.  I had a huge amount of fun collecting the verses and you may have noticed a few of them appearing on this blog, especially for the easy favourites such as ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ (June) and ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad‘ (April).  Some months were harder than others, I recall November, despite being a popular title, appears very rarely within the poems themselves.  Oddly, March was also a tough month to fill.  It took a fair amount of internet trawling, but I did finally end up with something rather special:

We like March – his shoes are purple.
He is new and high –
Makes he mud for dog and peddler –
Makes he forest dry –
Knows the adder’s tongue his coming,
And begets her spot –
Stands the sun so close and mighty –
That our minds are hot.
News is he of all the others –
Bold it were to die
With the Blue Birds buccaneering
On his British sky –

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Poet: Emily Dickinson

We didn’t teach that much American verse, so I was delighted to give my students at least a fleeting view of some of the nation’s greatest poets (Poe also got his allocated slot, because it wouldn’t be December without an extract from ‘The Raven‘).  I also think that Dickinson captures the transitional month of March beautifully, though, as with so many of her works, she raises as many questions as she answers.

The first thing to remember, as I told myself most mornings when I faced the poem on entering my classroom, is that this isn’t a monologue and doesn’t tell a story.  Instead, it evokes an emotion, and so is an example of lyric rather than narrative verse.  This means that questions like ‘Who are the ‘we’ at the start?’ and ‘What’s going on with the genders of March and the adder’s tongue?’ are tempting but unsatisfying.  Instead, I’d try to empty my mind and focus on the (literally) marching rhythm and succession of evocative images.

The images themselves are forceful and enigmatic.  There is March with his purple shoes, giving a regal and ecclesiastical tone to the natural wonders of the month.  Then we’re brought sharply down to earth with the ‘mud’ that follows in his wake.  These first images set up the tension between the highs of beauty and the depths of wallowing that will be the focus of the rest of the poem.  The human experience of change lies between the snake and the sun, the dog and the birds.  Similarly the collective response to the pride of the month can be a human’s own, over-heated ambition to be truly, if misplacedly, ‘bold.’  It’s a very powerful poem.

As for the last lines, I did wonder about displaying them so prominently to class after class of adolescent girls.  I comforted myself with the knowledge that only so many were going to read my desperately educational displays anyway.  More importantly, a bit of poetic angst is surely an essential component of anyone’s teenage years.  Emily Dickinson died of Bright’s disease at the age of 55, but she does fall into the honourable tradition of depressed, death-obsessed artists.  If anyone can show aspiring writers how to turn morbid thoughts into enduring poetry, she can.

If you have any other top March poems, please suggest them.  I know that Dickinson is hard to beat, but it’s a wonderful month and a wonderful time of year.  There must be other verse responses out there, and I’d love to increase my poem of the month collection!

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6 Responses to Poem of the month: ‘We Like March’ by Emily Dickinson

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Love Dickinson! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Sarah says:

    What a wonderful poem. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, there are so many riches there. It was a timely reminder to me to drop down a gear or two when reading poetry. I read novels like I’m on a speedboat, but poetry fares better when I approach it like I’m dipping a bucket into a rockpool!

    • I’m another speedy reader when it comes to novels, but poems really are best when taken slow. The wall display is ideal, because it means you only focus on one poem for an extended period of time (but then such wall displays, though great it classrooms, aren’t always suited to other environments!)

  3. debra macgregor says:

    I was surprised to read ‘snake’ in your description. Yes, an adder (snake) has a tongue, but this adder’s tongue refers, I think, to the early spring ephemeral wildflower, variously called adder’s tongue, trout lily, and dogtooth violet. I’m not hearing any snake in the poem.

    • Thank you very much for this. I was not aware of the horticultural meaning of the term Adder’s tongue – and looking online I can see that its flowers are purple which ties beautifully with the colour of March’s shoes in the poem.
      With this new knowledge I was tempted to edit all references to serpents out of my original post, but then I realised that, for me, there is always going to be a snake lurking beneath the surface of the text. I find the name of the flower on which Dickinson centres her poem so evocative and the mystery of the image was unknown to me for so long that it is now an inherent part of how I read the poem.

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