Last time I talked about how hard it is to be sure how Emily Dickinson meant her poems to be read. Some poems seem gentle, some fierce. She sent some to her more conventional friends enclosed in letters or gifts—but some she never shared, and puzzle even hard-core literary critics to this day. When is she applying a clarifying simplicity to complex or profound subjects and when is she undermining simple statements or homey images with subtle side-glances? She’s a small-town 19th Century person, a stalwart reader of the book of nature—and yet she sometimes reminds me of later 20th century urban wits, like Frank O’Hara or even Dorothy Parker as much as she reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Am I reading this into Dickinson, or is it already there?
Well, I take today’s Dickinson piece pretty much as it seems, a humorous conspiracy with someone, perhaps the reader, wherein lack of credentials or claims to the podium/lily pad are brushed aside. This is a good place to begin observation and then art, or the circle back from art to observation of it, perhaps the best place.
So here’s Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” as I performed it, available through the player below. And not to shout from the lily pad, but the only reward I get for the time and effort of doing this is you, the audience who listens to these various words from past nobodies who want to talk to us. Thanks for doing so, and if you find something here you like, please let others know about it.
What was Emily Dickinson’s personality like? Biographers have tried to line that question out from the available evidence filled in with supposition; but then none of us present exactly the same face, the same sensibility to all people and at all times. And any of us who are writers may also know that what we write and how we live can differ, even if only in expression.
This is partly why we have so many Emily Dickinsons, not just over time since her emergence on the page in 1890, but now in the present days, depending on reader’s framing. Today’s piece, “Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant” can be read as a playful and humorous observation, as a serious artistic credo, as a secret diary of non-conformity, or as a dark observation of human fearfulness. How many Emily Dickinsons had how many intents as she worked out this little poem?
Her dark materials. A silhouette of the teenaged Emily Dickinson.
As I often do with Dickinson performances, I leaned a bit more to a serious mode of expression, which doesn’t preclude the thought that Dickinson would be internally chuckling. I tell myself I’m just trying to channel something I feel as I experience the poem, but I may be also trying to overcompensate for the Dickinson widely assessed in my youth as an eccentric dealer in homilies, a naïve artist without the depth of metaphysical thought that mid-20th Century High Modernism adored. It seemed then to have been an unspoken assumption that Emily suffered from “lady brain,” that imagined biologically-stunted inferior organ with sentiment where exploratory thought would be. Sure, her syntax and imagery had some originality, so we’ll allow her into the anthologies with the serious poets.
My model of humanity is more androgynous than most, but let us allow female associated elements in her artistry, just as we should be sure that there are experiences from gender and class roles in her time and place. But let’s not overdetermine what she did, what she can still do, when we read, perform or listen to her poetry.
As I said, “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” can be read as a light-hearted jape. I even remembered the first line taken for the title on publication as “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” forgetting the “all.” Is that “all” there just for metrical reasons? Because, if that “all” is meant, it changes things doesn’t it. It goes from a reading of “Well, it’s not polite or advisable to go around spouting the whole truth at every occasion” to a more general statement, that the truth is never told directly. And then the second line and its “lies”—surely one of the most punned-on words in English. It that just an easy rhyme? The next line, “Too bright for our infirm Delight” could have been in a William Blake poem.
The second stanza* starts with some inverted order poetic diction, but it may be forgiven, as we finally get to a physical image: lightning and frightened children. Dickinson appears to be siding with the filters, the myths, the accepted consolations of fibs and filigree we buffer the truth with. And perhaps she is. It may come down to how much or how often Dickinson, or you yourself, look away from the truth, how often the wisdom of your fears can help you survive.
In the end in this performance, I thought it might be key to consider who is charged with—or to—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is it society, or those who speechify to us as if we’re frightened children, who slant the truth? Or is it us, who should tell all the truth, even if we need to put it indirectly so that our audience can discover it, as the world gradually discovered further Emily Dickinsons, for ourselves, in our own time?
Musically, I return to my weird folk-rock sound and I choose to make Dickinson’s first line into a refrain to stress its ambiguity and centralness to the poem. Hear it with the player below.
*One joy of the poem comes in the end of this stanza’s third line: “dazzle gradually” where the meter and consonance of the chiming d and l sounds enchants.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War One, let’s bring in a writer not primarily known as a “war poet,” Thomas Hardy. Hardy is one of those bridge-poets between the era of the romantic and sometimes sentimental Victorian poets and the Modernists. Though I’m told Hardy never felt at ease in London artistic circles (he was country-born, son of a stone-mason and largely educated through apprenticeships as an architect) his poetry was admired by some of the Modernists. Why might that be? While his language can sometimes seem antique to modern ears, it was his language, the language of a rural 19th century working class Englishman. And while he will write about sentimental subjects, he’ll balance that with a cold eye.
