Today is May Day, the international labor day, so I spent it working, looking through poetry books for something about our lives of work. There’s less there than there should be I think, the world of work somehow not seeming as poetic as human love and desire or as sublime as the observation of nature and things of the spirit without any human sweat in it.
This lack leads me to admire poets who address this imbalance. And the first one that came to my mind turned out to be the one I ended up using today: Carl Sandburg. That Sandburg might come to mind for others too as a poet of labor probably didn’t help his reputation at the start of our current century. He doesn’t come by that classification lightly, having had a career as an itinerate worker and labor organizer before he began as a poet, and even while he was publishing groundbreaking works of early American Modernist poetry like his Chicago Poems in 1917, he had a second, less well-known life as a Socialist radical.
Carl clocking in in his later years when his day job was goat farmer
Somehow Sandburg survived both the post WWI and post WWII red scares without great harm to his reputation, but by late in the 20th century there was less interest in Modernists who wanted to write about work and labor issues. The bohemian fringe more or less looked at straight work as an unfortunate event*, and the academic establishment was more interested in aesthetic rigor and the ability to carry lightly evidence of a full-fledged college education for its poets.
Proletarian writing had been done already. Time to move on.
As I keep reminding you and myself, our current century is now old enough to vote, it’s approaching adulthood. It might want to re-evaluate those judgements the old century made about its youthful innovators.
So, for today, May Day, I took the opening to Sandburg’s longer poem that gave its name to his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel and turned it into a labor hymn. “By this sign all smokes know each other.”
The player gadget to hear it is below. If you want to read the whole poem, or just read along to the opening section I used, the full text is here.
*as leading beat-generation scholar and theorist, Maynard G. Krebs put it in his famous essay “On Work, An Existential Examination” “Work!?”
It’s been quite the April here as we ramped up activity to celebrate U. S. National Poetry Month. A lot of effort and time on my part, but since this project is based on the joy one finds in looking and listening to something and seeing what the encounter brings out, it’s been fun for me. I hope some of that always self-replenishing curiosity comes across to you as you read and listen here.
Here’s some of what happened this month.
Most blog posts here ever, nearly a daily schedule! There are blogs, ones that try to do different things than this one, that can carry on at that level for an extended period, but it took quite a lot of effort considering this project’s goals.
I completed a #npm2019 goal of performing all of T. S. Eliot’s longest section of “The Waste Land,” “The Fire Sermon,” this month. I warned readers here that “The Waste Land” isn’t poetry comfort food, but as I dived in, looking for things I could connect with in order to perform it, I found some unexpected things.
Before I started this serial performance, I thought I might struggle with misogynist/other portrayals of the women in Eliot’s masterpiece, but instead I found more empathetic depth there. Yes, it’s a bleak world for all in “The Waste Land,” but I also got to experience a surprising amount of gender-blurring in the voices of “The Fire Sermon.”
In researching it this year I finally grasped the level of extensive sampling tactics used, where nearly every line references some prior artistic creation. I love an in-joke, the pendant in me rejoices in odd connections, but even as I came to better understand the sources I’ve left much of that out of my writing about it, because I believe the poem still communicates its experience out of the sound of juxtapositions and the variety of voices without one needing to know who first wrote the words or sang the songs Eliot drops into his poem. Considering hearing it this way: “The Waste Land” is a collage—you don’t have to know where the picture was clipped from to sense that you’re being asked to see unlike things next to each other.
With a T and a S and L-I-@ / Here to rock this mic with my alley rats / Think you’re a sick rhymer with a mad dose / I’ve been to a Swiss asylum and been diagnosed / Dis a soft Thames flow while I sing my song / you might end up drowned like that Phoenician / Peace (that passeth all understanding) Out!
And lastly, I’m grateful for the broad music-ness of the poem that let me use what I think was a nice variety of musical styles along with Eliot’s words. Eliot wrote “You are the music while the music lasts” and Stevie Wonder wrote “Music is what gives us memories, and the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” Eliot’s immediate experience of music is all over the poem. My task was to take those memories of another poet’s mind and to make them sound again.
Besides presenting a couple of poems by Emily Dickinson, I also enjoyed my “Roots of Emily Dickinson” series this April. Comparing Emily’s Bronte and Dickinson on hope was a great “aha!” moment for me. And Helen Hunt Jackson, who got skewered with a single funny scene in the recent Wild Nights with Emily film, was a fascinating background character to run across, and Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat” has been one of the most popular pieces here so far this spring.
