The Sky Is Low

This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.

The Sky is low manuscript

Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.

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The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.

Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.

Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.

The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term**  “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.

In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.

In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?

Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought***  indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.

As usual, I’m going to perform “The Sky Is Low”  with some original music. The player gadget should be below, but some blog reading software won’t show it. If so, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my musical performance.

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*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.

**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.

***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican  newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly.  His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link.  Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?

Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low”  to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.

William Carlos Williams’ Thursday

How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.

It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes  he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.

But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,”  which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all,  at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.

WCW at the Wheel

WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”

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This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.

Like just a “Thursday”  in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday”  should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.

The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.

Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.

I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.

Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.

Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.*  It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.

Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.

Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.

There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.

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So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”   If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground”  seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.

What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”

Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state,  something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.

The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?

The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!

My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground”  can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.

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*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.

William Carlos Williams’ January

Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.

And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?

I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,”  and it was published 100 years ago this year.

Young Wiliam Carlos Williams

As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

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By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January”  seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*

For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.

I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “January”  should be below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the musical piece. If you’d like to read the full text of the 1921 poem, this is a link to that.

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*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes.  Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.

Once more it’s hard to concentrate on music, poetry, art.

There isn’t going to be any new encounter with a set of words, nor any new musical combination with them today. I’ve mentioned during the last part of 2020 how this project that has brought me much joy and surprise has become more difficult for me. There are complicated reasons of little general interest that contribute to this, but this week there are again public events that have made it harder for me to concentrate on work.

Unless you are meditating in a cave somewhere, and only check in here as religious penance, you may easily guess what events this week have waylaid me. I feel compelled, for no logical reason, to bear witness to them, to watch them closely over the Internet at my shelter-in-place distance. Yesterday and certainly today that Internet will be filled with opinions. Well, that’s always so isn’t it — even if it may be to some degree even more so today. If you need opinions, you can drink of them until you are falling over swollen with them. I won’t fault you if you do, because I have read and will read some of them myself. I say this only to say that there’s no shortage of them, and so I will be brief and circumspect.

I declare this International Patchen

Painting by poet Kenneth Patchen who was also a pioneer in melding poetry and music, so don’t take this as some universal pronouncement. .

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I revere democracy. Not because I think it incapable of monstrous acts. All governments are so capable, and if they exist for more than a brief moment, history testifies that capability will be exercised. Not because I think that our particular U. S. government structure is divinely inspired. Not because I’m likely to agree with what the majority of fellow humans believe about a great many things. I revere democracy because its evils are our evils, its good is our good — and that good is redeemable to outweigh the bad in us.

Whether the actors I’m observing are dressed as a Senator or dressed in a jokey t-shirt and a red half-billed hat, the desire — no, the actions — so brazenly presented and recently taken in the cause of maintaining the rule of a man so roundly rejected by our voters are obviously counter to that reverence. The Capitol building, the august chambers, are just symbols. Since many of us are writers, we know symbols can have a heft even if imagined, but still the real thing being attacked should be certain: democracy.

That’s right:  the symbol has bricks and glass, the real thing is something we need to hold in our hearts and minds, another thing that’s a verb not a noun.

Instead of a new piece, here’s one I’ve presented before, by another Reverend of Democracy, Carl Sandburg. Don’t miss Sandburg’s subtlety here. He admits right off that we can be a mob. When he says “The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns.” He doesn’t merely mean that the notables, the big figures of history arise from the crowd. Sandburg means to contrast Napoleon who quickly became a military dictator with a Lincoln. We can bring both forward.

Here’s a link to the text of Sandburg’s poem, and my performance of it is available in this highlighted hyperlink, or via a player gadget you may see below. I still hope to be back with new pieces soon.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 “How like a Winter hath my absence been”

What with Longfellow last time and Shakespeare this time, I’m thinking I’ll return soon to some of the more surreal and avant garde 20th century authors whose work has entered the public domain. That would be the New Year’s thing to do — but then once one penetrates the archaic language of this old sonnet, it gets plenty weird.

Sonnet_97_1609

How this poem looked in 1609. I note that most versions of this poem I find online replace the question marks in the opening sentences with exclamation points. I wonder why?

