Besides the Autumn poets sing

Since we’ve re-established that Emily Dickinson can do simple, here’s a lovely poem of hers that introduces more than a touch of “meta” to her poetry.

This poem’s first line starts the meta thing right off. You could quickly read the opening word as “Beside” without the s, and then the poets are singing in the presence of Fall. I suspect Dickinson wished to include that element but subvert it. “Besides”  means in this context “beyond that, in addition to.” So, there’s this thing: “Autumn” that poets sing about that is what? Well, it’s prosaic (i.e. prose and routine, not poetry and unique/charged). It’s small: “few,” and “little.”

Next stanza, the song now riffs with “few:” “A few…mornings,” “A few…eves.” Dickenson’s diction is still casual here, but she drops a couple of unusual adjectives with that repeated pair of fews. Unusual adjectives are often a weak crutch in poetry. Throw together some out-of-the-blue random adjective with a noun and you’re suddenly all surreal, poetically mysterious and creative—but more importantly, do these unexpected modifiers create a charged image?

“Incisive mornings,” is a bit of a play on words. Incisive here means not just perceptive, as in the coolness and lack of light predicting winter’s shorter days and lack of warmth: but taken in its other meanings, its winds are cutting and daylight is being incised, removed. “Ascetic eves” also speaks of removal, evenings no longer long with lingering light and it hints at spiritual matters this removal may reveal.

The second stanza ends with two references to poets, presumably examples of the ones mentioned as the poem opens: William Cullen Bryant, an older poet contemporary with Dickinson, and James Thomson, a Scottish poet of the 18th century. Neither are well-known today (though Bryant was a very important American cultural figure in his time). Dickinson mentions them and says that the stuff in their supposed Autumn poems are “gone.”*

In the context of these two stanzas, Dickinson is saying: the existing poets aren’t telling us much about autumn. I think that Dickinson’s sly inclusion of those two concise, precise, and original adjectives is cutting. She’s showing that in two words she can say more about autumn than they can in some long-winded poetry.

harvesters by Peter Bruegel the elder

Sheaves get mentioned in passing in Dickinson’s poem, so I get to exercise my love for Dutch painting

 

The second half of the poem has Dickinson unleashing her style of poetry against these musty odes. The third stanza’s word-music is just wonderful. I won’t dance about its architecture today—you can just read or listen to it—I’ll only point out that the end-words “brook” and “touch” have a lovely rhymish echo, even though they aren’t even slant rhyme. This stanza has the superb line “Sealed are the spicy valves” which partakes of the musicality but is an elusive image too. As I read it, I thought of gardeners in our climate planting garlic cloves this time of year, but garlic was not yet a thing in Emily’s New England. After an hour or so of trying to decode the image, to determine what specific spice plant in Dickinson’s time and place is referred to,**  I now think this a more generalized image of withered flowers. “Valves” is used only one other time in Dickinson’s poems, in the more famous A Soul selects her own Society  poem where they appear as “the Valves of her attention.” “Spicy” I’ve judged now is just a biologic/erotic reference to flowers pollination role. We may read the valves anatomically in various ways, but eyelids*** may be intended, as in the closing two lines of the stanza.

The final stanza is Dickinsonian too: nature in Dickinson’s poems is often personified in comical and non-charismatic species, here squirrels. Comically, her thoughts on the matter of autumn and poetry will be of great interest to the squirrel, and in this image she’s pointing out her non-existent status as a literary figure compared to Bryant et al.

It could just be a handy, casual sentiment to finish the poem, but Dickinson may be earnest in her concluding phrase: her mind is the sun that can illuminate the lack of sunlight as Winter solstice approaches.

Mostly acoustic guitar for the music performance today, though if you listen in the background you’ll hear a little harmonium and tambura. You won’t hear it in the rhythm or the instruments timbre, but I put a hidden reference to one James Marshall Hendrix in the music. You can read the full text of Dickinson’s poem here as you listen with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Thomson wrote the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,”  and Dickinson is likely referring to his long Miltonic blank verse poem called “The Seasons”  in her 16 line one. Bryant’s poetry may be largely forgotten, but his former cultural salience is still honored with a lot of school, street, park, and place names in the U.S.

