There’s a story that a poet once read a poem to a small group. There were a few murmurs in that small audience, that kind of appreciation — the kind that a not-uncommon everyday poet might expect at a public reading. It’s a sound that says “That certainly sounded like something. Might be good, but can I trust myself? That was poetry, and poets can be clearly beautiful without being, well, clear.”
Yes, there are poems that can cause amen shouts. Yes, there are poems where audiences will applaud. Some of those poems are useful, and isn’t that a kind of beauty? Yes it is — but I said this was one of those poems one more commonly hears when a poet reads.
This time, one listener in the small audience spoke up. “What does that poem mean?” they asked.
The poet looked at the honest questioner for a moment. Looked down at the podium. Paused a moment more. And then they simply read the poem again.
Note, the poet didn’t chastise the listener. It’s good when readers and listeners want to know what they can take in from a set of words and sounds. The issue here is that many poems are written by sincere poets who wrote and crafted a poem without being able to express what they labored to put in the poem nearly as well otherwise. The object of such a poem isn’t a summary, an allegory, or single thread of argument or narrative, rather it may be something designed not to be vague, but to exactly reflect differently as one stands around it.
Are we to comfort and remember the ghosts or be frightened of them? Yes.
I wrote the text for today’s performance. I accumulated a few lines in my head during a day — and then when I should have been going to sleep, they asked to be written down. Three revisions later and it’s at the version I performed today. I think this is a fairly plainspoken poem, but I know from experience when I’ve presented my work to other people they often find poems in this style baffling and ineffective, this even though they too are poets. I could write here about what they’ve suggested, and what I’ve resisted in those suggestions, but let’s defer that for now. I could also write about what engendered this poem, what the lines seemed to mean when I looked at them from a variety of directions, but tonight I feel the poem at this level of revision says what it should say as well as I can say it in its resonances and refractions. You can hear me perform “Ghosts” with the player gadget below. Don’t see any such player? Use this highlighted link and it will open a new tab with an alternative player so that you can hear it.
Back in 1916 American Poet Robert Frost published this short poem about what we’d today call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is that syndrome where the increased darkness and other autumn changes set off depression in some individuals. Like many early Frost poems, it’s a beautiful, graceful poem with effective yet unaffected rhyme and meter — but when I saw it early today in a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy I was struck at the unusual way Frost treated this account of seasonal depression.
“My November Guest” is set in the time of year we’re experiencing in my part of Minnesota this week. We’ve had two days of dark rain, even thunderstorms, the rain falling unbroken through the bald branches of the trees. It was around 60 degrees F. when I awoke this morning. I rode my bicycle to breakfast at a café wearing shorts as I might in spring, but when I rode past a small pond on my route I noted per the Keats of memory that “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing.” I returned home and spent an hour or so reading on our porch, but the forecast says it’ll be 26 F by midnight. Snow and ice will be falling north of us over the evening. “Robert Frost” is certainly the correct name for a poet to describe this.
Within the poem’s 20 lines Frost recounts a conversation between the poem’s narrator (we’ll say it’s Frost for simplicities sake as I paraphrase the poem) and his “Sorrow” (the poem’s name for depression.) Most of the conversation are points sorrow (simultaneously personified as external nature) is making to Frost. Sorrow/nature is stating that these dark days could be seen as beautiful. Frost says he is listening to this, feels what his sorrow is telling him has worth. The poem continues: the absent bird song, no colorful leaves on the trees, the cold mist — is it the dullness of grey or the burnish of silver? “You can’t see this as beautiful” nature concludes.
Here is the song I produced from Frost’s poem in songsheet format. I present these in hope that better singers than I might perform them.
Frost’s last stanza is his part of the conversation. “Yes, I know how to read the book of nature — or at least the calendar. I wasn’t born yesterday.” His day, the poem’s day, like my day today, may have been dark and damp, but it wasn’t yet the winter that is coming over the walls of the calendar’s date-boxes soon. I know I’ll miss sitting on the porch, biking without mitts, streets only wet not packed with snow or ice. The early and long November darkness may overwhelm us, set off mad clocks inside us, but that’s only dark, only hidden. Or so we tell ourselves and light our LUX lamps. Frost says it’d be vanity to tell his sorrow and this nature this, his mere knowledge, for nature knows the is of this that surpasses knowledge.