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How many come here, perhaps via a web search for help in figuring out what some hard-to-understand poem might be on about? Well, here’s the usual “homework helper” summary of Sonnet 97:

The clever bi-amorous poet character* in the sonnet starts out bewailing that it’s winter and he’s away from his beloved. But wait, a few lines in, it’s summer, or maybe autumn harvest time, but the poet started out talking as if it’s wintertime because he misses the beloved so much and that makes it seem as bad as winter.

There you go, a greeting-card worthy poem when reduced to that meaning: “Miss you so much, summer’s like winter because of that.”

But all that ignores the strangeness of it. Don’t put this in your school work if you have a conventional teacher only looking to see that you’ve taken the effort to decode Elizabethan English,**  but is it just possible that the poem is really written in wintertime, or that the portrayed states of winter and summer in this poem are not actual, look-at-the-calendar fact? ***

That supposition that this poem is actually set in summer (or maybe autumn) has to be vague, because the statements about seasons in the poem are spread between four seasons: winter, summer, harvest-time and then near-winter fall — but the actual imagery Shakespeare goes with is much more at pregnancy**** and birth, and he’s not subtle about it at all, working a number of angles on that idea, and with a specifically  patriarchal slant on pregnancy.

Here’s what he says about what his state and season is in this poem: “teeming” (breeding with no concern of to excess), “increase,” “bearing” (and wanton at that), “burthen” (an archaic term that puns on birth, and was used for cargo in a ship’s hold, which the poem notes is owned by the principle, the prime, of the shipping company who has in that way impregnated the cargo), and outright “wombs,” “issue” (a legal term for children), and “orphans” (children again, though patriarchally, orphans from loss of just the father) and “un-fathered fruit” (from what little I know of horticulture and pollination, possible — but in this context, more orphan or bastard status being inferred). Shakespeare doesn’t really care to nail down if it’s summer or harvest because it’s not a calendar season he’s depicting. He’s been impregnated, and magically given birth perhaps more than once from this impregnation.

Now in terms of gender fluidity (no snickering in the back row — and Ms. Rowling, no passing notes you can’t share with the rest of the class) this is outrageous imagery, and something that I’ve seen no other reading of the poem address, though it seems to me overt enough that someone must have noticed it.

What is his point? What’s he getting at? I think the “issue,” the “orphans,” are the poet’s poems, even including this sonnet itself. His beloved is absent, so he shouldn’t be productive (maybe even an undercurrent here of infidelity or artistic parthenogenesis) and at least for the purposes of this poem he is exaggerating the patriarchal attitude that the father (not our fecund womb-bearing poet) owns the children, or if there be “issue” that isn’t his, they aren’t worthy.

There’s also a potential class layer here too, isn’t there. If the “Fair Youth” addressed in this and other sonnets is indeed a titled patron, that purported “only begetter” may be a fancy whose sexual politics shouldn’t be overlooked.

In that reading, it may really be winter outside, as on this late December day in my state it certainly is. And there may be a longing for an absent beloved, but the poet is writing the winter, writing the separation, teeming. I think Shakespeare may be playing with that claim that poetry without a patriarchal father is a dull song and illegitimate. As for us, we should write down our dark verse on the pale leaves of winter, and may you find pleasure in your own ever-fleeting year!

To hear my musical performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97, “How like a Winter hath my absence been,”   you can use the player gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*Modern scholarship has generally come down on the side of thinking that Shakespeare’s sonnets are an invented work, using and playing changes on conventions of Renaissance sonnet topics and plot lines. But the desire to know “the real Shakespeare” still leads a great many to comment on what these poems, seemingly intimate and confessional, say about the person who wrote them. I’m going to write as if the poem is Shakespeare speaking as himself for simplicities sake, as writing “the character of the poet who is writing this poem” is too awkward to keep repeating.

**I wonder how many immigrant and Afro-American students realize that they have a possible advantage in appreciating and interpreting the archaic English of Shakespeare’s time in that they already have a contemporarily developed and working code-switch skill regarding language.

***When I first read this poem I thought of the Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun”  in which (spoiler alert) two women are approaching death on an Earth that is growing ever hotter, only to have the twist ending be that it’s a near-death fantasy of our heroine on a planet that is instead growing ever colder.