**As an adult, Emily ran an extensive garden in the largely self-sufficient Dickinson family homestead, and in her youth she studied botany and produced a remarkable herbarium book filled with precisely identified plants—so it’s not crazy to think that she could have had a specific plant whose lifecycle she understood. A full-fledged farm field operated right across the road under Emily’s window at the homestead. The “sheaves” in Thomson’s poem wouldn’t have been abstract to her either.

*** If one wants to get more biographical in reading the poem, Dickinson famously went for treatment to Boston for some tantalizingly unspecified “eye problems” a few years after this early poem was written.

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Dickinson’s Autumn

I sometimes wonder if I overstress the mysterious, even mystical, element in Emily Dickinson. Perhaps I’m overcorrecting for the too-limiting image of the charming eccentric writer of little poems that was her package-label when I first learned of her in the middle of the last century. I’ve since wanted to put the small print somewhere on the Emily Dickinson carton: contents may be unsettling during reading. Sold by weightiness, not boastful volume.

But Dickinson was at times a writer of lighter verse, enclosing seemingly cast-off poems in letters to friends. Her classmate (and in Dickinson’s lifetime, more literarily successful) friend Helen Hunt Jackson would write and publish casual poems about the seasons or travel. When Dickinson wrote this way, was she bending her art to expectations for women of her time, or was she expressing a playful side of herself? Humor, as in satire and incongruity, is an essential part of Dickinson’s verse, even her darkest verse. When it’s employed without mysterious, ambiguous themes, that same sense of humor can produce a poem like today’s “Autumn”  by Dickinson.

Even the part of me that loves to search for deeper meanings and undercurrents has trouble finding them in this poem. If forced to rely on that I could offer that her concluding remark that “Lest I should be old-fashioned, I’ll put a trinket on.” could be read as a comment on the loosening of plain-style 18th century Puritanism in Dickinson’s time. But let’s be serious: this is lighthearted, an example of the “happy Autumn” poem, and such things can make good songs.

Tree learning fall colors

Tiny clusters of turning leaves, like splatters on a green drop-cloth.

 

So I tried not to weigh this one down: major chords, acoustic guitar, bass, low Mellotron strings, and a touch of piano with the sustain pedal down. You can hear it with the player gadget below and read this short poem in its entirety by clicking this link.

 

Autumn Day

I was at the Midstream poetry reading series last night, and by choices, I therefore had to miss out on the wisdom that would be passed on by the elder chieftain of my nation who was speaking in the same town that night.

It’s often thought that age heightens certain perceptions, certain outlooks. In age one has a feeling for repetitions, the way that ox-turning time keeps bending back on itself so that the place one is plowing is beside the past and the future is just one row next over. There’s also a lessening of thought of one’s own self, which after all is a diminishing asset, one’s storehouse filled only with memories that the rats nibble at all night long.

So I missed what our aged chieftain said. From these considerations of age I’m sure he could hardly find time to speak of himself, which matters less and little; and instead he likely spoke from his heart, wise from his own failures far exceeding those of the younger ones, of how we can forgive and remember, and how our nation can continue to be born, cared for, urged on.

Instead I heard fellow poets read. Oh, we fail—as all artists do. We talk of ourselves, even us older ones. And when we take a break from that we talk of others imperfectly. We speak too softly, too loudly. We forget to reach for the music, or we do stretch for it and then fail to hold onto it. We search for beauty and come up with the same things over and over again, and how can we make that interesting? We are gloomy, forget to laugh, and hold our work back for funerals.

the-poor-poet-1837 by Carl Spitzweg

A graphic representation of the wisdom of poets such as myself

 

It was an older crowd last night, almost enough to make me feel younger for the couple of hours we were together. Today’s piece, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn Day,”  as much as Shakespeare’s piece from last time, seems to speak of the experience of age, but Rilke is much more directive. One doesn’t often see a poem so full of “You” statements as the final stanza of this poem is. I’m not sure of the idiomatic nature of “you” in German, the language Rilke wrote this in. There’s some sense that the rhetorical you in the poem may be directed at oneself: so Rilke speaking to Rilke; but as I read this poem, I can’t escape the sense of Rilke speaking to me, and as I perform Rilke’s words in my translation, I expect that you, particularly if you are an older person, will hear it as speaking to you, so concisely do those last five lines seem to outline this stage in a lifetime.