The horse-drawn harrowing time of the Breaking of Nations. But what’s that woman doing behind the horse?
Hardy grew up in a rural, farming district, as I did, and it may have been natural for him to relate the violence of the Great War to that setting. And I love how he does it here with three spare quatrains: the boustrophedon horse-drawn disk or rake plow that is literally breaking the earth*, in contrast with the prophetic “Breaking of Nations” warning from Jeremiah used for the title. Then there’s smoke rising, not a razed town after an army has swept through it, “only” the burning of invasive weeds. And finally, a mysterious third stanza with a mysterious word: wight.
It’s an old word, one of those that came to English with the German Saxons centuries ago. Chaucer knew it, used it in The Canterbury Tales, and as best as I can tell it meant a sort of unimposing person or creature. Sometime later, perhaps after Hardy learned the usage of the word and after this poem was written in 1915**, it’s taken on a supernatural connotation. It’s fairly easy to trace that back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of the word in The Fellowship of the Ring written decades after Hardy’s poem. Tolkien was a scholar of the ancestor languages of modern English. Did he know of other usages of the word, or did he simply take a very old word and choose to use it for an undead-spirit slain in battle?
So, in this last stanza, what does Hardy mean by his whispering maid and “her wight.” A flirting young couple? Are they whispering merely to shield their romantic bantering from others? Or is it something weirder? Is this a young woman whose man is off to battle, or even one of the battle-dead? Or, as part of Hardy’s theme are they both immortal ever-returning spirits, whispering because you only barely sense them in our time-bound world?
I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge to know how depopulated the farming areas of England were by the need for soldiers during WWI. From Edward Thomas’ poem from last month, “Gone, Gone Again” I get the idea that the absence of farming men was noticeable. And it was at least enough of an issue that England formalized an effort to recruit and train women as replacement farm labor.
Not just whispering to her boyfriend. “There’s not enough labour at hand to cultivate sufficient land to keep people from starvation.” Recruitment ads for the Women’s Land Army in England during World War I.
Well, I just like it that this is blurred. Do the final two lines give us any clues? Why does Hardy say that “War’s annals will cloud into night?” In early drafts, Hardy wrote “fade,” and “cloud” seems a more peculiar choice. In the context of the 2nd stanza weed-burning, I’m thinking he’s saying they will disappear in a cloud of smoke. Also in context of the 2nd stanza, this would make such war records in some future as valueless as weeds, but smoke/cloud again reiterates that there’s something unsubstantial about the couple.
“In the Time of the Breaking of Nations” demonstrates a lot of what I like about short lyric poetry. T. S. Eliot could write a Modernist masterpiece like “The Wasteland” extending to the farthest lengths of lyric expression, 15,000 words—but a poem like this can touch a lot in its 63 words.
It may not be apparent due to the instrumentation used, but I might have been subconsciously inspired by Bob Dylan’s repeating chord progression used for his masterful three-short-stanza song “All Along the Watchtower,” which is very much in the same mode as Hardy’s poem.
Here is my performance of Hardy’s poem. Use the player below.
*Note too, Hardy’s pun on “harrowing.” For another discussion of boustrophedon plowing and time, see this earlier post. Near the end of his life, while visiting a farming museum, my father wanted me and his grandson to know that he’d walked behind a horse-drawn plow.
In my roundup of World War One War Poets earlier this week for the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day, I only mentioned Edward Thomas in passing. He shares the military service and the battle-related death of the others, but his writing about the war is different. Though he was working on notes that could lead to poems during his short front-line service, I’m unaware of any Thomas poems that tell of his experiences of battle. Many of his poems instead deal, intentionally, or inherently in their time’s context, with the change in norms that the war brought.
A poem like his much loved “Adlestrop,” if read in the context of the war’s coming outbreak, speaks even more intensely of the peace and unnoticed wonder that pauses in the muddle of an unscheduled train delay.
“Adlestrop” doesn’t mention the war though, and it’s based on one of Thomas’ journal entries from before the war. On the other hand, a poem like his “Gone, Gone Again” speaks intentionally and masterfully about the changes in his beloved countryside “before the war began turning young men to dung.” His highly condensed “In Memoriam, Easter 1915” is another that intends to mark the war’s changes.