Would Emily Dickinson’s and family’s wild nights have been tamer if Gloria Bell was their chaperone? Discuss.
The blog audience has grown in response to this additional content, with April’s unique page views far exceeding any previous month. Listenership to the audio pieces were up too, and this April will likely set a record for the most listened to as well, though by a narrower margin than blog views.
As a practical matter, the amount of time and effort I put into things this National Poetry Month in April can’t be sustained. Unlike most blogs this is a two-pronged effort, with the production of the audio pieces coming first and then the blog post follows. I write almost all of the music for the audio pieces and I play and record the majority of the instrumental parts. But after that’s done, I’ve only started because then it’s time to write something interesting or illuminating about my encounter with the texts. Your readership tells me I’m succeeding sometimes.
This May I’m going to start some work on re-doing my main music production space. This is going to involve a lot of work, much of which I’ll need to do myself. My goal is to make it an even more streamlined, organized and functioning space. This will predictably reduce the amount of new audio pieces here for an interval, but afterward I hope it’ll make it possible to return to our normal 8-10 or so new pieces a month schedule.
However, because we’ve been at this a long time, there’s a lot of material in the archives, over 330 pieces, so there’s things here you may not have encountered yet. I try to mix the well-known with the nearly unknown. You can take a flyer on someone you’ve never heard, use the search function on the blog, or just try a random dive into the archives going back to 2016. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for the likes, the follows, and particularly thanks for the shares and the links!
Here’s my performance of the concluding segment of “The Fire Sermon” portion of “The Waste Land” which I presented for this year’s National Poetry Month celebration. If you want to hear the earlier sections, they’re all here along with over 300 other audio pieces presenting a variety of poetry combined with original music.
The middle of the “The Fire Sermon” is one of the few times in “The Waste Land” when who’s speaking identifies themselves, and where they are allowed to speak more than a single line or so, but as “The Fire Sermon” concludes here, it’s once again altogether confusing who’s talking. Eliot identifies who’s speaking in his footnotes for the poem as the three Rhinemaidens/river nymphs, who had been singing non-words in the previous section—but without the footnotes* I’d have never guessed that.
The Rhinemaidens are from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. However, when I hear Rheingold, I think of the New York beer.
Even more so than the Typist/Man Carbuncular coupling or the subtle come on from Mr. Eumenides earlier in “The Fire Sermon,” this is the dirty-book section of the poem. A speaker tells of having sex, flat on their back in a canoe** and furthermore (this may be another speaker/river nymph) tells of another sex act with their “heart under [their] feet.”***
This ends in tears and a question that many who’ve suffered from depression cannot answer from within their hall of dark mirrors: “What should I resent?”
If Eliot’s footnotes are saying it’s just the river nymphs talking, it soon gets specifically personal. The next stanza (“Margate Sands”) refers to the off-season resort where Eliot was taking one of those “rest cures” for his own depression. It wasn’t enough, he next went to a psychiatric hospital “By the waters of [lake] Leman.”
The final stanza (“To Carthage then I came”) is made up of quotes from St. Augustine, who as a teenager traveled to the famous African city to battle his own demons of human sexuality and spirituality, mixed with a refrain from the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon” which says that all things are burning, consuming any constancy in desire and wanting. Joking doesn’t change what it’s about and what’s at stake: the wheel of suffering. But joking, if observed correctly, is also a demonstration of earthly things passing from significance.
*At last, I get to write a footnote on the footnotes! Oh, pendant’s delight! Eliot wrote extensive footnotes for the poem that appeared when an American publisher agreed to print a book containing the poem. These footnotes have always been controversial. Ezra Pound said they were only included to pad out the size of the book. Eliot himself said he originally wrote them to properly cite all the literature that he’d sampled in this extensively collaged work of text, and he sometimes expressed regrets at allowing the notes to be published with the poem, making “The Waste Land” seem some scholarly treatise instead of an anguished cry.
**As the joke goes. “Q: Why is drinking American beer like having sex in a canoe? A: Because it’s f…ing close to water.” Note “The Waste Land” was written by a serious poet, who was seriously depressed by the world and his life, and in this section he’s using sexual exploitation as image for that. How serious was he? Eliot took lay religious vows which included a vow of chastity just six years after this poem was published. This footnote is included for scholarly purposes only and you shouldn’t laugh at it.