Autumn Day

If you’re curious to see a number of other translations and the original German, see this link.

 

But here’s why you come here and have read this far into this post: Rilke wrote this in his 20s.  These are not the biographical autumnal musings of an older man, and I’m not sure it’s even a poem adopting that persona. I almost translated the title here as Harvest Time but chose to stay with “Autumn Day”  because the copious other English-language translations used that for the title and using a different title would not allow searchers to find my fresh attempt to carry Rilke’s work into English.

Those who’ve followed my previous translations from other languages will know that I stress trying to express the imagery the author uses in a way that communicates to the modern English reader. Since that is my prime concern, I don’t make much of an effort to try to reproduce any of the word-music from the other language, but this time I did keep to a feeling of iambic pentameter for word-music’s sake. Much of my difference from other translations* was trying to sharpen the harvest imagery Rilke uses in the opening seven lines. The overall effect I aimed for was to clearly convey the weight and fullness of harvest bounty.

The final five lines converge more into a consensus with the other translations. One divergence: I read in one German speaker’s comment on their translation that “Alleen” (translated by many as alleys or avenues) was what they would call the tree-lined boulevards predominate in Rilke’s time. Not only did this strike home with me, who bicycles each day on tree-lined streets in my own town and time, but it seemed to be the linkage called for with the poems final image of following the restless wind-blown leaves on the pavements.

So back to this poem that may be read as a meditation on later life written by a 20-something. I think Rilke was trying to convey the harvest feeling, the fall into wintertime and that cyclical fallow season. Even as a young man he was able to convey this feeling an old man might appreciate. He didn’t need to be an old man to know this, he just had to read the book of nature which is older than all of us.

I often laugh as I think I’ve come across some wisdom from old age. “Aha! I’m just a slow learner” I exclaim.

To hear my performance of my fresh translation of Rilke’s “Autumn Day”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*I found almost 20 English translations of this poem almost immediately on the Internet. That seems extraordinarily popular as a translation subject. And I must give credit to Byron’s Muse blog who presented this poem earlier this fall which is where I first saw it.

Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs”

Here’s one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which means it’s clearly one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.”

Since I’m not a real scholar or expert in such things, let’s take a look at it as if it was another of our presentations of lesser-known poems by little-known poets. You may want to follow along with the text, which can be found here. What might we see if we encounter it this way, without preconceptions?

The first thing one might notice is the antique language. In this case it’s not so much a case of “need to look that one up” words so much as it’s the olden-days tenses, pronouns and word forms: “mayst, ”thou,” “see’st,” “fadeth,” “doth,” “perceiv’st,” and “ere.” Given that the sonnet is a compressed form (this one uses 121 words) that might put one off. The syntax too, is not modern-day natural speech, but then when undertaking a sonnet even modern-day poets will sacrifice some of that for sound and compression of expression reasons.

If one is able to overlook those two things, or simply accept them as artifacts of the form and the time it was written, the next thing I notice is how much is stuffed into those 121 words. Tonight I’ll go to a meeting with three other poets, two of which are more accomplished than I am, with several published collections under their names. If I was to present to this group a poem with as many ideas and loosely linked tropes as Sonnet 73 (albeit with whatever level of skill I otherwise possess) they would likely be puzzled and displeased with it. Modern poetry is full of a great many styles, but many of them don’t try to push so much into so short a poem.

Let’s briefly look at those thoughts and the images by which we are to experience them. The first two lines open with a common autumn poem touchstone: the turning, falling, and fallen leaves. There are approximately 127 billion English language poems using autumn leaves by now, though there might have been only a few dozen in Shakespeare’s time. I think his image here is dual though, the left-leaves are compared to a balding head.

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare

He’s not balding, he just has a large forehead. This disputed portrait has not been used to argue that Shakespeare was actually written by Larry Fine or translated from Klingon.

