This April the Parlando Project will shift into a higher gear to help celebrate U. S. National Poetry Month. And what better way to start off but with a piece by Emily Dickinson, “This World Is Not Conclusion.”
Subscribe or stop back often to see how the Parlando Project presents different poems with different music during this month’s celebration
Modern American poetry begins with Whitman and Dickinson, two different writers who between them explored in their 19th century world every aspect poets would exploit for the next century and more. Usage proofreaders will point out that the term more unique is incorrect, that unique is an absolute, and more unique is like saying more tallest. But if there is anyone to stretch the rules of English grammar for, Dickinson would be one.
Here’s the text I’m going to use today:
She’s so unusual. Emily Dickinson may have done more with the dash than Usain Bolt
Sure, these are ordinary words. A smart grade school student would know the meaning of every one, save perhaps for “Sagacity.” But how are they deployed? How many sentences are there? Where does one thought end and another start? By performing this I must make some choices that the page doesn’t dictate clearly, just as you would if you read the poem aloud.* But not only is this not English as it’s usually written, it’s not even English as we normally speak it.
What keeps this from sounding off-putting? Well there’s music to it, the same ballad meter/hymn tune beat that Dickinson uses often.** In Protestant Christian churches congregations would sing to this rhythm every week. That may add a certain reassurance to those listeners accustomed to that sound. The line of thought, the grammar and syntax here, is musical too, it moves as music does, phrasing and echoing itself.
Since this is National Poetry Month, let’s stop for a moment and reiterate—there is a pleasure and reassurance in this mode of expression, “Invisible as Music—But positive, as sound.” Forget for a moment the challenge of what a poem means—the essay answer question, the who dares to raise their hand first issues.
Perhaps you are not only a reader of poetry, but you also write it—or make an attempt to do so. In this poem Emily Dickinson gets away with things you and I will likely fail at. We need to go more than half-way into the poem before we find a word that isn’t abstract, and even my candidate for that first word “Crucifixion” is a widespread Christian religious image of torture and suffering, designed to be concrete, but so common as to risk losing any power of fresh shock. Nor do I think Dickinson wants us to stop there and contemplate The Cross. It’s not her last line, it’s not conclusion, her music continues.
How does she get away with this abstraction? 99 times out of 100 if you or I or the next poet tries to write a poem full of abstract words, under the impression that we need to convey ideas with the words that label ideas, we’ll fail to connect, fail to be vivid. William Carlos Williams had a famous motto to prevent this: “No ideas but in things.” A poem is not about ideas. It’s about the experience of ideas.
I think Dickinson’s way of bringing us along is that idiosyncratic way of speaking, the compression and quick turns in the lines that she devised before anyone thought to call such an invention Modernist. We’re carried along as if we’re thinking inside her head with Emily, beguiled to follow the music of thought. “How can this be so?” she keeps asking.
In her last five lines, the last quarter of the poem, Dickinson finally moves to concrete images, and we get another Emily Dickinson trademark, humor.
“And asks a Vane, the way—” is referring to a New England commonplace, the weather vane, a pointing device often ornamented with a bird or rooster placed on the top of a building and designed to turn freely and point in the direction of the wind. Beneath this turning pointer are fixed cardinal direction arms. So, if one is lost and unable to determine direction, a weather vane could tell you which way is north and south—but its moveable part, the wind indicator, will change with the gusts and whim of the wind. One set of pointers is true the other is moving and could catch your attention first. This sets up the image’s parody: the preacher in the pulpit is like the weather vane’s moving pointer, as he orates with dramatic gestures.
Any Way the Wind Blows. A weather vane with a proud rooster.
Did Dickinson mean to pun with the word “Vane?” If we have any doubts, we only need to look three more lines down and see the dental pun on a truth ache. Shameless that Dickinson woman!
Besides writing short pieces here about my encounters with the poems, what this Project does is perform the words with original music. The music and performance style varies, which you can see by sampling some of the over 300 pieces we have available here. The player to hear Emily Dickinson’s “This World Is Not Conclusion” is below.
*Since a poem is supposed to charm you with sound, it should be experienced as sound. Reading aloud to yourself gives you part of that sensuous experience, the feeling of a poet’s words in your mouth, reverberating in your own chest. Having it read to you can be an inconsistent experience, but a good reading can fill a poem with the human voice and breath.
This does not mean that there can’t be other things to be found silently with the mind and the silent page, or even that the music and the sound are not sometimes a distraction from other experiences of the poem.
**As Professor Stoneman taught me more than 40 years ago, most Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to common hymn tunes like “Amazing Grace,” or to some old or merely mid-century folk-ballad tunes like “The Theme to Gilligan’s Island.”