Today’s music is a simple arrangement: me singing with acoustic guitar, as I quickly spent the middle of the day setting Frost’s poem to music and then recording it efficiently in my studio space before I need to hide my microphones from HVAC noises there. You can hear it with a player gadget where you can see that, or with this backup highlighted link for those who can’t.
It’s been sometime since I’ve posted here. Having fewer blocks of uninterrupted time to compose and record the audio pieces for this Project, I’ve spent time instead with that proudly designed to be a time-waster Twitter in the past week or so. Twitter* has its own news stories this week — but that’s not my subject today.
I have a tiny number of followers there, and what I tend to talk about on Twitter is poetry, and then less-popular types of music. Really, not unlike what I do here on this blog, but more cut-up and off-the-cuff — and with more typos from typing on a small tablet screen and screen-keyboard. While working with poetry and music might cross-train you to fit things into constrained spaces, the Twitter short post-length limits challenge even this fan of compressed verse and sub-1000-word essays.
I came upon this Tweet this morning though that brought to mind something I’ve not revisited here on the blog for a while. One of the regular Twitter poetry-posters put up the devastating Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and I once more thought of how powerfully the soldier-poets of World War I wrote about their war from the front lines — how to this day England recalls what they said combined with their presence as example casualties from that war, and in the sum, the tragedy all that entails. Long-time readers of this blog will know how thoroughly I’ve extracted poetry from WWI for presentation here.
Here’s a picture of a specific memorial to WWI poets in the Poet’s Corner of Britain’s Westminster Abbey
Perhaps it’s the Public Domain limitations of what can be freely reused in a Project like this, which puts my attention on pre-1927 work — but I was caused again to wonder, why don’t we have dozens of effective poems about WWII, many of which will be commonly anthologized and recalled by the general audience poetry retains? If called to find examples I might start (as would many others) with Auden’s “September 1, 1939” — but this isn’t a first-person “report from the front lines” poem like Owen, Sassoon, or T. E. Hulme presented back then. It’s not even as close to harms way as the incisive poems of Edward Thomas who wrote about his approach to volunteering for the British Army that led to his death in the conflict, or Apollinaire’s equivalent to Auden’s poem about the outbreak of WWI, “The Little Car.” It’s not that poets or writers didn’t serve, and a great many novelists who served had a war book in them it seems.** So, we can easily think of the novels about WWII written from frontline experience. But poems?
Was WWI poetic and WWII novelistic? I can’t make that case. Maybe you can. Is it down to the changes in the literary marketplace? Plausible, though within poetry’s more limited audience in the second half of the 20th century you think there’d be room for poetry as vivid as those of the WWI soldier-poets. Here’s a short list of a few of the notable American poets who did serve in WWII: James Dickey (Air Corps airborne navigator, though some reports say fighter pilot), Richard Wilbur (Army Signal Corps in Europe), Frank O’Hara (sailor on a destroyer in the Pacific), Richard Eberhart (gunnery trainer), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Captain of a submarine chaser), Karl Shapiro (medical corps clerk in the Pacific theater), Kenneth Koch (infantryman in the Philippines), Randall Jarrell (“Celestial navigation tower operator,” which he claimed was the most poetic job in the Air Force).***
What happened? Why didn’t more of these poets write more about the details and moments of their service? My general observation is that instead they wrote consciously and unconsciously about how the war changed their outlook on the world. David Haven Blake wrote a short journal article on Wilbur’s World War II poetry, but instead makes the case more for this theory. He quotes Wilbur as saying “The war challenged me to organize a disordered sense of things, and so prepared me to write a poetry of maximum awareness and acknowledgement.” I’ve seen another quote from Wilbur circling the same thought “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”
This non-scholar will now generalize wildly, but the WWI war poets used poetry, often structured metrical/rhyming poetry, to demonstrate the world out of joint, a genteel form container for barbarity and chaos. The WWII poets muted all that as unspeakable (or even over-spoken?) and sought to portray in poetry (that wasn’t always as formal) the values and observations of a peacetime more precious, however ambivalent and imperfect, from the militarized brutality of combat.
