Because I Could Not Stop for Death

One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.

Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?

When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”  proved years ago).

With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”  I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.

That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.

In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the cold weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.

The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience than even a day of a slow life.

Emily Dickinson Gravestone
Emily’s family held more conventional views of heaven reflected on her gravestone

So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot”  to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time’s wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.

At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.

Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.

So hop in the carriage, we’ve got the clip-clop of the hooves and the jangle of the harness to accompany us when you use the player below to listen to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”


Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)

Sometimes the things we present here come together quickly. For example, some of the LYL Band pieces heard here are first takes where the musicians are reacting to the words spontaneously the best we can. Other pieces ask to spend a little time underground to think, like seeds think.

Today’s piece is one of those later ones. Nearly two months ago Grant Hart, a founding member of Hüsker Dü, a Minnesota indie rock group that achieved some fame before breaking up in the late 1980s, died. After Hüsker Dü broke up, Hart had continued working in music and visual art, some of it quite striking, none of it as well-known as it should have been. We are used to stories of a young person whose indie band is on the rise, there is less notice for those artists whose work continues past middle-age. After all, even when there are new levels to the work, there may be no apparent market. While thinking of him, I noticed, strangely, for the first time, that Grant’s name was, in effect, a two-word prayer.

younger Grant Hart

Young musicians, young artists, need will and lot of work to get a chance to succeed.
But at a certain age, they will need even more of that will to continue to make art.

Around the same time, I was talking with Dave Moore (who you’ve heard here, vocally, keyboardely, and composerly) about his household’s garden bounty coming to an end.

These two thoughts combined into the words for today’s piece back in September. And early last month I wrote the music—so this piece has existed, on paper, for a month. I performed it on acoustic guitar for a handful of people in a living room in October. It seemed to work. So why haven’t you heard it yet?

I really wanted to get the performance right. And this month I attempted that, getting as close as this recording. I wanted it to be good, but I didn’t want it to be polished either.

Garden Elegy

Here are the words to “Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)”

The LYL Band began roughly the same time as Hüsker Dü. We even shared a producer of our first recordings back in the day (Colin Mansfield). But we were much different. We were a band of poets and artists, closer to the Fugs or Billy Bragg than the Who or the Jam. And I was then, as now, not a consistent and confident performer and a problematic singer. That was my problem as a band-member back then. As passionate as I could be in my writing, I couldn’t find the heart to focus that passion on stage, to the detriment of the band.

So, it didn’t take just the two months the song was in process, it took some decades to get close to what this song requires. When you listen to “Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)”   you’ll hear me going for it as best I can, trying to focus passion. About halfway through you’ll hear the body of the guitar bang into the amplifier.

And that’s my prayer for artists today, perhaps your prayer too: that we may be granted heart.

Here’s the song:

Oread

How did you spend your extra hour given to us by the Daylight Savings Time changeover? Some spent it snuggled with a loved one, or others for splendid dreams given time for extra chapters. I spent my night and hour wrestling with another poet’s poem and creating and performing music for it.

A few posts back we presented William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a widely anthologized and very short Imagist poem. My current feeling, shared in that post, was that Williams really was talking about a red wheelbarrow, a simple tool used for important tasks. Of course, he was also aware that the rain-glazed red paint of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens around it was a bold visual image, consistent with the modernist art he appreciated, and that he didn’t mind the provocation of calling attention to this without elaborate justification, any more than a classical painter or poet would think they would have been required to tell us why we should give a fig about Artemis.

Here’s another short Imagist poem, this time by Hilda Doolittle, who wrote as H. D.   H. D. knew William Carlos Williams from when Williams was a college student, but then H. D. knew or crossed paths with many of the principals of Modernism over her lifetime. Modernist poetry admitted more women creators than painting or music, or most other arts at the start of the 20th Century, but that’s a low bar to clear. H. D. cleared it however, and she continued to run her own race on her own course from the start of her career.

HD in Egypt

Another episode from HD’s remarkable life: she was present when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1923

 

H. D.’s 26 word poem is much different from Williams’ 16 word one. It’s much stranger, and the internal state the external images present is more complex than even many longer poems reflect.

In some ways, the title “Oread”,  the effective 27th word, helps us. For those not up on Greek mythology, we can look it up, it’s a mountain nymph or spirit. Like many Greek nature spirits, an Oread is female.

So, from the title of the poem, we can say that it’s an Oread that’s speaking—but even if we grant that, this ain’t Tinkerbell. The supposed nymph is commanding nature, as a full-fledge god or goddess or a magician would. And the Oread is not asking it for protection, or forbearance, or even for it to put the hex on someone else, it’s asking it to do it’s best to overcome her. “Whirl” “pointed” “splash”, and “hurl” are some of those 26 words.

Another huge difference between Williams “Wheelbarrow”  and H. D.’s “Oread:”  the former is intensely visual, the later, just as intensely, tactile.