****Human pregnancy having a 9 month term could account for some of the seasonal ambiguity and the poem not being clear about it being winter, summer, harvest mid-autumn or near winter/late fall.

The Three Kings

Here’s a piece that will seem appropriate for Christmas, but to be exact, it’s actually early  and only due by January 6th. Yes, even though your standard-issue Christmas decoration depicts a stable with baby Jesus, his parents, livestock, shepherds, a hanging heavenly star, and that exotic trio: the Three Kings, the Three Wise men, the Magi, the reviewers who will give King Herod a scathing no-star* Yelp review—never mind that creche, the traditional story has it that the three kings arrive later.

the-adoration-of-the-magi by Rubens 1

In this painting by Rubens it looks like the Magi have  roadies, a security detail, and an all-access pass

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There’s even a church holiday associated with this January date: Epiphany. And that date, the visit of the Magi, was also the endpoint of the English 12 Days of Christmas, something best remembered here in the U. S. via that crowded, livestock enriched, counting song.

But never you mind. On Christmas, angels appear on high, animals can talk, and Christians celebrate the coming of the Godhead as a small human baby. Let’s not sweat the small stuff.

I found this late Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Three Kings,”  this week, and set about quickly seeing if I could turn it into a Parlando Project piece in time for Christmas. Turns out I can. And as a result, you all get a new Christmas carol today.

The Three Kings

You don’t need a word-a-day calendar when you have poetry. “Kine” is an archaic word for cattle. As to the breath of cattle, well, carbon-neutral poetic license there. “Paraclete” is the consoling aspect of the Holy Spirit.

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The full original text is longer than what I’ll perform. Here’s a link to the full poem in case you want to see what I started with. Figuring that performing the whole thing would run long (I like to keep Parlando Project pieces under 5 minutes) I looked to see if I could excerpt a scene from it, and rather quickly I found what I think is the heart of the piece. Even though the Three Kings are the title characters, and lots of detail on their story is included in Longfellow’s original, the real central character is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So, I open with the Kings arriving and finding the incongruous royal, holy, baby in the stable. I love the stanza where Longfellow so touchingly, and humanly, recounts something many first-time parents will relate to: Mary with joy and worry watching the fragile miracle of her newborn’s breathing.

And then he follows that with the exact details of the gifts that the Magi are offering, efficiently detailing what they symbolize, ending with the myrrh and the note that it is for burial of the body. Which, as one might expect, is not what worried Mary wants to hear.

I close on Longfellow’s next-to-last stanza, where Mary comforts herself with the annunciation message she had heard from an angel before Jesus’ birth, which didn’t include the fine print of her baby’s eventual suffering, torture and execution.

Longfellow may have a reduced reputation as an effective poet, but particularly when I zoom in on the heart of this piece, I don’t think he comes off badly. I believe also that the aged Longfellow has his own life to draw on here, not just as a parent, but as someone who lost his first beloved wife in childbirth and his second beloved wife to a fire that he himself tried to smother out on her body.

Longfellow himself says the moment of his poem mixes the joy of life with the terror of death—yet oh my, I’ve gone and mixed Christmas joy with sorrowful things, but I will not remove the above, nor decorate it with some statement that sorrow is what makes joy more intense, or that neither is everlasting, or some elaborate reminder that this happy holiday has been set so near our Northern hemisphere’s shortest day and longest night to set it off with hope. As I say from time to time here, it’s not what I believe that is important—it’s what you  believe.

Thank you for reading and listening. A player gadget should appear below to hear my performance of my selection from Longfellow’s “The Three Kings”  using my own music. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a player in a new window so that you can hear it.

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*Astrologers giving out a no-star review is the ultimate burn for those guys. See also haruspex dishing on bad chicken take-out, palm readers who really don’t want you to give them a hand, and numerologists who’ll correct your bad arithmetic.

I wake and feel the fell of dark

Once more let us look at winter-come darkness and see what we see there, this time through Gerard Manley Hopkins and one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”

The name “Terrible Sonnets” is not a review, though I’ll confess that on first hearing of them, that between Hopkins oh-so-British sounding triple name with an extra schoolboy snicker due for the middle name on top of that, that I too wondered what meaning I’d assign to that word “Terrible”. No, my teachers assured me, terrible in the same way that wonderful and awful can be synonyms in strict derivation English.