***Class, if we turn to our Kama Sutras that’s page 112, where the person on the bottom is on their stomach and their legs are bent upward so that their feet are over their thorax. Also, there’s the connotation that one’s heart is being stomped on. More pedantic or podiatric joy: a foot note that’s a note on feet.
I’ve been looking forward to this Emily Dickinson biopic since I first heard of it a few months back. I acknowledge the difficulty of making a film about writers, particularly if the film wants to give due weight to their writing, the least cinematic of art forms—but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.
From indications I was expecting Wild Nights with Emily to be irreverent, but I often like some irreverence, even about things I admire. The advance publicity used the hook that it was going to go strong on the theory that Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert were lovers. That’s a legitimate theory, with evidence to support it, but the trailer and the promo clip I saw indicated it was going to be one of those “Hey, famous artists go through all the wacky and awkward stuff we do, especially when they fall in love.”
Does that sort of thing diminish art or the people that make it? We should laugh at both devils and angels some of the time (just not all the time). For an example of literary irreverence that worked for me, I’ll point out Upstart Crow, a series that turned Shakespeare into something between the Dick Van Dyke Show and 30 Rock using a passel of modern critical theories as comic premises.
What’s with all the black. More Emily Dickinson goth moves?
As it turns out, Wild Nights with Emily didn’t consistently work for me, though I’m glad I saw it and I admire the effort. It’s awkward in ways that alternately charm, puzzle, and just seem off. It tries for a complex structure that jumbles time-lines back and forth and the individual scenes seem very separate. There’s little character development, little sense of change or dynamics of Character A’s actions changing the course of Character B’s life outlook, even in the central love story. We see a scene or two of Susan and Emily falling in love as teenagers, but there’s no attempt to explain why Susan or Emily were attracted to each other instead of someone else, they just are. Nor is this attempted for any of the other relationships—some kind of lust/attraction spark occurs and bang they go off. It’s consistent enough that I think the writer/director Madeleine Olnek is making a point of this. Oddly, these connections go badly for the couples other than Susan and Emily. It’s kind of a bokeh effect thing: our lead couple just want each other, and that sort of works out, and everyone else is just mindlessly and brainlessly lusting.
Indeed, my impression was that the writer/director really was interested in making a point, or series of points. The film isn’t a biographical narrative* or love story or sex-positive comedy or an exploration of creativity, it’s more an illustrated lecture with actors given to illustrate those points. The disconnection of the scenes is just a new slide in the deck being shown. The points are all worthy ones, most of which I’d agree with. Dickinson was a mocker and questioner, not a conventional sentimentalist. No one understood how revolutionary her poetry was. Families are weird, and their secrets show that. The Patriarchy is blind to a whole lot of things.
Some of the scenes work well as illustrations for me. Some don’t. Your mileage may vary. Many scenes use humor to make their point. A couple of the scenes were Dada-weird (e.g. Lavinia and her fake cat). Others are very much “see the broadly underlined point.” Some are emotionally riveting in the same way that actors doing single scene can be as they instantly inhabit a character, but again, the film isn’t really a narrative. Nor does it go out of its way to say “I’m not a narrative” like other attempts to subvert the artist biopic genre like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould or I’m Not There. If you go to see it, go with that expectation and I think you’ll be more primed to absorb what it’s trying to do.
A couple of Olnek’s points I’m less sure of (she may be right, I’m no Dickinson scholar). She seems to be overcorrecting on the Dickinson was a hermit, always sequestered in her room thing. As far as her film shows it, it’s all a misunderstanding, and she just didn’t like Mabel Todd. The impression I get from my Dickinson biography research is that a much more sociable person did become increasingly withdrawn as she aged. And she seems to be saying that Dickinson directly sought publication, only to be rebuffed by the Philistines. Maybe there’s an earlier period I’m unaware of, but the testimony of among others, Susan Gilbert Dickenson herself included, was that the scattered publication of 11 or so poems in her lifetime was largely due to the efforts of others which Dickinson did not encourage.
A few times in the movie they use Dickinson’s poetry, spoken and with subtitles with scenes portraying something they relate to the poems. I’m favorable to that tactic—after all, the Parlando Project is doing that with music instead of film. I think that works in the film. The “Hope’ is a thing with feathers” and “I died for beauty but was scarce” examples were particularly memorable for me.
That’s my reaction to the film. I appreciate the effort that went into it, and the task it set out for itself isn’t easy. Is it the best possible way to spread greater, deeper appreciation of Dickinson? Hell if I know. Worth a try.