Let me dedicate this little essay to Robert Tallant Laudon. Laudon sought out the Lake Street Writers Group early this century as an 80-something veteran who had served in a logistical role in England during WWII. Though he became a music professor after the war, he seemed not completely sure of his skills as a poet, but he wanted to use poetry to portray something of his experiences during the war. By the time he was 86 he published a small chapbook “Among the Displaced — World War II” with the resulting poems. I now view the younger me who heard him workshopping drafts of these poems as a much younger man than I thought I was then. Such is the progression of age! His poetry, like much good poetry, was written in an immediate present while depicting the 1940s, and I’ll always treasure that experience.
I mentioned at the start no new music, but here’s a piece, a “found poem” I created out of a recorded interview with another music professor, Weston Noble, who had served in WWII and which I set to my own music early in this Project. The voice you’ll hear in this must-listen-to piece is Noble’s. He commanded a tank in Europe during that war. In other parts of that interview, he recalled that when under fire, another member of his crew would ask him to sing. Inside that steel turtle shell the war outside existed mostly audibly, and the fate of those vibrating inside was unsure. The voice of Noble somehow calmed his crew. And this person now, here, who writes this? I’m still afraid to sing, worried that the unpleasant sounds that I too-often utter will embarrass me and displease any listeners. When I hear this man, now far in age from the war he fought in, decades from the interior of that tank, speak to the recorder of “The Garden of Trust” claiming that it can be found in music, I invariably start to mist up.
Listen to this two-minute audio piece with the player below — or if you don’t see it, with this highlighted link provided as a backup.
*A new sole-proprietor owner has led many — who have through long activity and posting on this online service built up it’s usefulness for themselves and others — to worry about its continued existence.
**Kurt Vonnegut did two WWII novels . One, Slaughterhouse Five, is one of the last first-person-experience-informed WWII novels, and another, Mother Night, is a personal favorite, and includes this WWII poem that this Project performed.
***I was able to start this list from an article on the Poetry Foundation’s web site linked here.
Where’s the gore? Where’s the grisly fright? My Halloween series has been featuring atmospheric fantasy poems so far, a mode I personally like, but I suspect there are some in my audience that want things more corpse than incorporeal ghosts.
Well, I’ve been saving this one up for you, wanting to work out a full folk-rock arrangement. Given that I play all the parts, it’s taken awhile to complete, but the stars aligned and it’s ready for you to hear. Who’s the poet and word-supplier this time? Robert E. Howard.
“That Robert E. Howard?” a few of you may be asking. Yup. Conan etc. No, not the red-haired antic Harvard-educated TV comic. The other one. The character who helped put the sword to sword and sorcery. And today’s poem didn’t appear in The Dial, Poetry, Others, The Criterion, or other early 20th century magazine of emergent literary art. “Dead Man’s Hate” first saw print in the pulp Weird Tales.
No, not the charmingly mysterious Bob Dylan short musical film, this is Howard’s own 1929 sword and sorcery story as illustrated in Weird Tales. Besides the putative Dylan connection, note that freshly severed head. Our hero’s kingdom is beset by many evil things that aren’t what they seem, including the now familiar shape-shifting snake-headed lizard people trope.
To the small degree I know Howard’s work, it is through a late friend of mine who appreciated the literature of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle which included Howard. That friend was always careful to frame Lovecraft, Howard, et al by noting their racist and racialist elements. He could have gone on to note that they weren’t consistent literary craftsmen either. Given their needs to sell by the word to late-paying pulps, they perhaps couldn’t afford literary polish — but that their stories can still have power for some readers, despite all that, says something too. Howard’s “Dead Man’s Hate” has no problematic racialist elements* and I think it has the on-rushing narrative power of a Child or broadside ballad in telling its gruesome story of a hanging.