No, these are poems that have a good scholarly reputation, and some general readership yet today. If there is disagreement about them, it’s not about their worth or poetic quality, but rather if they show Hopkins in a profound spiritual crisis or in a clinical depression. One can find a number of essays online and elsewhere that argue for either, or perhaps both. Either way, this is the night darkness as we often think of it. Yesterday we had Joseph Campbell making a case for a mysterious outward darkness, the exact nature of which is just out of our understanding. Hopkins darkness in contrast is totally intimate. I find it interesting that both of them were writing in Ireland, then still a colonial possession. Campbell may be expressing his country’s subjugation and its ancestors’ sorrow at that in his poem. Hopkins, in turn, was a patriotic citizen of the empire that ruled over Campbell’s country. That’s not a frame I’ll follow up on today due to space, and because Hopkins wrote these poems in the late 19th century and there’s no way to start a Tweetstorm that he can read back then.

Gerard Manley Hopkins 2

Hopkins, about to be pwned for complicity in colonial exploitation, before everyone realized: wait, 1885, no iPhones.

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Here’s another frame, another one with roots in colonialism and subjugation. In America we have a form, the Afro-American Modernist form forged around the same time that some white Americans were over in London helping create and popularize Imagism. That form was called “The Blues,*” and to some degree that indigo name has let it be casually and incorrectly considered a sorrowful song. And yes, a lot of bad and sad things are spoken of in The Blues, but it’s generally from a stance of: “Look what’s happened to me, what’s been done to me, the absurdity of it—but I’m still here to tell you about it.”

Today’s piece, using Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark,”  is not a Blues. But despite the harrowing statement of the inside of this poem’s speaker’s experience, it shares one thing with The Blues that makes it outstanding: “I wake and feel the fell of dark”  is full of energy. The description of the state inside the poem is cascading and vivid, coming at you so fast that it seems all at once. If this is depression being described, it’s not the mode of depression that is numbed beyond caring, but the depression that actively calls out and hates the depressive portion of the speaker’s mind. In this way, it shares something with The Blues, it can be cathartic. And indeed, some sufferers of depression (like too, some religious seekers) find the Terrible Sonnets worthwhile as a voice in darkness that can remind them that there are others who’ve felt and seen the same things.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you’d like to refer to it.

I’ll risk trivializing Hopkins’ revered poem by pointing out two trivial things I noted in looking at the text, as few commentators on Hopkins’ work choose to sink to mundane levels. The section “I am gall, I am heartburn…bitter would have me taste: my taste was me” seems to me to me to be on one level a symptomatic report of the experience of nighttime gastric reflux. And in these days of 2020, with lots of long nights this year before this day of Winter Solstice, Hopkins back in 1885 was prophet enough to speak specifically of our popular pandemic baking fad of homemade sourdough bread in this poem’s line 12!

The player gadget to hear my performance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “I wake and feel the fell of dark” should appear below. Don’t see a player you can click on? Well, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear today’s audio piece.

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*The Blues of course is a varied and mutating form whose essence exists beyond the bins carrying that label in record stores or playlist names on your phone. I use it as a name because it’s one that coalesced for the art form at the time it emerged around 1900 in America. I stand to be corrected by my betters in these matters, but I believe the Blues essence remains a vital part of Afro-American expression, and from that, American expression in general. I’m an American musician, and the notes are mostly black.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

What do we see, what do we learn, what possibly do we gain here in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere from so much nighttime at the beginning of a cold and snowy winter?

Some might say we learn endurance, a sense of obligation besides the dark and ice to carry on. Or a concentration, winter solstice as the fasting of light. But night is a filter, a frame, offering another way of perceiving. So, I went looking for poems this month that might allow you or I to look at darkness and see differently. One of the strongest and strangest poems I found was this one by a little-known Irish poet named Joseph Campbell.*

I’m trying to gather more info on Campbell. He was born in colonial Ireland in 1879 and died 1944 in a now independent Ireland. Most of his available poetry was published before WWI. He was imprisoned in the events surrounding the Irish Civil War of the last Twenties** (he was aligned with the losing side) and afterward he lived for a couple of decades in the United States. Shortly before his death he returned to Ireland and died there. I’ve read one of his book-length collections of poetry and parts of two others, all of which predate Irish Independence and the Civil War. I find him a striking poet worthy of more interest. Most of his poetry is brief, rhymed lyrical poems, using short metrical lines, such as today’s selection. One collection, Irishry,  contains incisive small character sketches of Irish life at the turn of the 20th century. Another, The Gilly of Christ,  has elements of Christian mysticism. Inherent in many of the poems seems to be a speaker who has spent time hiking about the country, and in this regard, Campbell reminds me at times of Edward Thomas with his attention to the book of nature and the landscape. While he likes rural and sometimes peculiar words, his language is clean and modern without the taint of worn-out 19th century leftovers.