 

This image is further developed or morphed in the next two lines, including the image by which I always remember this poem: the now bare or near-bare branches bereft of the migratory and mate seeking/singing birds of earlier in the year liked to a ruined choir loft. Since choir lofts are elevated, and we’ve started with leaves equaling the now spare hair on a head, they are also the mind and voice which engenders such poetry and song.

Starting in the 20th Century some Shakespeare scholarship relates that ruined choirs image to the destruction and abandonment of Catholic abbeys and churches during his century. If so, Shakespeare has brought an undercurrent of the dangerous social change of his century into his short poem.*

Shakespeare doesn’t linger on that image, though it is so sharp it may have made his point. He next moves on to another image we now find common, the ending of a day related to the later parts of one’s life. His take is the variation (also used in some autumn poems) that there is extra beauty in the endingness, by implication it’s preciousness of limits, and from the luminous colors of sunset. He develops this a bit with an image that would have once seemed common, but has since fallen into disuse: that sleep is a model of death.

The final quatrain before the concluding couplet develops yet another image, one steeped in fire as one of the classical four elements. It’s antique physics, but observationally still rich for anyone that has ever dealt with burning wood: the speaker is the hot coals, hotter than the kindling fire of youth, or the early lapping flames. Since this is ostensibly a love poem, one can take this as another commonplace: fire equaling desire. My reading is that the love poem aspect is yet another layer of image, present, but not the only element, as it’s also about the artistic spirit that could create such a sonnet. The final line in the final quatrain is nearly the equal of the “bare ruined choirs” one. “Consumed by that which it was nourished by” is both a statement about the scientific nature of combustion; about desire, love, and it’s ending; and about the artistic impulse: that we must burn, fill and empty ourselves as if by weightless flame; that we will consume our time, our life-time.

The final couplet, as with many an English “Shakespearean” sonnet, jumps on to something else. In its guise as a love poem, it says that the lover must be extra passionate and devoted, because the poem’s speaker has limited time left and yet they still love them. What should we make of that? As a devotional interpersonal love-note, the thing the poem presents itself to be, it has emotional heft.** As a statement about the artistic drive, likewise. Every time one sets out to make something, we truly don’t know if it’s the last work we will do. As we age (I’m old, this is eminently personal with me) this becomes less and less a moot philosophical point. Treat the work as a lover, treat your lover as a work of art.

So, there’s a lot of territory in this poem. Even doing my best to present it with my performance there’s too much here to absorb in one listening, one reading, in one moment in one’s life. This is a reason why other kinds of poems may be better received. Many modern short poems seek to make one point, or tell a story with a plot rather than a complex instant that has no plot yet, or several plots happening at once. Those poems can work too, and work quickly.

Shakespeare seeks to lure us with his word-music, even now centuries later, even though he’s going to try to put a gallon of thought into a pint-sized poem, and even if he’s going to use a form of English we strain to hear as natural. “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” isn’t just an image, and an allusion to a piece of history that may be unfamiliar to us, it’s a lovely piece of sound. I could go on with other lines that have their compelling worth as sound: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” or “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” Can that word-music let us live with the 121 words long enough to get over the things which make us either hear this as “Shakespeare” the brand name or as an example of obsolescence?

I tried in my performance to illuminate the text and its sound as best I could. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

*I’ve always loved the way Michael Wood presented the beginning of his series of TV programs on Shakespeare by saying he was born into what was a police state due to the whipsawing religious and geopolitical changes/wars/disputes England went through in the 16th century.

**By pointing out that this poem in my mind is expressing something about the experience of making art, I’m not prudishly seeking to eliminate the erotic reading. Many of the best images are bilateral. They aren’t just some thrown-off thing meant to decorate the poem with some cleverness or allusion. The thing used to represent the thing is real, maybe even more real than the thing it signifies. The thing signified enriches the image just as vice versa.

For an example of the erotic use of some similar imagery in a complex emotional landscape see this Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, a favorite of listeners here.

One piece of evidence that Shakespeare intends this as a complex set of images is that it was likely written when Shakespeare was in his 30s. Sure it reads “true” for this old man, but it’s not memoir as poetry. Memoir as poetry can work too, but I often feel that we’ve over-emphasized that mode.