As I said in opening, the music took a bit of work, and perhaps in coincidental honor to Howard’s pre-WWII Texas upbringing, I used twin violins as the lead instruments — but this unconventional folk-rock style song isn’t really Texas Swing. Besides a twanging Telecaster, electric bass, and drums, there’s a pump organ and some vox-humana-like notes in there too. You can hear my performance of “Dead Man’s Hate” with the player gadget below. No player visible? This highlighted link is an alternative way to open an audio player to hear it. Looking for those less gritty Halloween pieces? Check out our last six Parlando Project posts for a range of other ghosts and gothics.
*Well, there is this: the man being hanged has a distinguishable Irish surname, and the one celebrating this event has the WASPey name of Adam Brand. Hangings in American westerns often read to me as conscious or unconscious wrangling with the history of American lynchings of Afro-Americans and other outsider groups. As to racism in Howard’s pre-WWII Texas, my father spent part of his childhood there, and it was pretty much baked-in according to his recollections. Poor Howard, dead and gone, left me here to sing his song — and Howard might not have lived long enough to see what he was indurated with. I’ve come to believe the Muses, a useful name for the unlimited forces that inspire art, are capable of bringing in viewpoints and power that their human receivers would have difficulty expressing.
Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
English poet Walter de la Mare does a very particular kind of fantasy or horror poem. If one is looking for body horror or jump-scare monsters, de la Mare is not your guy. His spooks and slitherers are usually off-camera — instead, he describes discretely the atmosphere and effect of a haunting, visitation, or some binding spell. As our Halloween series continues, I have a performance today of a de la Mare poem called “Song of Shadows.” It starts out commanding a musician, so it’s a natural for the Parlando Project, but besides the ghost story, I think it invokes something else I considered this week.
Here’s a link to the poem as de la Mare wrote it. I made a slight change to the concluding line of each stanza as I like how that change works in performance.
“Song of Shadows” is not definitely set, though some elements of the scene indicate it might be somewhere antique. Fires and tapered candles wouldn’t be totally obsolete to a 19th century-born man like de la Mare, but the opening command to a musician sounds like a court or titled lord of the manor kind of thing to me. And the poems report of an extant — not necessarily metaphorical — hourglass with sinking sands really sets this outside of the early 20th century when it was written.
One could stretch and draw a class-conscious reading between the commander of the poem, the musician, and the eventual appearance of some ghosts or spirits. Who are the ghosts to the commander? To the musician? De la Mare leaves that open, but the different roles of those three characters offer an opportunity for speculation. To the commander: old friends, old enemies, subjects, servants, or serfs rebellious? And within the range of feelings the spirits may carry, we may note the poem’s commander asks to risk summoning them.
But I mentioned the poem set off another line of thought beyond its subtle fantasy intent. The poem concludes the shadows have been summoned by the musician’s song, “Dreaming, home once more.” So rather than thinking of the commander or the ghosts, I thought of the musician. While I operate musical instruments to realize the Parlando compositions, I’m likely more competent as a poet than as a musician, but singer is often an honorary title for any poet. For those who read this who are poets: is this not a part of our job?
The thought intensified when I read a string of Twitter posts by Lao poet Brian Thao Worra this week. Thao Worra was taking stock of his career in that post, and throughout it he seemed charged with a mission toward the Laotian diaspora as a Laotian-born poet and artist living in America. I’m no expert on Laos (nor anything else really, but less so on Laos), but it struck me that so many poets I read and resonate with are part of, and speak of, large diasporas: Irish poets, Afro-American poets, Jewish poets. Even the echt classical Chinese poets Du Fu and Li Bai were banished to far provinces of China. Why do I resonate to these poetries? It then occurred to me: many, perhaps most, poets are in some kind of diaspora, be it geographic or otherwise. We have emigrated from the country of Poetry, or we have been exiled or taken away from there. And there we are, like the musician who sweeps faint strings in de la Mare’s poem — singing, waiting for countrymen* to hear our song. Will they hear, and if so, will it be in the plane of dreaming, in the plane of ghosts and spirits — and so then will it be that we are all, home, once more?
I didn’t sweep the strings of an old, cheap 12-string guitar very faintly for this performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Song of Shadows.” And I kind of hollered the vocals. Ghosts, make of that what you want. You can hear it with an audio player gadget below, but if you don’t see that player, this highlighted link is an alternative that will open a player gadget.