There are also a handful of poems I’ve read in the collections so far that are very much in the style of the early Imagists, and this is striking because they may date to around the same time as their initial ground-breaking experiments. I so far know of no direct connection between Campbell and the largely London-based pioneering Imagists, but like his Irish contemporaries Yeats*** and Joyce, Campbell seems to be an early Modernist voice regardless of his use of rhyme and meter for most of his poetry.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

Here’s today’s piece with chords in case you want to make sounds in the winter night

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Today’s Winter Solstice relatable piece “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  mixes his modes a bit to produce an interesting effect. It’s on one layer a jaunty nature poem, almost nursery rhyme simple. This seems an easy effect to achieve, but particular to moderns, it’s not. Subtly mixed in with the “child in cradle, lamb in fold” comfortable lines are misty undercurrents. Well, yes, those trees are a bit ghostly in fading light and cold mist. Yes, birds are on the wing, but also “Black-winged vampires.” What? No, there are no vampire bats in Ireland.****  And in the last line of the second stanza we meet “rath and burial mounds,” the former a word that has an Irish meaning that an modern American reader might slide over. No, the burial mounds aren’t explicitly angry, a “rath” is the remains of an earthen-walled stronghold dating back to Celtic chieftains. The poem final stanza intensifies that hold and call from the indigenous past. Though Campbell is depicting an Irish landscape, these rounded-over and landscape-worn earthworks bring to mind the areas of North America in my native Midwest where indigenous people built similar structures.

But the most mysterious part is repeated as a refrain to make sure we don’t miss it: “Wounds of Eloim/Weep on me!”

The darkness of coming night may be mysterious, but this is more so. I don’t know exactly what Campbell is getting at there, other than the effect of mystification assuredly delivered. Eloim, which I believe in a variation of “Elohim,” is word that will not become less mysterious if one researches it. It appears to be a Semetic language family word for gods. In the Bible the word appears to have taken on several meanings. The Abrahamic Semites are famously monotheists, and they will use the word to refer to the multiple gods of the other tribes—but even though the word is plural, they will use it to refer to their own, singular god, or to the ambiguous angels that are not human but are also not plural gods. At some point, I believe post-Biblical times, this association with angels has led the word to be used at times as synonym for heaven.

Does that help us understand what Campbell meant to ring out multiple times in his poem? Not exactly. I gather some sense of a lost past, of a suppressed culture, is being invoked, but the mysticism never reduces itself to a “this stands for that, it’s just a code to be broken” level. That may increase its power, and it certainly increases the strangeness of this poem.

Returning to my original question, what might the darkness, our winter-come overwhelming night portion teach us? The example of this poem says that I shouldn’t answer that question quickly and simply—but that I should ask it.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Joseph Campbell’s “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  will often appear below. If you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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*As I have to say whenever I mention Campbell to anyone: no, not the American Hero With A Thousand Faces  and “Follow your bliss” Joseph Campbell. This is another guy. The Irish Joseph Campbell also used a Gaelic name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil which would have given him a more secure doing-business-as cultural brand, and near the end of his life a pen-name of Ultach.

**Until this year I was entirely ignorant of the events of the Irish Civil War and now only know the summary story as reflected in things like this Wikipedia entry. I am, so far, unacquainted with Campbell’s political beliefs and actions.

***Like Yeats, Campbell seems to have been a committed cultural nationalist, seeking to use the arts as a way to uplift his country’s prestige and as a foundation for independence from colonial status. Like Yeats he also seems to have been involved with theater and as a song lyricist. One tidbit I found, which may be related to the mysterious element in today’s poem, is that he may have been the source responsible for a broadside folk ballad “Reynardine,”  being performed in a version by several British Isle folk-revivalists later in the 20th century as a tale of a “ware-fox” rather than in its original guise as tale of a bandit. Here’s two of my favorites versions, one by the incomparable Bert Jansch, and an unaccompanied one by the equally special Anne Briggs.