Pied Beauty

It’s said about significant musicians that a careful listener can tell who’s playing just from their sound. The word-music of poets could be a similar tell, but in the case of poetry we have other kinds of data: subjects, characteristic outlooks, and the kind of imagery they choose to use—and those things often overwhelm the distinctions in the sound of a poet’s poem.

But even 130 years after his death, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds like no other. The piece I’m going to present today is one of his best known poems: “Pied Beauty,”  and he intended it as a rhymed metrical poem, but Hopkins’ conception of meter and phrasing is so unlike other English poets that it might sound like a piece of free verse.

If Hopkins doesn’t sound like other poetry in English, he does have some similarities to Old English and ancient Welsh poetry, two languages he had some familiarity with. In place of the traditional musical phrases that his Victorian contemporaries might use, flowing lines in regularly stressed feet, Hopkins substitutes shorter, broken and paused phrases and a great deal of word sound echoing beyond just conventional end-rhyme.

Reading Hopkins in the pre-Modernist era at the end of WWI must have been like hearing Thelonious Monk play piano just after WWII. It doesn’t sound “right,” it breaks, or more correctly ignores, rules of how things are supposed to sound. Yes, the phrasing is instantly felt as rhythmic, but that’s no anchor, because the rhythm is part of what’s “wrong.” But also like Monk, to more than a few listeners, it can be arresting, even on first listen. You don’t have to understand the structure, or know how it works differently—that’s not a simple task by the way—to hear something that grabs your attention. You may dig it; but even though we humans are natural imitating machines, you may still not be able to do it.

And so, like Monk, Hopkins doesn’t have as many imitators as he has admirers of his achievement, even today.

Monk Hopkins Genius of Modern Music

His music still sounds more modern than most—both of ‘em.

 

An additional barrier to Hopkins is that his subject matter, though explicitly Christian religious, is also often harrowing. British poets have long explored unrelieved melancholy, but Hopkins doesn’t want to read Job, or understand Job theologically, he wants (or can’t escape) to be Job.*

Which makes “Pied Beauty”  a good introduction to Hopkins word-music, because while it’s making a subtle theological point, this is not a particularly sad, tragic, or even solemn poem. Did Hopkins interject “Who knows how?” mostly to make his rhyme on the 8th line? I don’t know, but I can’t read that phrase and this poem without a little of the feeling of “Ain’t that funny? Unchanging, pure monotheist deity, and yet maker of a world of mixed and changing things.”

Musically, I’m not Thelonious Monk, nor was meant to be—am an attendant lord, one that will do. Still I musically sought to put a certain angle on my usual chords and cadences. Old-time Chicago jazz guy Eddie Condon said the modernist jazz composers flatted their fifths, while his crew just drank them. If so, I caucus with the modernists. Harmony has laws and customs, but the anarchists have melodies.**  The full text of Hopkins’s poem is here. My musical presentation of it is available with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*Just because he’s so distinctive in his sound and phrasing, we don’t need to overlook the imagery in Hopkins’ poem. Skies like cows? That’s proto-Surrealist, “old bossy in the skies with diamonds” stuff. I have to confess that my eyes once read “brinded cow” as a more conventional if workmanlike “bridled cow.” Brinded means patched patterns as on cows’ hides, it’s an archaic Middle English word, in keeping with Hopkins’ love for the sound of the poetry of the ancestors of modern English. See also firecoal colored tree nuts and painted fish.

**Well this is true at least for me. When I’m not working in drone or heavily home-chord centered structures, I will construct chords and chord progressions based on others’ ideas, or the mathematical commonplaces, testing the results for interest. But for melody, I usually don’t choose to follow rules or commonplaces, and when I find myself approaching those things, I may start to subvert them immediately. Yes, there are pleasures in knowing exactly what note comes next—must come next—but there’s too little music out there that mines disputing that expectation.

I awoke this morning to read that Ginger Baker died, a prime musical iconoclast if there ever was one. I’d read the earlier notes that he was gravely ill and I think I may have tried to imitate some of his playing (those tom rolls…) with the drum track on this.

