How has it been this far into National Poetry Month before featuring Emily Dickinson here? Well, no matter, time to get onto that today, as a number of our most popular pieces over the years have been related to Dickinson. Today’s piece is one of my personal favorites, our orchestral setting for her “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”
When I did this setting and then its subsequent performance back in 2017 I went intuitively with a contrary reading of this poem. Generally, Dickinson’s poem is read as saying that when we reach a point of uncertainty bordering on no knowledge whatsoever, we may still press ahead, and if we don’t exactly find our way, we may find a way.*
But that message is delivered in a vivid little parable whose details can undercut that “persevere” moral — and those images’ undercurrent, along with some American cultural dread from that time, led me to make it more dismaying. The sense I was communicating in my music and performance was more at that we may become accustomed to the dark, but that’s not a good thing.
The lyric video
If we view this as a poem of voyaging mysticism or stoic perseverance — or if we view it as us no longer noticing that we’ve left the comity of friends and turned our back on knowledge — the poems finest choice in imagery is both odd and comic. Emily Dickinson seems to be something of a Transcendentalist, the insurgent “New Thought” movement of her era, and one that held that the universe’s highest knowledge and truth were to be found in the book of nature. Dickinson’s poem does meet nature partway in: a tree. Such reverence for nature eventually birthed an epithet: “Tree Hugger.” Dickinson doesn’t go with that exactly. How then? You can find out three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, but for those who don’t see it, this highlighted link will open a backup player in a new tab. And as we’ve been doing during this National Poetry Month, we have a lyric video with a thumbnail picture link to view the video above.
* It occurs to me that Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” is in some ways a pair with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as both are poems about being disoriented in darkness. My parody of “Stopping by the Woods” was re-released here last week, but if you’d like to see what I did with Frost’s original, here’s a link to that.