Edward Thomas, a British nature poet that events bent into a War Poet
If you look at a continuum* from his “In Memoriam” through today’s “The Owl” to “Gone, Gone Again” you can see a journey from a short and moving, though impersonal, elegy/pastoral through “The Owl’s” introduction of a linkage of his own corporal experience to those on the front, and concluding with the even more personal and aching conflation of his own state with his country’s situation in “Gone Gone Again.” For this reason, I’m going to put the audio player gadgets for all three in the post today, so that you can follow Edward Thomas’ journey as he decided as a middle-aged family man to enlist—volunteering for the front-lines, and his eventual death.
Here’s “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)” as Thomas begins to weigh the costs of war.
And this is today’s new addition, “The Owl.” It’s not important to the poem, but the pendant in me wanted to know what species of owl Thomas heard. England helpfully has fewer species of owl than North America, so it must have been a male tawny owl, as the other candidate, the barn owl, has a screechy call that couldn’t have been cast as melancholy.
And finally, here’s “Gone, Gone Again.”
*I don’t actually know what order that Thomas wrote them, or even if “The Owl” was written before the war, as some particulars of the journey he describes echo the book he wrote about a bicycle tour he took from the suburbs of London to the border of Wales in 1913. But for performance reasons, seeing the three poems as a narrative seemed defensible to me, or at least no more anachronistic as having the artificial tang of Mellotron strings and flutes to stand in again for England in the music.
We’re entering a month in which Veterans Day will be celebrated with additional ceremony, because the 11th will be the 100th anniversary of the ending of the first world war. Earlier in the blog I remarked that World War 1 was the last war which was substantially narrated to us by poets.
That’s so for a complex set of reasons. Modernism, arising before the outbreak of the war, sought to revive a fresh poetry shorn of worn-out imagery and obligatory practices. The war brought both the old poetry and the new Modernist ideas into a great deadly laboratory to test their efficacy. The comfort of the old poetic music survived this test, but it was gravely wounded. The new practices were not exactly proved either, such was the horror and absurdity of the war. Indeed, the post war Modernism that came out the other end of the war’s meat grinder was oddly often much more obscure and seeking after esoteric tactics.
To a large degree, the post-WWI era marks an off-ramp for poetry. 20th century poetry emphasized the language of aesthetics and philosophy that might employ music to sweeten its sound, rather than the music of words that might employ philosophy as one of its harmonies. Eventually, by our current century, it turned again, and it is now largely about memoir and the establishment and explanation of personal identity.
World War 1 broke poetry, and in it’s wake, the Modernists ascendant decided the shards better reflected reality than some dusty Grecian Urn.
Any of these schemes can work (and not work) artistically, but there is a sort of hierarchy of needs and audience here. The old poetry was more universal, the post WWI High-Modernism the most exclusionary, and our current poetry can result in a multitude of voices crying “I’m here!” to the exclusion of “I see you!”
If one sets aside modern literary poetry, the old poetry still survives. One place you might find it is in the library that some carry about in their heads: memorized poetry. How rare is that today? I cannot say, but I can recall late in the last century, observing Garrison Keillor offering some prize (an autographed book? a T-shirt? I can’t recall the exact prize) to anyone in an admiring crowd who could recite a poem of more than 8 lines. I recall no one taking him up on that offer. Poetry started with those libraries in our heads, and we have the Iliad, the Odyssey and other ancient poetic epics because of prodigious memorization before writing. It isn’t just the noise from our glowing palm screens, or giant TVs that numbed this out of us, it started with the silent racket of all those printed books that call us to read them. Memorization seems a mooted point.
Can you pick out the veteran in this picture?
But returning to that portable library in our heads, and returning da capo to where we started. Somewhere near the middle of the 20th Century, a U.S. Navy pilot was captured and imprisoned by the forces of the country they were bombing. Their captors were none-too-restrained in their treatment of their prisoners, torture and physical abuse was part of that; but in-between that and the constant lack of control that all prisoners face, the prison was made up of small solitary cells with deliberate and extraordinary limits on communication between the prisoners. The design was to break their will, not just their bodies.
The captured pilot was John McCain, who survived this and later went on to a long political career, but one thing that he said helped him persevere in his prison was another captured pilot teaching him a poem by Robert W. Service, essentially loaning out a book from the library of one prisoner’s head to the other. And the method of doing this was painstaking: a pseudo-Morse-code of taps on the wall of the cell that the prisoners devised.
Robert W. Service poems would fit well into taps, as his marching poetic feet can make one tap involuntarily—and the rhymes and narratives give a good structure to assist memorization too. Of course, this was a war prison, it wasn’t a graduate class in Modernist poetry, and if any of the prisoners might have known T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” they might have skipped it if they couldn’t add the famous published edition’s footnotes in tap codes.