*I can’t think of a gender-neutral word that has the same flavor and power to me as that word “countrymen.” Why that is must be complex, or just some failure on my part, but I just wanted to say I used it because I couldn’t do better.
Our Halloween series continues with the voice, music, and words of Dave Moore today as I present his piece “Sam and the Ghosts.” And as bonus autumn content, this one takes place in a garden just past harvest time.
I haven’t kept a garden in decades, but Dave and long-time friend of this blog Paul Deaton do. They remind me that at about this latitude north, October is the time to have removed the final products and to prepare the bed for the interval until spring planting time returns.
I may not have done this for decades, but this process goes back — way back. Folks were planting crops in the Midwest long before colonization. The mound builders here, like the earthworks and standing-stone raisers in the British Isles, fed themselves on the invention of agriculture. So in that way, every garden — that small geographical gesture — is a memorial. William Blake said the rebellious angels of art must need to drive their plows over the bones of the dead. I don’t think he was speaking of colonization or commerce when making that point, but his maxim is true reportage anyway. Whether we are speaking of poetry or music or tomatoes, were we plant has likely been tilled before by dead people. Isn’t it proper then that we should honor them before we make our gestures in the soil?
The song sheet Dave handed me the day we recorded this song a few years back.
In Dave’s poem which he made song, Sam* has forgotten this. Some ghosts remind him. In his poem they are ghosts of settlers. Outside of the poem, they are people created by Bob Dylan.** Those definite levels in history are not the beginning, not the end. Who knows who ran the land from where the settlers’ family left to come to America? Then we do know who lived the land, and were so harshly displaced before the settlers’ opportunity. Who knows, maybe Hollis Brown’s farm is no longer farmland now after some other money has changed hands. How many songwriters are tilling Bob Dylan’s land?
Every seed you plant came from somewhere before you plant it. Every land has ancestors. Every garden is, or should be, a memorial. Winter will bury our gardens, turn our blank pages to blank pages again, and we wait and expect for spring.
The ancestors expect for spring too. We are that spring. The gaps of expecting are where the ghosts live.
Today’s words are from a poet who’s been forgotten, but this one poem seems to have outlived all her other work largely because it’s a fine short ghost poem with a definite shiver from an ambiguous ending. The poem was called “All Souls’ Night, 1917,” and it was first published in 1920 in the author Hortense Flexner’s first collection Clouds and Cobblestones. That book’s acknowledgements indicate “All Souls’ Night” was never accepted by any of the many publications Flexner had published in toward the beginning of her career, and a selected poems published shortly after Flexner’s death in 1972 does not include it. So it was never her most famous or noteworthy poem while she lived.
Why did I hear of it, why is it out there on the Internet in 2022 to be read? Because of its eerie qualities “All Souls’ Night” has made a number of contemporary lists of Halloween poems.* To read or hear it once is likely to impress you of its value as such, and you can read it here with this link, or listen to my brief musical performance below. Our discussion has spoilers, so read or listen first. My performance is only 2 minutes.
I’ve looked at clouds and cobblestones from both sides now, and still somehow…
Now that you’ve experienced “All Souls’ Night,” let’s suppose you’re interested in at least a few questions that the poem might bring to mind after you read its 12-lines with their unambiguous chill. Yes, there’s a window here — just as there was in Sara Teasdale’s nursery last time — but either side of this window’s glass has questions.
Outside the window, there’s a date 1917 ending the original title. The poem internally mentions nothing about World War I which was ongoing that year and would still be a universal memory when the poem was published. Several other poems Flexner wrote and published around this time deal with the war, and one short play of hers, Voices, that was produced on Broadway in 1916, is about the despairs of war.**
Given that WWI is no longer in most any living soul’s memory, I’ve chosen to drop the 1917 in today’s title, as have some of the re-publishers of fantasy or Halloween poems that are featuring it. Outside this poem’s window we only know there are “hosts of lovers, young in death.” Maybe it’s me, but when I first read the poem, I thought the many lovers would be pairs, many of the lovers throughout time who are now dead and stayed in their passionate youth, and the poem does not directly disabuse that notion. But in the 1917 WWI context, one presumes the dead were soldiers, freshly dead. Whatever Flexner’s intent, I think the former has, potentially, greater impact today, even with our current European war. Can we simultaneously allow how Flexner might have intended her ending to be read, and allow how you or I as a modern audience can see the two groups or characters in this poem?