*Maybe it’s just me, but has anyone done a straightforward Emily Dickinson timeline that says what Emily Dickinson was thought to be doing year to year? A good one would include links to the various theories regarding people that came and went in her life. I find some of this hard to keep straight and the non-linear choice of this movie obviously didn’t aim to help me. For example, the Mabel Todd/Austin Dickinson affair that started in 1882 happened very late in Emily’s life, more than a decade after she’s thought to have written the vast majority of her poems. And the first meeting with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862 was when her amazing productivity was accelerating.
By the way the film’s bokeh effect makes Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson look like comic idiots. Given the heroic things they tried to do in their time, I give them a little more credit than that.
It seems like a long way back to the beginning of National Poetry Month this April. One long tradition I’ve followed here for Poetry Month is to perform parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” accompanied by original music I write myself. I started doing this back in 2017, performing just two and a half minutes of the great poem’s “April is the cruelest month…” opening, and this year I’ve been tackling the poem’s longest section: “The Fire Sermon.”
Now April, cruel or not, is nearly over and we’re near the end of that section. “The Fire Sermon” started by the side of a dirty urban river, London’s Thames, and the poet asked the river to flow softly until he’d finished his song. And so today we’re back where “The Fire Sermon” started, with an unnamed narrator viewing the river. Even when “The Waste Land” isn’t shifting voices or shapeshifting who the narrator is, it’s likely to be drawing from it’s great mixtape of references to just about anything, and that’s pretty much what happens in this section. The busy commercial Thames circa 1920 that opens the poem gives way to brief singing by river nymphs,* who we were told had departed when “The Fire Sermon” opened—but they’re in earshot now, at least in the narrator’s imagination. And their singing gives way to—what!—Queen Elizabeth moving down the river on the royal barge.
No, not that Queen Elizabeth, the other one, the one before Roman numerals were necessary—but if there’s to be a barge sailing down the Thames connected with some royal jubilee, I was hoping for the Sex Pistols in my small r republican heart.
Either/Oars: the Elizabethan royal barge the first time. The Sex Pistols on their Thames barge trying to drown out Elizabeth “The Deuce’s” Diamond Jubilee with their river nymph song.
Elizabeth is with her most constant suitor on the gilded royal barge, the Earl of Leicester, but historically the “Virgin Queen” never married. Some point to this couple as a continuation of “The Fire Sermon’s” main topic: the corruption and inconstancy of sex and love, but my reading of this barge episode is more at a vision of the passing of glory. Elizabeth and Leicester may not have been a fulfilled relationship, but it’s a great contrast to the man carbuncular and the poor typist from earlier in “The Fire Sermon,” and an Elizabethan gilded barge is a contrast to the commercial barge traffic of Eliot’s time.
When I first looked at this section this spring, for some reason I thought I’d try to do something musically referencing one of my favorite rock bands, Television. That’s not how this turned out. I can still see tiny bits of that idea in the chord sequence and the melodic top line I played on electric guitar. Instead, the arrangement developed as I worked to sonically depict passing glory.
Want to hear how it turned out? The player gadget is below.
*The nymphs’ song is from the Rhinemaidens in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the start of his epic Ring Cycle, something I’m not very familiar with. Themes of water, fire, and the renunciation of love are present I’m told, and if so, that fits in well with the overall themes of “The Waste Land”.
In the department of coincidence, Wikipedia says the Rhinemaiden’s song melody is Eb, F, Ab, Bb and C, and the cadence in the main part of my music here is Eb, Ab, C, Ab, Db, Eb.
Still, the Dick Wagner I’m more au fait with would be the guy who played guitar on Lou Reed’s Berlin and Rock’n’Roll Animal records.
Today is Arbor Day, a curious holiday, born in the American Midwest, meant to celebrate and cultivate trees. It’s more established than the uncounted more recent designated days, special weeks and “National Months” like Poetry Month, but its observance is spotty.
Wikipedia says this is someone named “Birdsey Northrup” who helped popularize Arbor Day. Since this isn’t April Fools Day should we believe that?
I can’t say I remember and keep it myself, though I’ve always had an attraction to trees. I remember an old tree with exposed root tops outside my earliest remembered childhood schooldays, its roots large and far enough apart that we small school children would sit between them as if it was ground-level-low bench with bark covered armrests. And I remember forgetting where the tree was, like the location of Eden is forgotten, and being unable to locate it even only a decade or so later. That tree is no doubt gone, as many of those school children are gone by place of current location or end of life.