Other than Service’s poetic aids to memorization that let his poetry be present in these solitary cells without possessions, another reason that it should be a poem of his that helped these prisoners endure is that some of Service’s best-known poems are about fatalistic endurance leavened by dark humor. Service’s poetry wasn’t just available without paper, it shared an outlook that helped sustain the prisoners.
Canadian poet Robert W. Service, not essaying a look that Leonard Cohen would own up to.
So that’s one veteran’s story from a war, decades after WWI. Here’s another.
While McCain was imprisoned, another Navy veteran went into a studio in New York City and recorded an LP of Robert W. Service poems set to music.* While Service’s pre-war “Canadian Kipling” poetic style hadn’t changed, the outlook of the poems used in this record included Service’s rage at the horror and lies of WWI. Robert W. Service didn’t become a Modernist poet, but he showed in these poems the same WWI impact that broke other pre-war poetic outlooks.
The veteran in this case was “Country Joe” McDonald, and even if these Service poems talked distinctly of WWI and the British, French and Canadian experience of it, McDonald no doubt intended it to reflect on the then ongoing war in Vietnam. Of course, there were poems written after the WWI era about war, and McDonald had already tossed off one of the most famous Vietnam war songs himself: “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.**” And yet, here he was, drawn to these poems about World War I to express something decades later.
For our audio piece today, here’s a Robert W. Service poem, “The Lone Trail,” more from the endurance side of the poet, performed by Dave Moore with the LYL Band. Here’s the player to listen to it:
*The record War, War, War largely draws on Service’s Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man which was published in 1916. McDonald’s record is a true solo record, just acoustic 12-string guitar, vocals, a bit of harmonica, and some foot-stomping; a straightforward, earnest, and harrowing collection. Parlando Project voice Dave Moore owned that LP, part of the reason he performed today’s Robert W. Service piece.
**McDonald later tells the story of hearing that not only did the North Vietnamese appropriate his song for propaganda broadcasts meant for the U.S. troops, but they even piped it into that POW camp in Hanoi. In the story McDonald heard, the soldiers, and even the prisoners, would laugh. His analysis: the French-educated Vietnamese “Never understood…an American sense of humor.”
Last week was a tough week to bear, from the guns of Louisville through Pittsburgh and the man with the bomb plan and his sheets of flag stamps. Evil should not surprise me, it should not baffle me—and yet it does baffle me. Should I also feel sad along with bafflement? A good question for lengthy political analysis, but that won’t change how I feel beholding this.
I’m not naïve. I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve met a fair cross-section of Americans in it. Ignorance, racism, clan and gender prejudice—humans are prone to this. If I had a great deal of experience outside of the U.S., I would expect to find these things elsewhere too. But now and here, we have a benighted charlatan—in over his head—who trashes around in these things, knowing in some simple, instinctual, skunk’s way that this cloud of stink will confuse us from considering him.
In a few days our imperfect democratic republic will have an election. I do not suppose to know what will happen. I’m a poet and musician, go elsewhere for predictions. Poetry and art allow us to see more vividly across our temporary borders of place and time, but that sort of perspective doesn’t necessarily make us better prognosticators. In poetry and music, like in history, everything is possible, and over the long time, a great deal of the possible will become.
So here I sat, in this mere and disturbing week, having trouble considering the attempted and achieved beauty of my arts—because, in this stink and sadness, what can be meaningfully beautiful?
Carl Sandburg essays a look that Leonard Cohen would cop to sometime later
As I did earlier this fall feeling like this, I turned again to reading Carl Sandburg for my soul’s sake, for the early 20th Century Sandburg had seen every evil I have seen, and yet retained an embrace of humanity. Often here I focus in on the neglected Modernist Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist Sandburg of short poems that sing our overlooked, ordinary, humanity. Sometimes I fear the more expansive, Whitmanesque voice that Sandburg also used has drowned out the individuality of his shorter, less shouty poems.
But I needed him to shout some of his heart into me this week, so here’s Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob.” The player is below to hear it.
I’ve spent a lot of words this month talking about the history of poet and songwriter Dave Moore, who’s been the alternate voice here since we kicked things off more than two years ago. Today I’m going to end the history and get back to the present, shut up a bit, and let Dave’s words and performance tell its own story. Here’s a recent Dave Moore piece performed with the LYL Band this fall.
Little to do with Dave’s song, but I can’t resist including a still from René Clair’s “I Married a Witch”
Is this a Halloween song? A political commentary? An investigation of something that precedes and supersedes civilized politics? An excuse for me to fire up my Mellotron virtual instrument again? I could talk. You could listen. Today let’s choose the later. The player gadget is below.