****Maybe St. Patrick and Van Helsing teamed up to take care of that?

The Most Popular Parlando Piece this Past Fall Was…

Well, this is sort of embarrassing. The Parlando Project is about wandering about in the universe of other people’s words that I might combine with music. I wanted to cast for a wide choice of words because that was part of the core energy of one of the project’s ideas: “Other People’s Stories” and how could my music and the performances illuminate a range of experiences.

You see, I think that the performer—like you, the reader or the listener—should become the co-creator with the author’s text for the fullest experience. I find it rewarding when, in taking my part, I am collaborating with William Butler Yeats, Fenton Johnson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Du Fu, Emily Dickinson, or Tristan Tzara. Long-time readers here may have noticed that in the past year I’ve increasingly turned to translation from non-English authors, which enforces that need to become the respectful collaborator with the author’s text, but in effect even those authors who wrote in my native language require translation into a performance with music.

Whitman with Butterfly

I had the damndest dream! I was this 4th century BCE Chinese guy eating breakfast in Minneapolis. And then I awoke, and I was just Walt Whitman, a cosmos.

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So despite those principles, the most popular piece in terms of likes and listens this past fall was “Two Butterflies,”  an exception where I wrote the words as well as the music. In my original post on “Two Butterflies”  I didn’t take much time to write about my intent with the poem. Let me do that today.

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The original experience that brought this poem to my mind was sitting at an outdoor city patio early one morning eating breakfast when I was startled by the pair of butterflies flying past me within inches without stopping on their way to the potted plant near the café’s door. For the next several minutes I was enraptured by them, compelled to watch them experience the same transient morning I was in. I noticed them intent on their connection to the flowers that co-existed with a watchfulness so that they would each take off in a spiral flight when someone else would enter the café for takeout.

Much of the poem then was pure observation, its ideas derived largely from what I selected to report. The effect I was seeking to bring out in the reader in that part of the poem was an intense investment and identification with these creatures and the poem’s speaker. At times the speaker is away and watching, at times he seems as close as one of the butterflies is to the other, or even seeing through their eyes the humans about them.

Then two stanzas from the end, the poem has its turn, its volta. I’m not sure if the way I went was the right way to go. I destroy the imagist mood of the opening three-quarters or so of the poem, but I often quite like it as a reader when a poem destroys its mood or continuity in service of another frame or facet of what it’s portraying.* My readers often note this as a fault, a mistake on my part, but if so, it’s a mistake following my intent here. The poem could  end before the last two stanzas, and it’d be more likeable. The casual reader would find that foreshortened poem largely understandable, a pleasant word picture.

The sin I risk in the last two stanzas is pretention—and that’s not a tantalizing sin to me. I fear committing it as much as I fear being caught committing it. To say what I sincerely thought in that morning’s moment is not an air-tight alibi. I pack a lot of metaphysics into those last two stanzas, and most readers don’t want to be waylaid by such. Most of us are too busy competing with or caring for each other to find that useful. For a few moments—and pretentiously, for only a few moments—one morning I was unoccupied enough to think on these things. You, dear reader, are not obligated to do the same. If you’d like to hear my performance of “Two Butterflies”  the player gadget will usually appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*The desire for this kind of sideways explosion in a poem’s intent or at least a slicing undercutting of its statement was something that I found in my attempt this month to come to terms with the Zhuangzi,  and its own Butterfly Dream. Casual readers and even philosophers seem so taken by the implied question in Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream of how can we be sure if something is dream or reality, and then entirely miss the extra explosion Zhuang Zhou put at the end of his parable: that we find these two states completely distinct, and yet we move between them. Therefore, can we not move between completely different states in our outlook in other matters?

I’ve got Burton Watson’s translation of The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu  containing all the inner books of the Zhuangzi,  and it’s somewhat slow going to fully grasp despite Watson’s helpful framing and notes, but as promised Zhuang Zhou hops around quickly, hoping perhaps to destroy conventional reading.