Dunbar’s October

We’ve had Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughn waxing medicinal about autumn and affliction, and now it’s time to head back across the Atlantic to see what metaphor American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brings to the season.

By coming to prominence in the 19th century, decades before James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry  signaled the tip-off of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar proved to Afro-American poets of the 20th century that it was possible to get over to the culture at large.

Paul_Laurence_Dunbar by Norman Wood

Paul Laurence Dunbar “Let the world dream otherwise…”

 

Like many cross-over artists, he did this by doing the established forms as well or better than the incumbents. One way he did this was by writing in regional black dialect, in poetry that is frankly hard for me to decode from my 21st century location. On one hand, regional dialect was all the rage in 19th century America across various regions and ethnic heritages, and there’s no reason that Afro-American dialect couldn’t be part of this—Oh, wait, there is a reason: white supremacy.*

Dunbar was born near the end of Reconstruction, right as the reaction to the possibility of full Afro-American humanity and citizenship was snapping much of his country back to a feudal system based on presumed, and if not presumed, enforced, inferiority. One can’t avoid the problematic nature of trying to portray a range of comic to simple-wisdom-dispensing Afro-American characters speaking a non-standard version of English in a context of a society that was fairly sure that was the extent of their intellect.**

Dunbar Live!

Fitzgerald’s Auditorium later became Atlantic City’s “Club Harlem” and hosted jazz and R&B acts.

 

But that was only part of what Dunbar wrote. He also wrote supple 19th century lyric poetry in standard English, as good or better than the “Fireside School” of  East-Coast poets that were the standard for American poetry at the time. And it’s that side of Dunbar’s work that I present today with his poem “October.”

“October”  is an extended metaphor nicely developed over 24 lines of rhymed and metrical verse. Dunbar alternates his rhyme scheme of ABAB to AABB to add some delightful variety. The autumn notes of harvest bounty and oncoming winter are struck and sounded cleanly.

It was only after enjoying it as a good poem in this style that I began to notice another context, an undertone. This had happened to me earlier this year when presenting a Dunbar love poem, “Kidnapped.”   After performing that one, I moved on to ask: did the child of two formerly enslaved people write a poem about being captured like a butterfly and being taken far away from some home landscape? Yes, he did. Was he consciously encoding that undertone into a popular poetry form that could have been printed on a genteel valentine? I don’t know. It seemed a stretch as a conscious choice, if only because the undertone/metaphor wasn’t developed as fully as it might have been.

This time, with “October,”  Dunbar does develop his metaphor, and I know of no document where he comments on his thoughts on this poem. Autumn’s harvest is presented as if it were an economic system, and dare I say it: as a feudal/sharecropper system. October is wealthy and in charge, and harvest makes her wealthier. She is presented as foolish with this collected wealth. The poet observer’s persona is not outraged by this however—indeed he portrays her as happy, carefree, joyous, beautiful. And the poem is also unambiguously beautiful. Is this personified red-headed October, collector of the treasure and bounty, deserving of unstated disgust or even envy? Is this an idealized Daisy Buchanan-like character?

Your eye (like mine) as you first encounter this poem may be on the signified season. We can’t be expected to see the fall of the year as a real person, with an actual role and privilege in a system, can we? Is it only unconscious sub-text?

Ambiguous as this is, this is part of the wealth of poetry. It can be enjoyed as word-music. Its metaphors can be admired for cleverness and their own silent music of thought. But it’s also the way for the moving minds and experience of others to be shared. It is the concise literature of the oversoul.

I performed my solemn version of Dunbar with acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass. If you’d like to check out the text of Dunbar’s poem, or follow along as I perform it, it can be found here. The player for my musical performance is below.

 

 

 

*I expect a percentage of this blog’s treasured audience just clicked off when I typed that phrase. If you, indignant, at least followed to this footnote, thank you, I appreciate it. I know that some of you come to poetry and music to escape the turmoil of politics and social problems.

**It’s hard to do, but some Afro-Americans managed to do it. I can trace the musical line of it anyway, from Charlie Patton to George Clinton to the hip-hop movement.