The backyard of the house I grew up in had four large walnut trees, majestic if a bit messy when the nuts fell, littering the ground like a green elfin golf-driving range. I remember that a major branch of one of them had a full long-handled scythe, like the grim reaper’s side-arm, crooked in a joint above anyone’s head or reach, it’s blade now being held in the teeth of the bark which had healed its wound. This I noted as a child, long before I thought to write, or write poetry, and it exists in my memory like a poem that doesn’t need to be written because it just was.
When I was looking for the house I live in now I wanted a yard with trees, which it has. The largest is outside the window as I write this, being old as a tree is and budding like the geriatric Sarah. I note that when Sarah’s husband Abraham met the three angels who told him that he, 100 years old, was to have son with his wife of near the same age, that he met these angels and heard this news under a great oak tree. Abraham, being a patriarch, and therefore by definition part of The Patriarchy, had his wife get busy making a quick meal for the angels, who as divine beings might not need earthly bread and could have said to Sarah, “Oh, don’t bother, we’ve already eaten.”
Anyway, in what is surely the strangest conversation with angels in a book of strange things, Sarah, hard at work on whatever quick-bread recipe that an antediluvian Epicurious might provide is said—right there in the first book of the books of Moses, the Holy Bible, in Genesis 18, in father Abraham’s tent—to have laughed.
Now the angels—who knows here what angels know—might have figured that Sarah’s laugh was the wisest thing they’d ever heard from a mortal, but it doesn’t say that in Genesis. Yes, it’s revered by many as a holy book, so the author may have figured he’d do something subtle here—or maybe it’s a blunder by a non-inspired editor somewhere down the line. Genesis just has Abraham being told they heard that laugh. Do angels joke? Did one of them wink to the others? Do angels wink? And then, to wind up the old geezer Abraham, who knows they’re angels, and is doing all he can to show how well he treats divine messengers who might only appear to be strangers who’ve wandered up to his tent, the angel looks Abraham in the eye and tells him “We heard Sarah’s laugh you know.” The term pregnant pause was invented then I think.
“I dunno, should we threaten to give him a bad Yelp review or something?” Sarah and Abraham with the 3 angels. Oak tree not pictured.
I don’t know what kind of pants folks wore in those days, if they even wore pants at all. If they did, let’s hope Abraham was wearing an old, brown pair. A divine being has just implied that your wife has been impolite, maybe even blasphemous. Genesis has other stories about what happens when you don’t treat angels right.
And 90-something Sarah, who’s just been told she’s about to become pregnant at that age, Sarah who laughed, quickly looses her wisdom—as we mortals who may find wisdom in a moment only to loose it in the next do—and she tells the angels she didn’t laugh. And the angels just said back, like trees do when we laugh beneath them, “Yes, you did laugh.”
No new audio piece today, but I hope to work on the next part of our National Poetry Month serialization of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” this weekend. Here’s a fairly recent piece that’s in our archives along with over 300 other ones, one that seems right for Arbor Day: Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.”You can read more about Mew and the poem here, or the full text here. But to hear the LYL Band perform it, use the player below.
What did Emily Dickinson think about the American Civil War, that great national trauma that occurred during her most productive time as a poet? And what did she think about the great national sin that was the cause of that war, slavery?
Emily Dickinson often writes puzzling poems, compressed like a set of speaker’s reminder notes on an index card. Despite occasional antique words and references to obsolete technology, Dickinson’s poems don’t really seem to dwell in a particular time or have any anchors in a time’s signature events. Instead we are left with the multiple capitalized idealized concepts that in the hands of most poets would doom a poem to vapid incorporeality—but the speed and brio of a Dickinson poem seems like the rush of thoughts, and that and they carry us along. All of this lets us see a remarkable mind thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the conclusions, only the methods by which it tries to reach them.
With many other American poets of her day we can tell what they thought of the Civil War and where they stood on the issues of slavery. Of course, we no longer read most of them, and we continue to read Dickinson. Even though my curiosity about these matters is personal, and in the end it doesn’t significantly change the originality and attraction of Dickinson’s work, I’ve still looked to see what I could find.
Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a politician, a member of the short-lived Whig party, and so there are political stands associated with him. The American Whig party, particularly for northern Whigs, was a “free soil” party. This meant that they did not stand for the abolition of existing slavery but wished to limit any expansion of the practice. Southern slaveholder interests were not content with that as a compromise. In an era when new territories and states were being added to the Union, they feared that they would eventually be too small a minority in a growing United States. In the 19th century before the Civil War, time and again these interests would come into conflict, and it was generally the Whigs who worked out some compromise that put off the Civil War. Edward Dickinson seems to have been an orthodox Whig, he supported those compromises, including voting for one of the last and most fateful of them, the Compromise of 1850 that gave the slave holders a Federal Fugitive Slave Act, giving license for bounty hunters of dubious ethics to haul escaped slaves back to the South (and financial rewards if they over-reached and just grabbed a free black person “by mistake”) and requiring local state authorities to assist in their efforts.
The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Afro-Americans and energized abolitionist sentiments. And in the slave states who would secede at the start of the Civil War one of their chief complaints was that the Federal Government wasn’t doing enough to enforce this Fugitive Slave law against individual states that were hampering rather than aiding these “slave catcher” bounty hunters.
The Whig parties balancing act fell off the high wire shortly after that. It essentially split into two parties, the new Republican Party which was more adamant about free soil with no compromises, and eventually became the “party of Lincoln” and slavery’s abolition. The other part was the Constitutional Unionist Party which wanted to continue the Whig-style balancing act. Edward Dickinson seems to have aligned with the Constitutional Unionist faction, which completed the rapidly increasing progression to irrelevance for the Whigs.
On the other hand, both Edward and Emily Dickinson were on friendly terms with those who went the Republican route and even the more radical abolitionist bent. If yesterday’s story of Angeline Palmer might lead you to see a 19th century Massachusetts casting of To Kill a Mockingbird with Edward as Atticus Finch and the young Emily as Scout, the reality of the Dickinsons is much more ambiguous.
I’ve found various critics and commentators who have sought to answer my questions about what Emily Dickinson thought on these things. Some point to Dickinson poems and have suggested readings of them, but these are most often unconvincing to me. She does have poems mentioning warrior courage, duty and loss, but none of them seem to say anything about the causes or necessity of the pressing war in her time. Even more rare are references to slavery or people of color in the poems.
Mysterious and burning. Dickinson’s mind by lamplight
The poem I use for today’s piece is one of those rare ones. “The Lamp burns sure” is Dickinson at her most compressed and ambiguous. The poem’s plot is clear enough, an oil lamp whose oil is supplied by slaves or serfs (the poem says both at first, muddying the waters if it’s talking about slavery) runs out of oil because they have stopped filling the reservoir. The lamp’s wick is so busy burning that it doesn’t notice that it’s out of fuel and would in the normal course of events burn itself out shortly. The poem does not proceed to that end however. It leaves us only with the wick’s obliviousness, and then breaking the tie between the oil bringer’s role as being a serf or a slave, leaves us with the final statement that the busily burning wick is also unaware that the oil is out because “the Slave — is gone.” We don’t get to find out if the lamp is some Hanukkah mystery that will go on burning longer miraculously.
So, what does it mean, if it indeed means one thing? Some read it as a parable of creativity, that we’ll work ourselves past our resources in our passion. A key word there would be “within” indicating some imaginary inner lamp and the slave is just our body and emotional resources.
Some read it as a comment on the base labors that support a civilization that in turn supports arts, science or spiritual pursuits, and in that reading it’s an acknowledgment of the necessity of those labors—take them away, no light! The confusion of serf and slaves is a necessary confusion as it’s talking generally about civilizations.
And then some think, since this is a poem written in 1861 as the Civil War has broken out, and all the slave labor that has supported a large portion of the agricultural economy of the nation is now in question along with that nation itself, that this is not a generalized metaphor. The slave who’s gone, is an American slave, the light is an American light that will burn golden on.
Emily Dickinson’s desk with a whale oil lamp, a little luxury that could extend her writing hours
That last one would make it the closest to an Emily Dickinson statement on slavery and the Civil War. As I burn my own midnight oil tonight and I think of Emily Dickinson who wrote at night by the light of an oil lamp, I lean to the first reading. But some other day I might see something else and read it another way. I’d like to be surprised and to find out that Emily Dickinson’s keen and questioning mind could see what only some in her time could see about people of color and slavery, but that might not be the case. But here’s what I do find when I go to the music of that mind: a mind unafraid to be original and like Frederick Douglass in Robert Hayden’s poem, to believe freedom thought to be as needful as a heartbeat. Even if she didn’t free anyone from slavery like Lewis Frazier and his fellow servants in our last post, or agitate and orate like Douglass, I find there’s liberation there that burns sure.
Here’s my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The Lamp burns sure.” Use the player below to hear it.