And who’s the Oread talking too? Three words in, it seems to make that clear: “sea.” Except the sea is described largely as a forest—a forest that can splash and form pools, but a forest at least as much as a sea. The sharpest readings of this is that the Oread is speaking of the sea with the images of the forested mountain (waves are like trees, water drops are like the needles of pines), but by saying it so, she is saying that the overcoming she commands is a merging of two like things.

I’m left with a conclusion that this is a spell of desire. Whether it is sensual, spiritual, or artistic desire makes no difference in the frenzied merger that is being called into being.

So, what did I do in writing music and performing “Oread?”  I repeat most of the lines at least twice, to emphasize the incantational aspect. Despite my recently expressed desire to re-explore artificial drum machine sounds, the percussion has lots of little instruments for a ceremonial air: shakers, maracas, cymbals, tambourine, even a chiming triangle. The main musical motif is a four-note synthesizer phrase that seems to be looping, but once again isn’t, as permutations occur throughout. The bass part rarely plays the same note as the synth motif, a musical effect that can be likened to “rubbing,” an apt metaphor for this sensuous poem.

To hear it, use the player below.

 

Zeppelins

For reasons of copyrights, I’ve been focusing a fair amount here on using words from the most recent poems whose rights are in the public domain (pre-1924). One side-effect of that: during the run of this project we’ve presented a good number of poems about World War I, which I recently called “The last war covered by poets.”

So, we’ve had a poem from a man waiting to enter his battle: Rupert Brooke writing on the troopship carrying him overseas; and poems written from first-hand views in the trenches by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and T. E. Hulme. We’ve had reactions to the war and its losses from Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Carl Sandburg. William Butler Yeats, even in refusal, is writing a war poem of a sort, one I suspect has a hidden barb at the politicians’ war propaganda.

For the most part, the poems I’ve used so far would not pass as journalism. Owen and Sassoon use fantasy to illustrate the war’s folly. Pound, Tzara, and Sandburg tell of the subjective emotional impact of the war’s losses. But Brooke’s fragment has the power of a closely observed diary entry, and T. E. Hulme comes closest so far to a straightforward war dispatch with his compressed account of the front at St. Eloi.

Today’s piece, using words by F. S. Flint, comes closer yet. Flint, the man who urged the “School of Images” in pre-war London to hew to a cadenced free verse, felt that verse and prose existed on a smooth and unbroken continuum, that good writing was good writing, regardless of the label on the tin.

Besides being present at the birth of Modernist English poetry, Flint also was in the right place to witness another Modernist invention: aerial bombardment of cities. It’s little remembered now, but nighttime terror bombing of London was not an invention of Hitler’s air force in WWII—it was, instead, first carried out by Zeppelin airships in World War I.

Flint’s report, though artfully framed with its first-person account of being awakened from sleep in medias res, and ending with a surprising and telling conclusion, includes enough exact detail to say that it describes the first of these London raids on May 31st, 1915.

Zeppelin Raid

1915 reactions to the London Zeppelin raids of World War I

It’s a gripping account, no less than if it had been filed this year in Syria or somewhere else were bombs fall on civilians in our time.

Does the element in Flint’s work of mere journalism detract from its “poetic” qualities? The romantic element would say yes perhaps, there is no other “realer, now revealed” world invoked, no intense yoking of disparate images or modes of perception (although I would maintain it does just that  in a subtler way). More elaborate language, more elaborate metaphors could decorate this. Picasso’s Guernica”  is the same subject, painted decades later, but it’s also more worked out as a cubist statement.

In a sense this question is like a question I wrestle with here as I contemplate the Parlando Project which combines music with words. Does the addition of a substantial thing to something else: in the case of Flint’s “Zeppelins,”  documentary, journalistic facts to modernist poetic imagism; or in the case of my Parlando Project pieces, music and performance’s addition to what is often canonical page-poetry—are those things additive, making a greater sum—or do they, paradoxically, detract, diffusing or de-fusing the impact of the uncombined thing.

Or are these questions of art a sideline here? Do Henry and Caroline Good, dead of flames and smoke in their bedroom in that night in 1915, or Leah Lehrman, age 16 killed by a Zeppelin-dropped bomb explosion care? Do we appreciate that we live now and ponder these questions?

Synsonic Drums

Later that same 20th century, my first drum machine.

In writing and performing the music for Flint’s “Zeppelins,”  I wanted to lean toward Techno a bit. I avoid drum machines these days and work hard to humanize my beats on most pieces. Back in the 20th Century I used machine beats, they were all I could afford, and now in the 21st, no matter how skillfully deployed, they remind me of those crudely resolved sounds, a make-do.  My 12 year old son however enjoys them, the blippiest tracker pieces or a SID chip 8-bit beats please him with their antique charm. Then listening to Weekes new single this weekend reminded me of that charm (and made me wish I could sing better).  So I gave it a go.

You hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins”  right here with the embedded player below. Something about those later 20th Century sounds just seemed right for an early 20th Century piece to me.