In the poem’s ending, the poem’s speaker, in a warm room next to a fireplace on the other side of the window asks that their warming fire should be allowed to die down, to eliminate the warmth and light on their side of the glass. It’s implied the poem’s speaker is there with others, a party perhaps, as the fire has been set for cheer in the poem’s opening line. With the onrushing crowd of ghosts outside, the insiders are now told at the end: hush, dim the light, turn the room cold so that the ghosts are unaware of them. This is an ambiguous statement if you think about it.
It can be read three ways I think. One, this is simply self-preservation, the ghosts might be vengeful toward the living. In the WWI context the dead might blame them for starting or not stopping the war. Or the folks inside may be smug, and the ghost lovers are their opposite. The insiders may be saying those outside lovers are the not-the-elect living, and that they would steal the warmth, which the insider speaker concludes they will not be able to use, being they are creatures who didn’t stay living and warm. Or lastly the poem’s statement may be one of pity: we shouldn’t be happy, we shouldn’t flaunt our warmth and light to those dead who now can have none of those things.
If, in the WWI context, Flexner has the ghost lovers to be likely the partners of the not dead inside, then the last reading is the most likely. But the reality of any of those readings is that the cheer, the warmth, and the joy inside the glass must cease. At least for the night, the light and temperature must equalize to death-like on either side of the window. That is the poems genius: it’s chilling on both sides.
At the time of the performance, I went more with the middle reading in my internal approach. I was tempted by that contrast, even if my reading isn’t correct, perhaps because I see so much in our current culture where the other is cast as undeserving. Their desires are a distorted, improper grabbing for joys, things they haven’t earned as members of “the elect.”
This touches on religious beliefs, so one more factor: the poem references All Souls’ Day, a Christian religious holiday. I’m not sure if Flexner wishes to put a religious overlay on her poem, other than an occasion for ghosts. The Flexner family were 19th century German Jewish immigrants to America, and beside Hortense, there are several notable members. The foremost Flexner was her uncle, Abraham Flexner who I see credited with (among other things) the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the eventual American home of Albert Einstein. Abraham was raised Orthodox, but became an agnostic. I have no info on what religious customs Hortense Flexner may have been knowledgeable about.*** All Souls Day as a traditional Roman Catholic holiday was devoted to praying for those dead not in heaven, in purgatory, and was separate from All Saints Day, which was reserved for the saints who got right into heaven. Protestant Christianity dispensed with those twin holiday distinctions and more or less considered it one holiday.
OK, here’s the part about my short musical performance of “All Souls’ Night.” I got out the virtual orchestral instruments again and started writing orchestral string parts to go with acoustic guitar. To help with the ghostly air there are two non-acoustic instrument tracks that are mixed at an almost subliminal level: a somewhat overdriven electric piano and a suitably unreal synth patch. You can hear it with the graphic player were it’s seen, or with this backup highlighted link. I still have other pieces planned for our Halloween series this year, so check back or click Follow to experience them.
*Poets.org, a long-time online poetry repository, has “All Soul’s Night, 1917” as it’s only Hortense Flexner poem, and references it under themes where a search might find it, but I may never know what the Ur-source is for this poem’s revival.
**Don’t think big time. There were more theaters then, and the Broadway theater where it was produced was The Princess, which sat only 299, and we don’t know how long the run was. I have watched a low budget amateur performance of Voices. It’s an earnest to a fault two-hander with a young French WWI-experiencing girl and another mysterious character who turns out to be Jeanne D’Arc.
***I went down a happy rabbit hole reading about the Flexners. Hortense was a feminist and a suffrage activist, college educated and eventually a literature professor at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s Ivy League schools. She’s also some kind of relative to Kenneth Flexner Fearing, a lefty poet who became a pulp-noir novelist around mid-century.
I risked taking the charm and playfulness out of Emily Dickinson’s ghost poem last time by trying to puzzle out exactly what she saw. I won’t risk that today. This next poem in our Halloween series was written by a poet, Sara Teasdale, who wrote some complex adult love poems — but with this one she portrayed a child’s wonder. Well, a child with a little taste for tea parties with witches, but still.
Sara Teasdale. Want to come to my tea party?
Teasdale was roughly a contemporary in her childhood in St. Louis with T. S. Eliot, but Eliot decamped for Harvard and then Europe — so as far as I’ve been able to find out, the two poets never met. I think Teasdale’s poem requires no further explanation, so I’ll just urge you to listen to it below. And here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to read that.
Another simple musical accompaniment here, this time just some acoustic guitar. You can hear Sara Teasdale’s “Dusk in Autumn” with a graphic audio player that many will see below. However, there are ways to read this blog that won’t show the player, and I also provide this highlighted link to click, which will allow those who don’t see the player to access the musical performance.
Here, as promised, is the start of a series of Halloween-themed posts. Today’s audio piece uses words from 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and as usual for her it’s titled using the poem’s first line: “The only Ghost I ever saw.” Dickinson is no stranger to the gothic, but she often approaches it playfully — and that seems to be the case here. Here’s the full text of the poem along with chord-sheet notations for the 12-string guitar part I accompany it with today.
Sing along with Emily and the tree ghosts
The surface “plot” of this poem is straightforward, if detail sometimes puzzles. The poem’s speaker (presumably Dickinson) has seen a ghost once. She describes the encounter using some expected and unexpected description, and then closes with a puzzling final line. Since the description of the ghost is most of the poem let’s examine that closely. We first learn the ghost is dressed in “mechlin.” What’s that? A type of Flemish lace. The ghost has “no sandal on his foot.” The ghost moves soundlessly but with some speed, bird or dear-like. The ghost’s “fashions” are “quaint.” It might wear mistletoe. The ghost makes no footfall noises, but is not noiseless either. It’s said to laugh “like the breeze.”
This sort of mystery with detail is a format which suggests a riddle to me, and Dickinson did write riddle poems. So, is the ghost a metaphor for something else she’s observing? One could hazard a guess it’s snow, which might sweep in on winds like this with frosty lace, but the ghost is said to step “like flakes of snow.” It could be wind —and cold currents are often felt as “ghostly” — except again, Dickinson spends at least three lines in her short poem describing its actions as like a breeze. Snow like snow or breeze like breeze would be tautologies.
If it is a riddle, my best solution is that she’s viewing a tree in a grove of trees. Bark or moss, or even more likely the light filtering through small branches is the lace mosaic. It has no sandal to walk on the ground, its foot is in the ground — and note that Dickinson says no sandal on his foot (singular), not feet as in a human ghost. It steps in the wind in its swaying, but the noise in that movement isn’t from the foot of the tree, which stays stationary. And the branches dart back and forth like a deer leaping or a bird hopping. The prime clue is that mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite plant, it only grows by embedding its roots in trees. The branches make noise, the laughter, and in the path of the breeze the laughter would spread to other formerly still and pensive* trees around. Dickinson knows botany, I understand she and her family cultivated trees, and she has written other riddle poems with plants as answers.**
So my reading in summary: Dickinson is viewing a tree, perhaps one of the trees that surrounded the Dickinson homestead in autumn, and those flakes of snow its branches are stepping “like” are also appearing snowflakes in an approaching cold-front. The “interview” is cut short as the day is appalling — growing pale.
Is that an all-too-much a Scooby-Doo “There’s no such thing as ghosts” ending? I’m not certain of it, and the poem charms without the above, letting it stay in mystery. If that’s your worry, who’s to say — particularly at Halloween — that the trees aren’t sentient spirits?
You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The only Ghost I ever saw” with my own musical setting using a player below if you see it. Is that player an invisible ghost for you? Well, summon it then with this highlighted link that will open a player.
*In the handwritten manuscript, Dickinson shows that she considered “smiling” instead of “pensive” in the poem.